On the exact day that Juan Antonio Samaranch, chairman of the International Olympic Committee, declared Sydney as the “best Olympic Games ever”, Thoroughbred Village was registered as a Business in Australia. Today, the 1st October, we celebrate our 15th birthday.
Speaking as the founding member and owner of the village, it’s been an incredible experience and far more rewarding than I had ever imagined. It’s amazing to think that over the past 15 years we have grown hand-in-hand with the internet, watching the internet develop from a largely corporate billboard to a user-generated medium. When Thoroughbred Village started, there was no Facebook, and certainly no Twitter. Can you imagine? We preceded Facebook by several years! The number of message boards dedicated to horseracing could be counted on one hand. There was indeed no such thing as social media. The idea of chatting online using your own personal identity was entirely new. People listened to CD’s, the music-sharing site Napster was in the throws of invention, and iTunes was not launched until January the following year. These were interesting times, because people were only just beginning to think about interacting online in a social way. Little did we fathom the enormous explosion in “social media” that was to follow in years to come.
I created Thoroughbred Village for two reasons. One was by necessity, when the old Vinery Forums closed down and a group of friends no longer had a place to exchange ideas. I basically created a place online and implemented the same bulletin board software that we loved so much on the previous site. Secondly, as our friendship group expanded I knew we needed a place that we could have ultimate control and to what ideologies we wanted to adhere. We were all passionate horse racing fans. Some of us dabbled in horse ownership but mostly we lived and breathed the global world of thoroughbred horse racing. We had a core group that included an enigmatic old dog by the name of Seagull, a well known admin person in a major thoroughbred breeding establishment known as Torquil, a prominent Irish breeder, myself and a number of others. Members of our small community gathered on online message boards, tentatively typing our opinions but none of us knew exactly what world we were entering into, or what rules there should be. Members sheepishly held identities close to their chests until it was obvious their bank accounts were not about to be hacked. We had local Australian members who worked in the industry; trainers, jockeys, owners, stable hands. The types of people who started tuning in were mind-boggling.
The village quickly became the premier source of inside information, expert opinion and commentary. It was never the intention to be a news site, in fact we failed dismally in this endeavour, but we were best-in-class at providing information and stable gossip. To us, this was far more interesting! Never before was there a place to not just read news but to argue, debate, discuss, and express opinion. We new this was an unmet need in the racing community and as our site grew bigger, and more popular, we were forced to upgrade the software and spend significant funds on new hosting companies with bigger and more reliable servers. Inevitably, we began to take in advertising revenue to support the high costs of hosting such an active site. For years the village managed to break even and continue without too much financial burden. We were also fortunate to receive donations from members who had a passion for the site and wanted to contribute in a meaningful way. In a way we were crowdsourcing before it became a legitimate way to raise capital. To these generous members I am forever grateful.
It was an ongoing challenge to keep the site free of controversy. As users became aware that they could express their opinions freely, a minority of users took advantage by posting unsavoury or potentially litigious comments. We quickly gathered a team of responsible people who donated their precious time to moderate the forums, reading every post and editing the content to remove material that had potential legal ramifications. When I think back, we had one serious legal threat approximately every six months! This was incredibly stressful for the community, the administration and myself. We heard of competitor sites closing their forums because of the legal risks, however we survived each and every one of those threats by peaceful resolution. It’s amazing how people can work through issues when speaking on the phone rather than by electronic means. With good management and the support of legal professionals, we pushed on and continued to gather momentum.
Although I have spoken a lot about computers, software, servers and connectivity, these are only minor players in the success of the village. The Village is all about people. I have been totally blessed by the support of wonderful people who have been the backbone of the village life for many years. To these people, I am forever grateful. They have given countless hours, reading posts, editing content, managing the members and dealing with personality clashes and ongoing issues. This work is difficult, exhausting and time consuming. There are always one or two characters so vocal and opinionated they clash with other members. Often at odds with most of the moderator team, I always defaulted to the position of giving people a voice regardless of how outlandish or incredible their opinion. As long as they did not contravene any policies regarding defamation their opinions were valued and published. In quieter moments, it made me ask what the undeniable and sacred right of free speech actually means? It was always a balancing act and often in order to abide by this policy we lost valued members, but hopefully the gains we made in providing an ever unique and vibrant medium for discussion were worth it.
