Millions of Americans tune their televisions to ABC Monday nights to watch the popular reality program The Bachelor – or The Bachelorette depending on the season – for an escape, the chance to predict the winner or just to be entertained by the frequently included irreverent contestants.
Count Ashley Cline and her partners in the social media agency Grand Slam Social among that group. Cline, Molly McGill and Shona Rosenblum like the show, so much that they used it as a foundation for a very unique marketing campaign to promote the first breeding season of New York stallion War Dancer.
Owned by a partnership led by majority shareholders Tony and Robin Malatino and standing at Rockridge Stud in Hudson, War Dancer recently completed his first season after being promoted before, during and now after as “America’s Most Eligible Stud.”
Cline and her team designed the campaign and it was part of a innovative two-part marketing, promotion and recruitment blitz to not only attract attention to the first-year stallion but boost the quality of his first book.
“We needed to do something that was somewhat unique,” Robin Malatino said in late June. “Starting out I realized some of the obstacles in this industry, especially being in New York, which I truly had no idea about. It started with ‘oh my God, they’re going to line up to breed to him, he’s a War Front, he’s in New York, he’s gorgeous, smart, successful,’ and I thought I’d be turning people away. Then reality sets in.”
Malatino, who works full time at Morgan Stanley along with her husband, called on her extensive and successful business background to initiate the two-part campaign, combining the social media push with the “Breeding with the Stars” program.
The Breeding with the Stars program is designed to attract stakes-producing or stakes-performing mares to War Dancer’s first book. War Dancer, a 7-year-old by War Front out of the Alydeed mare Deed I Do, entered stud this year at Rockridge Stud in Hudson after a successful racing career where he hit the board 16 times, nine of which were graded stakes, and earned $1,068,925.
The Malatino’s wanted the best for War Dancer, who stood for a first-year introductory fee of $5,000, and devised a plan to get him on that path.
“I thought we needed to go outside the state and bring people to the state,” Robin Malatino said. “Having the New York program helps with that, and then we created the Breeding with the Stars program. We ended up with 35 or 38 mares coming in through that. In order to qualify for that program you had to be a stakes producing or stakes performing mare with a good cross to him, and a good physical. We probably had 100 applicants. We thought we’d take 20 and then we kept getting better applicants, so we ended up with 30 something.”
War Dancer LLC paid the shipping costs and 90 days of board bills for the mares that were accepted into the Breeding with the Stars program, an amount that might reach close to $400,000 on a high estimate, and they don’t plan to just do it once.
“We pay their shipping and 90-day board and they pay the stud fee,” Malatino said. “Honestly we were blown away at the quality. We brought mares to the state where the owners had never been to the state, the mares had never been to the state. It was to the point that one or two of the owners actually thought the mares were shipping to Manhattan. They thought they were getting on the subway instead of a farm. I’m kidding, but some folks have never been to New York much less shipped a mare to New York.
“Nevertheless it worked out pretty well, they liked the program, obviously he’s a great horse and well bred, so they liked that part. And the risk, and I say that with all capital letters because this business is full of risk, shifts from the breeder to us. You send your mare out of state, anything happens, they don’t get in foal, you get a goose egg at the end, you’re out anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000. That’s painful for a lot of people. Especially someone that is not really a commercial breeder. We shifted that pain from them to us. It’s a risk on our part but we hoped it would enable us to get better mares and we think it did.”
Attracting that quality book – which wound up closing at 102 mares when the season ended last month – was obviously a significant part of the Malatino’s effort. But not the only part.
Enter the social media campaign, complete with video, clever scripts and catchy voiceovers, and War Dancer developed from first-year stallion and graded stakes winner into a personality fitting the modern age.
“My husband and I bought Saratoga Water in 1993 and … one thing I realized in the water business is we’re in a commodity business,” said Malatino, who is no longer involved in that business. “One time I’m making a presentation to the Hemsley (hotel in New York), for the water and we’re in a clear bottle with a racetrack label. I don’t know if you remember those days, against Poland Spring. The guy says to me, ‘Poland Spring is $2 a case cheaper and it’s just water.’ I thought to myself, ‘we’ve got to repackage this, we’ve got to find a way to repackage this.’
