By Hans Ebert
In how many awards shows do the best actually win? How many Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes and Emmys have got it all wrong with awards going to the wrong people and others being snubbed? How many times was the brilliant Al Pacino passed over for an Oscar before receiving one almost as an apology for hitover-the-top performance in “The Scent Of A Woman”? In this #MeToo year, the Academy Awards have decided to pass on actor James Franco.
Arrogate being named this week as Longines World’s Best Racehorse Horse by being the highest rated racehorse have many up in arms. But what’s done is done and who’ll remember any of this tomorrow? Anyone remember Oprah’s #TimesUp speech at the Golden Globes that trended for around six hours last week?
Some think Winx should have won, others believe Enable should have streaked in. Hit me with Ian Dury’s Blockhead rhythm stick, but I belong in the latter camp. Does it matter? One can have a difference of opinion, but let’s not make it an issue. Differences of opinion can lead to solutions and looking at things differently.
Moving on, no one has a monopoly on awards shows. It’s a matter of time before some entrepreneurial being starts a new awards show for horse racing- one that salutes the Best Sprinter, Miler and Stayer from every country.
So chill and let’s look at where racing is galloping towards and ensure it’s not heading into some dark abyss driven by another numbers driven game played by some who might not be here to see the future.
When in Australia recently, there was a long and winding conversation with some people about whether to attend the races the next day- if there was anything worthwhile backing, the time to get to the races, what to do afterwards etc etc- until I made it easier for everyone. I said that I would rather chill and watch the races on television before hitting Mr Hives and seeing what develops over the course of the evening.
What happened to spontaneity? Whatever happened to just going to the races for the pure enjoyment of being part of the experience and enjoying the sport? More importantly, where exactly is the sport today and how does it fit in with life’s priorities? Or does it? Does horse racing even have a role? And if it doesn’t, how could it be made to be something more relevant than what it is right now?
As a slight detour, while at a restaurant recently, a lady struck up a conversation. She was from Toronto and like most Canadians, friendly. She was also not unattractive. Some serious inroads were being made.
All was going swimmingly well until I mentioned having an interest in horse racing. With a dismissive, “I don’t like horse racing”, she disappeared into the night air of SoHo in Hong Kong. And here lies a major image problem: horse racing has no image. Nothing positive, anyway. What’s being done about it? Wait for someone to make something happen?
As one racing fan who once enjoyed going to the races mentioned, “If you’ve been to one race meeting, you’ve been to them all”, meaning that the on course experience MUST be more than it is. It must be more than what one can see through the ‘live’ streaming of races and what’s shown on television and through apps. Technology is both friend and foe.
In other words, the pure racing product must be more than what it is- the tedious presentation ceremonies, a few side acts and giveaways that are totally irrelevant to a sponsored race meeting.
Each major race meeting must have its own USP. One size does not fit all.
Only Japan has found the magic elixir, but this has much to do with the culture of the people, nationalistic pride and working together to rebuild a country that lost WW2. How can anyone not be in awe of everything this incredible country has achieved and given the world- J-Pop, karaoke, Hello Kitty, anime, Dragon Ball, Nobu, Silent Sunday, Deep Impact…?
Here in Hong Kong, will we ever see another Silent Witness? Probably not because this magnificent horse appeared out of nowhere when the city was in shutdown mode and under those dark clouds of the SARS crisis.
His wins gave Hong Kong hope at a time when everything looked bleak and made even darker when the hugely popular- and troubled- actor and singer Leslie Cheung took his life by jumping from the fortieth floor of the Mandarin Oriental.
I remember that day. Offices had closed and then came the news about the suicide. What helped at least in a small way for us to move on? The unbreakable spirit of Silent Witness, a proud, loveably arrogant horse who refused to lose. Even on the day he finally lost, he wanted to trot back to the winner’s enclosure. He didn’t know anywhere else to go. But as his regular companion and pilot Felix Coetzee had to tell him, “Not this time, old friend.”
Stories like this about every country’s racing heroes should be shared, because in the name of progress, or a changing value system, horse racing as a sport is losing its religion, identity and core USP- the actual excitement and exhilaration of the sport itself.
It’s being sidetracked and hijacked by politics, too much emphasis on turnover which means nothing to customers, integrity issues that are often never solved, mediocre executives, and that awful word called “the punt”.
