Every sinew of muscle stretching on adrenaline, the chorused breaths of horses galloping down the stretch, the raucous punters screaming at the top of their beating lungs in the hope of a bountiful victory – nothing beats the rush of the Melbourne Cup. Unless you are Taylor Swift, that is. This year’s edition of one of Melbourne’s most storied sporting events went without a hitch as usual but it did encounter a rather curious spat with the American pop drama starlet when she pulled out of the event’s premier showcase. This raised a fair share of raised eyebrows over social media as it coincided with ABC News breaking a news story about the mistreatment and abuse of horses in the run-up to Cup Day.

The event has long been divisive in the Australian social fabric – sporting enthusiasts who supported with pride of a national cultural event while on the other side stood the country’s famed spirit of social activism against animal cruelty. Increasingly, Australian establishments are disassociating themselves from the event as they take a stand against the inhumane practices of racehorse trainers while the punters scoffed at the waning national interest of the sport.

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Trodding on despite bad press

Since the publication of the damning exposé on 18 Oct, news coverage went hurtling down the track like an unhinged chariot. There were more than 23,300 news articles, slightly more than a thousand reports each day before the turnstiles swung open for the majestic equines to jostle for the Cup. The strategically released ABC report drove the momentum of the narrative in the mainstream media. The high coverage in the media undoubtedly had a pervasive influence on Australians. The official attendance for the race is its lowest since 1993 and it is the fourth consecutive year that it has declined. Other major events such as music festival Big Day Out, the last one held in 2014, have been scrapped due to poor turnout and losses incurred by the organisers – a little celebration for those fighting for the cause.

However, unlike Swift, none of the sponsors has dropped out of the premier horseracing event. In fact, the prize money for the best steeds has increased from last year’s edition. To put it in perspective, only the US and Japan have bigger paydays than the Melbourne Cup. Companies like AAMI, Myer and NAB have only issued concern over the controversy while others such as dating app Bumble have monetarily contributed to associations looking after the welfare of the equine industry. With the gambling industry spurring the massive interest of the Cup’s existence, it remains a lucrative sport to invest in.

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Social media reacts

With a locally-bred horse Vow & Declare winning the Cup, cynical observers would call it a public relations spin. There was a swell of pride in social media as netizens glowed at the victory by a homegrown horse which was not even tipped to win. There were more 120,000 unique mentions of the Melbourne Cup on social media. With more than half of the lineup consisting of internationally-trained and funded horses, the home victory generated around 42% of positive sentiment. The delirium over Vow & Declare drowned out the initial negative narrative of animal abuse and kept it to a lower-than-expected 21%.

Unsurprisingly, with the international lineup and a huge prize at stake, interest on social media came from various countries. Aussies contributed most of the mentions, and the rest of the field reflected the nations which had a strong interest – as highlighted, the US and Japan filled the top five positions. The BBC’s Facebook article on the abuse was the highest-profile social post for the Melbourne Cup, with a social reach of almost 50 million. Comments on the post ranged from utter disgust at the treatment of the horses and calls for the event to be shut down. Many poured scorn at the racing and gambling industries for perpetuating the violence against the poor horses. 

A unique feature of Meltwater’s platform is its Social Echo feature which, demonstrates the full impact of editorial efforts on social channels. The feature tracks the total number of posts, reactions, and comments related to the article on Facebook, as well as the number of times the article has been tweeted or retweeted on Twitter. It enables PR professionals to focus their PR strategy on publications that deliver the best audience engagement via social channels. 

The BBC article was posted on Facebook on the day of the race itself and it was exponentially shared in a few hours. This result reflects the BBC’s sphere of influence and the article’s high Social Echo measurement suggests that netizens were highly engaged with the content. This shows that organisers and marketing professionals should consult with established news agencies such as the BBC to effectively and expeditiously reach out to their audience and get their message across through social media.

Companies also rode on the backs of the Melbourne Cup as they used the opportunity to market their products to the event. High measurements of Social Echo metrics showed companies such as Pizza Hut, Uber and TGIF launched Cup-related marketing campaigns which garnered much attention from the public. For example, TGIF’s campaign exclaimed that they were open for the race itself – many restaurants were closed on the public holiday or boycotted the event altogether. Content maker, The Juice, also received much attention on Twitter as they produced a public service announcement parody which sarcastically mocked the notoriety of the abuse in horse racing, the effects of the gambling industry and the troubles of alcoholism during the event. 

 

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Racing down the home stretch

Animal abuse is never a trivial matter and the atrocities exposed in the racing industry in Australia has left some in the ire of the rest of the nation. More needs to be done to pick the hooves of such abuse and monetary contributions can only do so much in its prevention. Tighter regulations and stricter inspections of the industry must be implemented. Holding the industry’s owners accountable for their actions is also paramount. The welfare of horses, and animals in general lie in the hands of owners and trainers. Maybe the race that stops a nation should take a breather and take stock of the treatment of their breeds.