In terms of odd combinations, trainer Jimmy Toner and Facebook might rank right up there with mustard and pizza, Felix and Oscar, and A-Rod and the Yankees.
But throw in a 14-year-old with a serious racing pedigree, and you might just have the perfect blend.
Last fall, eighth-grader Elsa Lorieul brought the Toner barn into the world of social media. A novice to Facebook but an Instagram veteran, she was at a party with her parents at the home of trainer Christophe Clement and his wife Valerie when Valerie suggested she work with the Toner barn to advance its internet profile.
“She said it would be good for educational purposes, and that it would teach me responsibility,” related Lorieul, standing on a sodden morning at the far turn of the Oklahoma, just outside the barn of Shug McGaughey, where her mother Lena works as an exercise rider.
Toner’s daughter Catherine, also at the party, agreed, and invited Lorieul to the barn for an orientation. She met the horses and the staff, and she was hired.
“She’s fantastic,” said Catherine, “She shows a lot of initiative, and she’s third in command in the barn these days. Sometimes she’s at the barn before my father is.”
Lorieul has pretty much grown up on the racetrack. Her father Christophe is Clement’s assistant, and her mother was an assistant for McGaughey until Elsa was born. She began riding several years ago and has been taking lessons twice a week up here this summer, and she show jumps back home on Long Island. She remembers riding the pony with her mother when she was younger.
Her responsibilities for Toner include updating the barn’s website and Facebook page, with the emphasis on the latter. Since last October, she heads to the barn on Saturdays at Belmont, more frequently at Saratoga, taking pictures and getting up to speed on entries and workouts.
“She started our Facebook page,” said Toner. “I don’t even know what a Facebook is.”
And at first, Lorieul wasn’t all that far ahead of him. But that didn’t last long.
“When this started, I didn’t have a Facebook,” she explained. “So when we opened the barn’s Facebook page, I was learning as I went along. But I caught on to it and to editing techniques.”
Calling this her first “real job” – she also babysits and provides pet care – she goes to the races as often as she can to watch Toner runners, posting top-three finishes like Recepta’s and Time And Motion’s seconds in the Diana and Belmont Oaks respectively.
“I like to take pictures in the paddock,” she said. “And I update our news section when the horses run well.”
Though social media can be a minefield, Lorieul hasn’t experienced anything unpleasant as an administrator of the barn’s Facebook page. She’s learned what people respond to and what people like to see, and she’s also figured out how to manage the audience of more than 700 people that have “liked” it.
“If you post pictures and recent news, that keeps people curious,” she said. “They like to ask questions and know when the next start or when the next work is. Sometimes someone will ask a question looking for information that I already posted, and when they do, I don’t usually respond. I let them figure it out.”
She’s also judicious in what she responds to, working with Toner’s assistant Tiffany Webb to decide what questions the barn will answer publicly.
“Elsa comes in early, ask questions, and is motivated not only to learn, but also to achieve goals,” said Webb. “She’s used the money she makes from helping us to go toward things like her camera and a new saddle.”
About to begin her first year in high school, Lorieul has enjoyed meeting new people through her job, especially owners, and she wants to continue working with horses, eventually making a career with them, though watching her parents’ experiences has also made her aware of the challenges of a life on the track.
“Both of my parents have been assistant trainers, and I see the responsibilities they have and the work they have to do,” she said. “I’m not sure if I want to train or not. I’m thinking more of being a rider or a pony girl – my mom used to be a pony girl. But I know I want to do something around the track or show jumping.”
Her interest in photography has also developed through her work with Toner, as she’s sought better equipment to capture the moments on the track and in the barn, and she can also see herself doing something with photography, either professionally or on the side.
Though she leaves her community of friends back in Franklin Square when she comes to Saratoga for the summer, she doesn’t mind, renewing annual friendships, getting re-acquainted with horses and people that she doesn’t see back home. On a recent morning, she was tooling down the backstretch in a golf cart, headed to the barn to take pictures as horses went to the track to train, a girl on a mission, a budding Barbara Livingston, perhaps, or social media consultant, or – who knows? – one of the next generation of interns for The Saratoga Special.
For now, though, she’s got a job to do, out on the digital frontier, bringing news from the Toner barn to its fans in the virtual world. Rumor has it that on occasion, when the McGaughey, Clement, and Toner barns run against each other, she’s been known to hang out with Team Toner.
“It’s really nice to see the up-and-coming generation of horsemen start to get involved with racing,” said Webb. “I wish more young people were like her.”
“She’s on top of everything,” said Toner. “Sometimes I have to check Facebook to see what’s happening.” Yes, you read that right: In addition to her other accomplishments, Elsa has Jimmy Toner checking Facebook.
“She does a great job,” he added. “I’m glad we hired her.”