Social media trolls haven’t helped. If anything, they’ve brought horse racing down to a gutter level. It’s probably why many still refuse to accept horse racing as a sport and want nothing to do with it…despite knowing anything about it. How well has horse racing marketed itself to the non-believers? Apparently not well enough.
“I think racing has not just lost its identity. I think it’s lost“, says South African based racing writer Robyn Louw. “Maybe it’s commercialism, modern life, I don’t know. Racing is – supposed to be – about producing the ultimate athlete. That’s a skill, an art, and like anything, when it’s done well, it’s beautiful.
“Racing- working with these strange and magnificent creatures and the relationships that develop, is an ancient skill. Our trainers are modern day shamans and our jockeys riders of the wind. Instead of celebrating this, somehow we have reduced them to dope artists and maniacal whip wielding slave drivers.
“Where is the pageantry? The skill? The art? We have lost sight of ourselves. And if we can’t see ourselves clearly, how do we expect anyone else to?We all know nature abhors a vacuum. If we are not sure who we are, it isn’t long before someone will come along and try and tell us. And they will tell the story to suit them. Suddenly. we find ourselves in all sorts of strange company. And you know the old saying; that’s what people judge you by.
“Perhaps what racing needs to find again is itself“
Here we are now- we as in horse racing. But where exactly are we? Are we prone to knee jerk reactions because of the wrong people around us, or the lack of a trusted few who are as low key and observant as the consigliere in the Corleone family business- the always intriguing Tom Hagen?
Are those in charge of the horse racing industry able to see the forest for the trees? Are they open to some “outside intervention” without feeling threatened?
How on earth, for example, can a sports channel that relentlessly promotes gambling on every sport led by horse racing come up with the phrase, “Gamble responsibly”? In South Africa, there’s the baffling, “Winners know when to stop”. These trite messages drip in insincerity. They’re stupid. They make horse racing look stupid when it needs some smart pills.
As someone who has worked on PSAs- Public Service Announcements- for the Samaritans, anti drug campaigns and AIDS Awareness, horse racing needs to be liked. As when Sally Fields won her Oscar for “Norma Rae”, horse racing needs to be able to stand up and say, “You like me! You really like me!” But how?
Embrace a cause- not a cause célèbre- but something related to and relevant to horse racing. Depression is suffered in silence by many in horse racing. In Australia, young apprentices are being prepared to cope with the slings and arrows of social media, especially Twitter trolls.
With regards to the actual racing product, turn down the volume on money, money, money- the ridiculous prize money for races not worth that type of payout, the ridiculous price tags for purchases where almost everyone knows how many have had a slice of the pie and what could look like scams to make people believe that winning through gambling is the easy way to life’s riches.
To those on the outside looking in, it often come across as the sport only being about gambling. The great horses, the excitement of the races and the mental skills and athleticism of the riders are often completely ignored by the non racing media.
In Hong Kong, there are 4-5 marketable jockeys, each with large fan bases and the potential to grow these. At every Happy Wednesday meeting, there’s always the chance to get close and personal to these jockeys and it’s an important step towards attracting newbies to want and understand how the sport works. There’s a more relaxed atmosphere at a Happy Wednesday to the big Group races held at Sha Tin.
It’s at Sha Tin where there’s a need, amongst other things, to see and market magic moments like those below. They help the likability factor. They show the human side to horse racing other than the obligatory racing visuals. It’s all a strategic balancing act for different customer segments.
Before the big Cup races, instead of everyone just sauntering out, why not some pomp and ceremony when introducing the jockeys and trainers and perhaps even the owners involved- the teams- along with the horses about to do battle? Create that elusive and exclusive on-course anticipation of what’s to come.
Make those vapid presentation ceremonies something which everyone can celebrate.
Advertise the racing product avoiding all the clichés ticked off in that brilliant and honest commercial for CBS featuring John Malkovich.
Hong Kong might not have a Silent Witness, but it suddenly has a Nothingilikemore, a celebrity in Mr Stunning, a galloper making sparks fly- Pingwu Sparks, Fifty Fifty that could be the one hundred percent real thing, Exultant, one, two, Beat The Clock, Time Warp, and after many years, a local hero in jockey Derek Leung. The latter screams out international feature story.
All this can make horse racing rock and roll again and be seen with different eyes and a different mindset by including the important non racing media in the communications mix.
Who knows, but if there can be a new improved horse racing product and introduced in a way those currently looking down on the sport can understand, I might still have a chance to get laid by that dismissive Canadian.
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