We enjoyed many successes in the industry. We hosted amazing competitions, supported by our partner companies, which provided so much joy and entertainment. We were instrumental in one of our long-term members becoming Racing Woman of The Year. Many of today’s most popular racing journalists cut their teeth in the village; not only did we provide them an opportunity to publish where no other was available, we also provided valuable feedback from which they could hone their writing skills. We forecasted the racing careers of many great thoroughbreds well before anyone else even noticed. Horses like Black Caviar, So You Think, and Northerly were champions in the village, well before their great exploits on the track. Said of the unraced Black Caviar, “Her barrier trial form is obviously impressive, 46.10 was the second fastest trial of the day over 800m for unraced horses, and that includes 3yo’s. Yet her breeding is what catches the eye, Helsinge, her mother, was unraced, yet is out of the outstanding broodmare Scandinavia which makes her a half brother to Wilander and also Magnus. Off that she should have some pace too her, gets a 1.5kg claim and should be some value hopefully,” by Nathan April 18th 2009. Of the unraced So You Think, “I reckon we have seen a future Derby or Cup winner debuting today”, by andynr123 May 20th 2009. Amazing foresight by these village members, don’t you think? Some of the discussions on these champions could well be gathered and published in a book, particularly So You Think and Black Caviar whose pages run into the hundreds.
We’ve also enjoyed important partnerships with companies and industry stakeholders. Our forums were an important component in the Racing Victoria website for several years until the site was revamped. This partnership was a testament to the integrity and professional management of our village. Such was the standing of the village, it was awarded the World’s best online racing forum, decided by an international committee.
Like all innovative businesses, it had its fair share of opponents. Some thoroughbred businesses would not accept any public debunking of their somewhat questionable marketing claims. So be it, we thought. Competitors attempted to block our impact and others copied our content and ideas. It was not for us to worry about things that were out of our control. Indeed we found it flattering as we continued to innovate, entertain and support our village members.
Sadly, we lost a number of our valued members, to cancer, to heart attacks, and other tragic occurrences. These losses were totally devastating to the community. To witness the outpouring of grief and the incredible support from fellow villagers during these times was truly humbling. One would be reading such posts with tears welling in your eyes. This village is an amazing reflection of humanity. Our forums not merely words on a screen but real people living real lives.
Countless friendships and relationships have been formed in the village and endure to this day. Occasionally people get together and celebrate. Even those who have moved on meet with former members and happily discuss old times. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than when I hear of people talking about the village and remembering some of the great times together.
We have enjoyed great success too on the racetrack. Only last year, village members captured all three placings in the Group One VRC Sprint Classic! An amazing feat, made all the more enjoyable for connections by being able to share with the village community. Messages of congratulations could be heard far and wide. Sheer joy permeated every corner. Connections who would otherwise be inaccessible to the general public were treasured as friends. There have been syndicates as well, borne from discussions in the village. These have been successful not only in winning races but also in building lasting friendships that extend beyond the computer screens.
The village has pushed bandwidth to the limit, particularly during the major carnivals. I remember sending emails to our hosting company, asking why the forums were a little slow today, and being told that our traffic volume was blowing their servers! I’ve tried to keep the technology up with the ever-increasing membership demands, as much as budget allows, and although the down-time has been far less than one percentage point, any downtime to me is unacceptable. I am continuously testing and seeking better performance from our systems.
I could keep writing pages and pages about the many joys of being part of the village. If there’s one point that I want you to remember from this thesis, is that back in Y2K, I built the village for one main purpose; to bring passionate horse racing people together. From interaction and engagement great things can happen, and from my elevated view in the Mayoral offices, it has delivered in spades.
Finally, it remains for me to wish everybody a very happy 15th birthday and may there be many more birthdays to come!
Category: Special interest