Monday, April 06, 2009 5:11 PM
by Janell Oliver
by Janell Oliver
In less than 2 1/2 years, exercise rider Alex Brown has spearheaded an online campaign to raise more than $1-million and rescue more than 2,700 horses from what he calls “the slaughter pipeline.” And Brown’s source of inspiration? Barbaro.
“Before Barbaro, I never spent much time thinking about horse slaughter,” said Brown, an exercise rider for Steve Asmussen and former point-to-point jockey. “But the timing was crucial.”
Barbaro’s recuperation from surgery in the summer of 2006 coincided with the United States House of Representatives vote on a bill to end horse slaughter in the U.S. At the time, three slaughter plants were still in operation. That summer, when Barbaro’s owner and breeder became vocal on the anti-slaughter issue, it made a significant impact on a developing community known as Fans of Barbaro.
“Gretchen Jackson was already in the press because of Barbaro, and when she started speaking out against slaughter, we listened,” Brown said. Originally anxious about the welfare of Barbaro after the colt broke down in the Preakness Stakes (G1), Fans of Barbaro has since expanded in number and concern, the most pressing of which is the issue of horse slaughter. The group now discusses its concerns on the website www.alexbrownracing.com.
“I never planned on getting involved in horse slaughter,” Brown said. “But when I realized I had the means to do something about it, it became an obligation.”
Brown’s means was found through Internet marketing.
Prior to the 2006 Preakness, Brown taught search engine marketing at the University of Delaware while also working as a freelance exercise rider for Tim Woolley at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Because Woolley’s barn was located next to trainer Michael Matz’s barn as Barbaro prepared for the second leg of the Triple Crown, Brown took advantage of his close proximity and, in part to illustrate a lesson to his students, decided to showcase the advantages of search engine marketing.
He chose his boss’s slow traffic website — www.timwoolleyracing.com — and by experimenting with Google Adwords (keyword: Barbaro), Brown was able to increase the site’s traffic from six hits per day to 120 leading up to the Preakness. The lesson did not end there. Following Barbaro’s breakdown in the Preakness, the site’s traffic peaked to 3,000 hits in the first hour after Barbaro’s surgery—which caused the server to crash. “People everywhere wanted information about Barbaro, and since they were being directed to our website because of Google, I resolved to post updates about Barbaro on our blog,” Brown said. “Because of my connections at Fair Hill with Michael Matz and the [University of Pennsylvania’s] New Bolton Center, I had insights which could be shared.”
During Barbaro’s hopeful recovery months, the Woolley website received enormous cyber attention—up to 70,000 hits per day—and the necessity of a new site emerged. Brown launched alexbrownracing.com, and made a point to include a discussion board where other horse-welfare issues could be addressed by Fans of Barbaro.
By the end of the first year, Fans of Barbaro contributed 332,000 posts, and by the end of the second year, more than 500,000. As a result of the discussion board, thousands of horses have been rescued from slaughter.
“Somebody would post information about a stakes earner being found at a kill auction, or on its way to a Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouse, and within minutes somebody else would sponsor the money needed to save it,” Brown said.
“We set up a PayPal system to make the process easier, and so far alexbrownracing.com has become the medium of exchange. It’s like eBay for horse rescue.”
The most notable scouting system developed by the website is the Top Bunk List, which tracks the earners of more than $500,000 currently running for a claiming tag of $5,000 or less. The Top Bunk List encourages people to claim these horses and provide them with a new career or well-earned retirement.
The next step
When it became clear candidates for slaughter could be saved through the Internet, the community began to speculate how else they might expand their cause.
“We wanted a general website where people against horse slaughter could engage each other,” Brown said. “In the past, there has been a general distrust between animal welfare groups and horsemen, and we wanted to encourage open communication.”
In May 2007, Brown created a Media¬Wiki site where knowledge generated among Fans of Barbaro could be gathered and accessed by a larger community. That site has received more than 2.3-million views since its formation.
Partly in response to the amount of attention the MediaWiki site received, Brown orchestrated and helped fund a lobbying event in Washington, D.C., in March 2008. The event, known as “Americans Against Horse Slaughter,” was designed to show cooperation among all anti-slaughter groups and was attended by more than 100 members from various animal welfare groups.
“Part of the distrust among horsemen and animal welfare groups is the agendas animal welfare groups have for our industry,” Brown said. “When their primary focus is to end, or at least radically change, the sports our horsemen participate in, you can’t expect them to listen. So while many horsemen love their horses and are not necessarily pro-slaughter, they are not supportive of organizations which disrupt their sport. This leads to disengagement with the horse slaughter issue and also a propensity for horsemen to believe key pro-slaughter arguments. This is why we cannot align ourselves with organizations like [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals].”
Brown is a member of many social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and has created an Alex Brown Racing Group in all of the networks. Since joining Facebook in November 2008, Brown has accepted more than 1,200 friend requests. Many of these people know him only through recognition of his name and efforts—which have appeared in more than 25 articles in North American print and online publications. By utilizing Facebook Groups, Brown sends a weekly e-mail to members informing them of important issues being addressed on the discussion board at alexbrownracing.com.
“Facebook is great because it allows me to reach out to people who don’t always have time to access other sites,” Brown said. “And there are lots of horsemen in administrative positions on Facebook these days.”
Since the creation of the Alex Brown Racing YouTube Group in January 2009, 175 videos have been added, the most popular of which is less than five minutes long and has received more than 88,000 views as of March 3. The feedback received from the YouTube Group led Brown to sponsor a video contest starting in February to address the slaughter issue. “I’m going to offer $1,000 for the best YouTube video, three minutes or less, which discusses why horse slaughter should be ended,” Brown said. “It’s open to anyone, and the winner will be determined by the number of comments gathered over a one-month period multiplied by the ratings of the video.”
Janell Oliver, third-place finisher in the 2008 THOROUGHBRED TIMES Fiction Contest, is a freelance writer based in Louisville.