Flatter: How can racing possibly survive if Twitter does not?

Flatter: How can racing possibly survive if Twitter does not?
Photo: Elon Musk / Twitter illustration

This column may have the lifespan of your average caddisfly, because it is a requiem for Twitter.

Born 2006. Died _____.

By the time these words are greeted by your bleary eyes and the aroma of morning coffee, “2022” might as well have been etched into that blank in our trademark, 12-point, Verdana font.

At 16, Twitter is barely old enough to drive, but it sounds like the joint is careening around Dead Man’s Curve, a.k.a. the corner of Market and 10th in San Francisco. Or was. (This is the last time I am putting this in the ambivalent tense.)

If it is there, we are there: Horse Racing Nation on Twitter.

As these words were being written Thursday night, new owner Elon Musk was said to be holding a lonely vigil inside his crumbling fortress. That was where he locked out what was left of his labor force after as many as 4,000 layoffs last weekend. Dubious reports, most of them on Twitter, of course, suggested Musk was driving his $44 billion toy into oblivion the way Leo DeCaprio did with that white Lamborghini in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Those reports took on an ominously, accurate feel Thursday night when Musk posted a mocked-up photograph of Twitter being buried in a graveyard.

“Hey, Flatter, snap out of it,” you were heard to say Friday morning. “You have written more than 200 words, not a single, damn one of them about racing. At least Twitter has a 280-character limit.”

Copy that. Here is the deal. The apparent decline and fall of the social-media pantheon with the $8 check marks means racing may lose the most informative and entertaining medium it ever had and ever was going to have.

Twitter was the perfect fit. It was new enough to make the game’s aging establishment think it was a cool way to reach the young. It also was user-friendly enough to attract old Luddites the way a saucer of milk is irresistible to a nervous cat.

At first the joke was on us. By the time racing media got its arms all the way around Twitter, that coveted youth demographic already had scoffed at it and moved on to forums like Snapchat and later TikTok.

Yet the house that Jack Dorsey built felt like a home to those of us who were in the business of exchanging information, stoking gossip, spreading false rumors, touting sure things, red-boarding upset winners and, of course, declaring that horses of any name who defeated glorified stable ponies were the next big thing. Didn’t Twitter make a star out of Hidden Scroll?

Anyone who knows how to find Horse Racing Nation on a phone, tablet, laptop or steam-driven desktop knows how to log onto Twitter and find racing content. Collectively and individually, our staff has been very nimble on Twitter. Sometimes too nimble. I will name names when I publish a memoir from my deathbed.

When it comes to disseminating news, Twitter has been a godsend for anyone who has been able to separate the wheat from the chaff. We have tried to do that at HRN as have our rivals. Never mind checking out stories on competing sites. Reading one another on Twitter has become at least as compulsory as learning how to post our own stories on our own web pages.

How many times have we seen snapshots of breaking news posted on Twitter before we got the rest of the picture at the .coms? One competing colleague shook his head over a beer when he declared we at HRN actually did a better job getting his stories out than his own website. I just held my breath to make sure we gave him credit where credit was due.

I would love to see a surveillance video from Churchill Downs of the scene in the media center that afternoon 3 1/2 years ago when Tim Layden, working at the time for Sports Illustrated, broke the story that Kentucky Derby favorite Omaha Beach was going to be scratched because of an inflamed throat. Tim was nowhere to be found, but his Tweet sure was.

It was like that scene in the old movie “Airplane” when all the fedora-wearing reporters stormed the phone booths and knocked them all over. The 2019 version of that was the zig-zagging of our thumbs to text our home bases and trainer Richard Mandella and jockey Mike Smith and owner Rick Porter. And we were rewriting and re-recording and re-reporting and regurgitating, all because of something we read on Twitter.

There is a down side, of course. That big, blue bird sometimes has led us to chase wild geese. If some anonymous bystander heard a big-name horse nickering and decided it was a cough, then the ensuing “news” of a high-profile scratch would spread faster than the annually mistimed fractions at the Breeders’ Cup. Of course, that “news” was more often wrong than right. Even after it was disputed, disassembled, disavowed and completely disproven, conspiratorialists still had to be convinced the original gossip was dead wrong. It was like telling Kyrie Irving that the earth really is round.

I finally got to the point where I used the old journalism rule that reporters were taught for generations. “If you didn’t see it, hear it or smell it, you have to tell me who did.” That led me to invoke another old rule. Don’t chase someone else’s rumors. It is a waste of time.

Identifying reliable feeds on Twitter was a never-ending project, sort of like painting that beautiful bridge to Marin County, not far from Elon’s bunker. The blue check marks helped – for a while. So did knowing the people who authored their Tweets. The ones who used their real names in their profiles, not the anonymous cowards or the Tweeps who relieved arsonists of their stronghold on the word “burner.”

If we have been witnessing the end of racing Twitter, it went out in a blaze of profanity Thursday when @TheRealChadCBr1 and a couple of his critics went at it. It appeared at first to have been the real trainer Chad Brown. He had been called out after pleading guilty Monday to the misdemeanor assault of a woman in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and the back and forth turned into road rage on what we used to know as the information superhighway. Then a new parody account, @TheRealChadBr11, popped up when the first one was shut down and disabled Thursday night. 

Rather than snort some faux wisdom looking down on all this, it may be wiser to say the fights stoked by any version of ChadBr was evidence of what Canadian communications professor Marshall McLuhan wrote 58 years ago. “The medium is the message.” Never mind the digital haymakers. The fact that Twitter has hosted these ubiquitous, back-and-forth bon mots since its early days speaks greater volumes.

Media history teaches us that there may be a last-gasp reprieve for Twitter. That lesson comes from, of all places, the archives of the New York Post.

It was nearly 30 years ago when Gotham’s notoriously sensational tabloid was bankrupt. In the winter of 1993, a parking-garage baron and theater impresario named Abe Hirschfeld bought the Post and nearly ran it into the ground permanently. Sound familiar?

A revolting staff famously stared down Hirschfeld and published a March 14, 1993, edition that made the work the ChadBr pair look like a children’s fairytale. It was delicious. There were headlines like “Who is this nut?” and an editorial that declared “Hirschfeld’s basic ignorance of the way our business operates – and his refusal to educate himself – means the Post will permanently cease publication in days.” The whole thing was wrapped with a front page showing a pre-musical drawing of Post founder Alexander Hamilton weeping.

Eventually, New York governor Mario Cuomo brokered a deal that allowed Rupert Murdoch, a political rival, to buy back the Post while getting a federal waiver that allowed Murdoch to own a newspaper and TV station in the same city. Hirschfeld was gone, the old Post was back, and it survives to this day, even if newspapers as we knew them are withering away.

This is not to suggest California governor Gavin Newsom should convince Elon Musk to sell Twitter to Larry Solov at Breitbart. Or maybe it is. Those bedfellows would be at least as strange as Cuomo and Murdoch.

Maybe there is a dark angel out there who will rescue Musk from his bloodbath of red ink peppered with pink slips. If not, then those of us who crave a social-media place for racing better get up to speed on an alternative. And fast.

I think I can figure out the Tumblr gadget, but I hope I can find a young friend who will teach me how to turn on that Mastodon machine.

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