MARKETING THE LIKABILITY OF HORSE RACING

By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk
Visit Hans-Ebert.com

By now, some of us look at racing at Happy Valley as one big party- ‘live’ music, food, beer, and eight horse races every half hour and where one might wave to champion jockey Joao Moreira, but seldom, if ever, follow him at the idiosyncratic city track.

Forget what the professional tipsters say. Even magic men need some time to chill. And with Happy Valley very seldom being his happy hunting grounds, one lost count of the favourites on which Moreira didn’t even run in the top two on Happy Wednesday. Maybe not even in the top three. But Joao Moreira is likeable and likability is a major asset in success or failure in Hong Kong. One doubts it’s something not lost on horse racing’s new kid on the block- Alberto Sanna.

Much has been written lately about how the likeable Sanna would dearly love to ride here on a permanent basis. One hopes so.

Alberto Sanna is hardly a Ryan Moore, but he’s a trier. Hong Kong racing fans love a trier. It makes them likeable. And so on Wednesday when Sanna won on Pakistan Baby for trainer Tony Cruz and the family behind the galloper’s far more headline stealing stablemate, we cheered the entire team on, especially the Italian rider. It was a smart ride that needed Plan B when the noted back marker suddenly found himself out in front. Cruz was full of praise for Sanna taking the initiative.

It’s extremely hard to get into the good books of Tony Cruz- and stay there. Tony is Hong Kong racing’s only local hero- a former champion world class jockey, a champion trainer and with a life story that’s a movie waiting to be produced.

TONY CRUZ: THE BRUCE LEE OF HONG KONG RACING

Yes, he can sometimes “Cruz” in his own Blue Tooth Sphere, but he’s no fool. He’s seen it all, he takes it all in and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s fired owners, he’s taken on the HKJC and he’s given the flick to riders who’ve not played by his rules. He’ll always support local riding talent and gives new jockeys to Hong Kong rides with winning chances. Despite his slight idiocyncrasies, Tony Cruz is, yes, likeable because what you see if what you get and he’s earned his stripes many times over.

When watching Alberto Sanna thank Cruz after his very determined winning ride, there was something in the trainer’s demeanour- a knowing smile- which suggested that the Italian might just have an extra support system. Alberto Sanna has quickly learned the lay of the land though he would be the first to admit that he’s a rookie- he’s almost Manuel- in the very big wide International world of Hong Kong racing.

Hong Kong racing is the big time and he’s still adapting to it. He’s doing everything it takes to belong. And everyone likes a trier. It’s why many of us support Karis Teetan, Derek Leung, Keith Yeung, Matthew Chadwick, Dylan Mo, Jack Wong and the two comeback kids in Brett Prebble, below, and Olivier Doleuze. They’re all triers. They’re likeable. When they win, we’re winners and grinners along with them as they have our support.

Being cocky always falls to Instant Karma and it’s impossible to win people back. Alberto Sanna is hardly cocky. He’s grateful. If Twitter teaches you anything, it’s horse racing’s petty games and those who engage in these. The phoniness is often suffocating. Sanna has no time for this puerile waste of time. He’s here to ride winners. Here’s hoping he goes the distance.

Likability. It gets one far, especially in Hong Kong where in racing jockeys have been known to lose rides because an owner’s wife or girlfriend or group of friends don’t like their faces. Seriously. Over the years, how many times have we heard the line, “He’s an okay jockey, but I won’t use him because I don’t like his face”? If Hong Kong only had politicians with more likeable faces, perhaps this wouldn’t be the angry city that it presently is.

Getting back to racing, one has to wonder about a rider and self-promotional marketing machine like Craig Williams. Whenever Williams makes one of his cameo appearances in Hong Kong, there always a low murmur in Cantonese that sounds like “mountain dew”. He’s not likeable. Neither is Damien Oliver. Then again, neither are some of Hong Kong’s most high profile owners. Often, success breeds contempt.

The likability of jockeys is one thing. The likability of horse racing as a spectator sport and broadening its ageing customer base is surely what matters when looking at its future.

When one considers that Lewis Hamilton’s F1 suit has 12 logos worth £112m, it says something about marketability, the value of sponsors and what the right sponsors can bring to a sport.

Hamilton, now going out with super model Gigi Hadid, who, like him is a model for Tommy Filfiger, adds to his brand image. Yes, many say he’s arrogant and the l’enfant terrible of F1 racing, but he’s still considered misunderstood and…likeable. Not everyone can be Roger Federer.

Horse racing in Hong Kong- and the world- got a glimpse into the power of sponsorship last weekend when popular- and likeable- martial arts actor and BMW brand ambassador Donnie Yen used his international star power to help promote a phenomenally successful Hong Kong Derby Day that belonged to the team of John Size, Ryan Moore and the much improved former Queensland galloper who raced as Ted before being renamed Ping Hai Star in Hong Kong. Ted went Ping.

Using the Chinese social media app Weibo and his thousands of Instagram followers, Donnie Yen was a one man marketing team for the HKJC, both online and on course where he went out of his way to drum up as much excitement as possible before the big race- the Star Wars of horse racing.

One couldn’t help thinking that if BMW “owns” the Hong Kong Derby by being its sponsor, couldn’t horsepower meet horsepower with the brand also sponsoring Ping Hai Star, pictured below with Ryan Moore and a very spooky looking figure in the background?

Couldn’t Tag Heuer and a brand like Hugo Boss be attracted to horse racing, at least in Hong Kong? Why not is a pertinent question and it needs to be asked.

We live in cynical times with those Gotcha moments rampant on social media platforms, which are suddenly being seen for what they are- largely shams and scams created to prop up human insecurities- and are furiously back-pedalling now that the truth is out there.

Views, Likes, Followers and being able to buy all of these has created a fake world selling the illusion of fame. It’s a numbers driven data driven business model that has managed to bamboozle many and kidnap them away from reality. So you upload photos of yourself eating, you exercising, you next to a Ferrari that doesn’t belong to you, you next to some supposed celebrity. And? What the hell did one do before being manipulated to lazily press that Like button? Anyone remember?

Horse racing on social media is something that has been discussed with those in marketing far more savvy than some writer in Hong Kong. What’s always been mentioned is keeping things real and how less is more. That horse racing can’t be described. It must be experienced to make believers out of those standing on the edge of a feather expecting to fly. That especially in Hong Kong, the likability of horse racing is in its holistic entertainment value. It’s not one person nor one thing. It’s making all the pieces fit knowing that everyone is different and that one size doesn’t fit all.

Likability is a multi headed seductress that never knows what she wants. But she does when she sees it.


Likability was in evidence at Sha Tin last Sunday on BMW Derby Day. Replicating that day or being inspired enough to switch gears and understand this is the key to unlocking blinkered thinking.

#horseracing #hongkong #donnieyen #ryanmoore #hkjc #hkracing #likability #socialmedia #marketing #weibo #hkderby #joaomoreira #albertosanna

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