June 4, 2014

BloodHorse.com staff started planning for the 2014 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in January. Now, with California Chrome in position for a Triple Crown win, their work has paid off. The 12-person editorial staff has produced a remarkable online interactive website. The story behind this project is both instructive and inspiring. 

Bloodhorse.com is the online site of The Blood-Horse Magazine, which started in 1916 as an authoritative newsletter to the racehorse world. The staff produces a weekly 65-page print magazine and updates its website around the clock. While the Daily Racing Form and The Thoroughbred Daily News speak the language of handicappers, Bloodhorse is more focused on the business of racing, training, breeding and sales.

“At the end of last year we looked at some of the big impressive projects that SBNation, The New York Times and others were doing,” Eric Mitchell, the Editor-in-Chief of The Blood-Horse told me. “We realized these kinds of robust pieces are the kinds of things we should do and the thing about horse racing is that it is full of great stories. We realized that there are so many photographs, so many videos available to tell the stories that we had the opportunity to really beef-up our visual presence online and tell great stories.”

The Plan and the Warm-Up

In January, Mitchell assigned the big projects. Claire Novak took over Online Features Editor, since, Mitchell said, “she had a passion for longform stories.” She worked with the writers and web designer Kim Reeves to shape the projects.

To stretch their muscles before taking on the Triple Crown races, the staff took an in-depth story from the magazine about an equine neonatal hospital and enhanced it online.   The equine hospital is considered to be the Mayo clinic for horses. The story includes stunningly emotional photos of foals and the medical experts struggling to deliver them. The piece includes insightful interviews with doctors and leading industry voices like Darby Dan farm owner John Phillips who explains how to make decisions about when and how to try to save a foal or mare. The story is a balance of sentimental horse stories and sophisticated insight into the equine industry.

The Derby

Mitchell said his team decided to raise the bar for the Derby, Preakness and Belmont long-form projects. They would be web exclusive. Unlike the neonatal project, these would not run in the weekly magazine. But they had to include the kind of sophisticated industry insight that the magazine offered, the content that would appeal to thoroughbred insiders while seeking a wider casual audience that comes out for The Derby.

Reporter Tom LaMarra wrote “Day by Day”, an expansive story about Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day.  While the story includes all of the insight about his racing career that you would expect, the hook of the story is how Day came to become known for his Christian faith and how he says faith played a part in his career, lead him to adopt a child and stay married for more than three decades and influenced his decision to retire.  It is the kind of story that will attract readers long after Derby Saturday and it was a side of Day you would not usually see in mainstream media coverage of the race.

“That first long-form story on Pat Day got 12,000 page views,” Mitchell said. But something else happened. The Blood-Horse team found that online readers were spending an extraordinary amount of time on the site.  “We are experimenting here with how people want to consume information and stories online. We have learned that people have an appetite for long-form. They are willing to sit down.  These pieces take 15 to 20 minutes to get through and a large percentage of people are getting through to the end.”  The average time spent on site was more than eight minutes.

The Preakness

Two weeks later freelance reporter John Scheinman rolled out his assignment, “Memories of a Master,” about Maryland trainer Richard “Dickie” Small who had passed away shortly after Scheinman spent time with him.  The story included touching photos of the great trainer just months before his death and it included emotional passages, like this that are spiced with references to horse races that insiders understand:

From parachuting clueless into top-secret missions in Vietnam to training the brilliant but ill-fated Caesar’s Wish and the quirky handicap star Broad Brush, to winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) with Concern, Small lived life on his own terms — and became one of the most accomplished horsemen in Maryland.

“The thing about getting sick is, I had a really full life,” Small said three months before he died. “I never missed a beat. I never missed one thing my whole life, and all of the sudden, ‘Oh, sh-t, I’m sick now.’

“It wasn’t like I was waiting for something to happen. I made things happen, you know?”

The story doesn’t shy away from exploring Small’s legendary temper or bouts with drinking. His quirky nature included loading a champion horse, Broad Brush into a trailer and taking him for a ride including trips to the airport to watch planes take off, because the horse seemed to like the scenery,

Mitchell said the Preakness project built on the popularity of the Kentucky Derby Pat Day feature. Plus, now, the Preakness was attracting more interest after California Chrome’s big Derby win. “That Preakness project attracted 15,800 page views, and the average time spent on the page is 12:42, which is about four times normal for our website.”  It was also a big increase from the Derby coverage. BloodHorse.com had found more than a niche, it was a franchise.

The Belmont-A Triple Crown Possibility

With the race world on edge this week over California Chrome’s campaign to win the Triple Crown, six months worth of planning is paying off for BloodHorse.com this week.

The new Belmont long-form story by reporter Frank Angst called “Waiting, and Waiting, for Crowning Glory” folds in photos, videos, database reporting, close-up interviews with world-class jockeys, trainers and historic videos of past glory.

The Belmont feature includes extensive databases and interactive features showing how the Belmont track is different from the previous races and even where previous winners and Triple Crown spoilers live now. “Angst loves numbers,” Mitchell said.

In the first 24 hours of the project’s launch, the page attracted 6,300 page-views and, Mitchell says, the average reader spent a stunning 18:51 minutes on the site.

One of the challenges, Mitchell says, is to attract a wide audience that may only find his publication at an historic time like a Triple Crown run while serving his hardcore racing readers.  “We stay true to who we are. We recognize who the audience is but we know there are a lot of people out there who have a casual interest of some kind of thoroughbred racing. There is a magnetism to the sport.”

Behind the Curtain

BloodHorse.com is built on custom coding, what Mitchell calls, “Our homegrown content management system.”  The site is rich with video served through Brightcove. Most videos do not include commercial pre-rolls.  “We saw the video more as editorial content. We find in these long-form stories, the advertising is best when it is low key and not intrusive to the storytelling element. Even if we had somebody who came in and said we want to pepper the story with our name we would have to find a way to get them involved without pre-rolls on the video. We have found over the last several years is we can’t put enough video content out there to view. It is a key reason for the growth of our website. Whatever we put out there people will consume.”

Even though horse people are early risers, Mitchell says his team watches traffic patterns and knows there is a big spike of traffic 7-9 a.m., right before lunch, and one more spike around 5 p.m.

Measuring Success

It is right for news organizations to ask whether the kind of effort that BloodHorse.com put into these projects is worth it. After all, on Sunday, when the Belmont is over, nobody will be surprised to see traffic to a project previewing the event plummet.

“This is new. We are learning. The long term exposure over time what they will mean we don’t know yet,” Mitchell says. “I can tell you we have learned some things already.  We are not going to do three as close as we did. It was a very ambitious schedule.”

That’s the kind of ambition the media world needs. The ambition of a small deeply connected and knowledgeable staff that won’t be stuck in a century old legacy of printing what horse people consider to be an indispensable magazine. Instead they planned, innovated, tested, stretched and refined their journalism to reach new audiences and in the process hit a gold mine opportunity named California Chrome.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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