“So we put it in a blue bottle, and guess what happened? Poland Spring basically shut down their sparkling-bottle business, and Saratoga became the leader in the glass sparkling water business. Now price is less of an issue, because the packaging is beautiful. When I opened up the stallion directory, which is the size of a phone book, I’m paging through it and think, ‘Oh my God, not only do they all have the exact same picture of them standing there, like a mug shot, but they all look alike. How do I tell one from the other?’ I thought we needed to find a way to brand him and package him.”
Cline and her team developed the promotional campaign to make War Dancer “America’s Most Eligible Stud.” They tied the name to the horse’s social media channels and developed a series of 12 light-hearted video episodes to fulfill Malatino’s wishes and give War Dancer not only a voice but a personality.
Cline, who worked on Breeders’ Cup Ltd.’s social media promotion of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and his effort to win the “Grand Slam” in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, and her team jumped at the challenge.
“We thought, ‘oh my gosh, we love it,’ ” Cline said. “Here we are, three girls, we are really tuned in to watching shows like The Bachelor, Dancing With The Stars, all these fun TV shows, every so often. Robin thought, why not turn this into The Bachelor for horses. How can we do that? We researched and by chance America’s Most Eligible Stud was open.
“We didn’t have much time to turn it into a full fledged video series right away. We pretty much were hired right after the (2016) Breeders’ Cup, around the end of November, and we started working with him. I was mainly in charge of the scripts and story, the characters, pretty much the whole line of it all.”
During that period at the end of 2016 and leading up to the start of the 2017 breeding season Cline and her team rolled out a new video episode about every two weeks.
The episodes were named “Wisdom from War Front,” “The mares meet War Dancer,” “The Rose Ceremony,” “War Dancer’s date with Amber,” and so on, contained a script with “dialogue” between host Acacia Courtney and War Dancer and video. The episodes were pushed out on War Dancer’s website, in a blog, via email blast and on social media.
“The numbers are crazy,” Cline said this spring about the number of unique impressions and visits to the site. “From December 1 until (the end of the breeding season) we had more than 1.6 million impressions.
Cline also estimates that War Dancer’s total fans on Facebook increased 2,083 percent from a year ago.
“The biggest challenge we had at the start was he only had 102 fans on Facebook,” Cline said. “When you don’t have an audience and have plenty of content, nobody is going to see it. We had to build the audience with the content and get the reach up. … We spent a small amount of social media advertising to help reach that, but mostly we were driving it organically.
“Our big goal was to increase his social media following and increase the brand awareness of who War Dancer is. We needed to create a brand and a personality behind the horse. At the end of it all there were subtle things, like his voice at the beginning of the series was a younger, adolescent sounding voice. After he breeds to his first mare his voice changes. Now he’s a man, he’s a little more suave, more masculine. It’s all fun and a lot of the comments we got from people are like, ‘oh my gosh this is so great.’ ”
War Dancer wrapped up his first season in June and will spend some time at the Malatino’s Sugar Plum Farm in Saratoga, not far from Saratoga Race Course, this summer before heading back to Rockridge in advance of the 2018 season. The Breeding with the Stars program will be back, along with an even more ramped up version of the America’s Most Eligible Stud campaign.
Cline and Malatino are obviously excited for both.
“We’re going all out; get the absolute best (mares) we can physically get him,” Malatino said. “After that it’s up to him and the gene gods. I’m not going to let him fail because of anything we could control. That was it. That kind of determination, and let me tell you, ignorance is bliss, we had no clue. If I knew 100 percent a year ago would I still do this? Big question mark. It’s been a lot of work. But yes, I’d do it. I’m already lining up for next year.”
“And what you saw last on the video series will pale in comparison to what you’re going to see this year. It’s all video, 100 percent video, and literally will be like tuning in every week to a TV show. It’s going to be really fun. We hired a voice over for him, to add his voice and more personality. We’re going to take it up a notch. The Breeding with the Stars program was new, too, and this year we have a little buzz, people know about it, they’re interested and inquiring. Hopefully we get 200 or 300 people submitting their mares. We might take 50 or 70 this year, it depends. We’re really just looking for the right ones.”