LEADERSHIP, TRUST ISSUES AND THE PRESENT AND FUTURE OF HORSE RACING

By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk
Visit Hans-Ebert.com

Instead of him working the room, some of us watched the room work the CEO of the HKJC on Wednesday. The room was the venue Adrenaline at Happy Valley racecourse and we were headed for the home stretch. The excellent band led by singer Jennifer Palor was performing a mix of old school and new school music and we waited to say our Hellos.

As is now part of his Happy Wednesday “schedule”, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges arrived after the last race had been run. Even CEOs need to chill out and just settle into the music being performed.

Running a multi-dimensional beast like the HKJC is no stroll in the park. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, and if it’s not another, it’s something else for this organisation that’s so much more than being a racing club. Longtime Hong Kong Belongers will tell you that the Hong Kong Jockey Club really runs the city. With everything its Charities Trust gives back to Hong Kong- the elderly, education programmes, ethnic minority groups, the arts- often you think it does.

While having lunch with an executive from a leading publication a couple of days earlier, he asked what drives the man most know as “EB”. “Probably the latest BMW” was the flippant reply before thinking about it and mentioning how it’s a combination of passion, knowing what he wants and how to get there, and excited and inspired to be very involved in all the HKJC projects like the game changing Conghua training centre in Guangzhou, Mainland China. This isn’t another “China horse club” pie-in-the-sky dream one heard about emanating out of Sydney almost a decade ago.

That Wednesday night, three young local racing fans came up to the CEO and asked to take a selfie with him. One selfie became four. For me sitting there watching, it showed someone who truly has the respect of the public.

Hong Kong today is unlike Hong Kong yesterday. It’s an angry city in dire need of counselling. There’s a dwindling middle class and the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots is growing greater. And here was the CEO of the HKJC giving up his Me time to take a selfie with three fans. Four selfies. And he was happy to do it.

One wished those in horse racing given leadership roles, but who only know how to do The Backpedal could have seen the impact of such a simple and effective master class in communications. But would they have got it?

Real leadership. It’s something in short supply in almost every industry. And without strong leadership, who’s there to follow? And why? One only has to look at the way over-the-top firestorm that started following “the leadership group” of the Australian cricket team having been found to not be playing with a straight bat in the third test against South Africa in Cape Town.

Those who have never followed cricket will not understand just how much this has impacted the sport, the players involved, the young and old fans- and the country where cricket is followed with religious zeal.

We’re all entitled to our opinions, and not to condone what was allowed to happen, but one has to wonder whether Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft are taking all the body blows for others and where exactly David Warner, coach Darren Lehmann and James Sutherland, CEO of Cricket Australia, might fit into what seemed like a daft idea to begin with- schoolboy cricket cheating games played on a global stage with the cameras of the cricketing world watching every single move.

Again, it showed extremely poor leadership and an appalling lack of judgment when it comes to crisis management and handling a media that has a voracious appetite to feed those already writing chapter, verse and song of their own on social media. Did Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull adding to the hysteria help?

Watching the Steve Smith press conference, one couldn’t help thinking about the various guises of cheating that’s been reported in horse racing in Australia over the past few years. Recently there was Textgate, the follow up to Cobaltgate and every other gate that had been opened but never closed and with no one- no one- having to face the music and take all the blame while being pummelled by the critics.

This is 2018 and compared to just a decade ago, we’re living in vastly different times comprising hashtags, the many ills of social media finally being revealed and where, in the land down under, there exists today a great divide between its leaders and those who are meant to follow.

Much of this has to do with racing’s “leadership groups” believing that the bogeyman will just go away if ignored long enough. Cases opened and made public are allowed to meander along for years with absolutely no closure. It just cannot continue like this. It affects the global image of horse racing. News travels. It can’t be dismissed with gibberish. Giles?

Especially down South, there’s also hardly been an explosion of groundbreaking thinking. The supposed leaders, mostly being lightweight executives plucked out of virtual obscurity because there was no one else willing to come on board, come across time and time again as blinkered and naive ninnies tampering with different types of balls and a compliant racing media going along for the ride. It’s always nice to travel first class on the gravy train with the blinkers on and making mewing sounds.

The bumbling Southerners of course make The Man From The North come across as Charlton Heston parting the Red Seas while wheeling in another Trojan horse and proud to proclaim that he’s being “disruptive”. Being disruptive is good? There’s a world of difference between being competitive and being disruptive.

The Great Leader then reaches over and the Repeat button is hit- about how horse racing having to “change or perish”, how the “youngsters” have gravitated to Instagram and SnapChat leaving Facebook to the oldsters and when having dozed off and awoken, he’s probably mentioned how he was the first to conquer Everest and who the hell is Sir Edmund Hillary. The broken record keeps playing.

Though a divisive character, the man is seen as a successful leader. After all, he’s left his opponents in the South dazed and confused by his bluster and is seen by many as an innovator, visionary and Moses.

He truly believes that “youngsters” were attracted to his “Everest Pegasus” sideshow because of the racing and not for the performance AFTER the horse racing of reasonably popular American singer Jason Derulo? Please. Some of us are closely tied to the entertainment world. Nothing is a secret. Why Jason Derulo? Why Paris Jackson as the paid “celebrity” at the Melbourne Cup? What was the ROI?

The Man From The North has a fawning local media eating from the palm of his hand that never asks the hard questions as there’s no competition. Someone with an opinion on everything, yes, including Cricket Australia, he marches on with rambling stories about his first bet, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward…

Outside of Australia it’s a different story. He’s reminiscent of a cross between the Invisible Man and Dr Strangelove- a goofy loon craving power and respect that’s just not there.

Yes, there are far more important things that need sorting out than the ills plaguing cricket and horse racing to right the wrongs of the world. Again, it comes down to leadership. Real leadership and not those talking with forked tongues and in clichés. Politicians who we have elected into office are supposedly in their positions to make this a better world. How many are doing this, Django?

In horse racing it’s all about horses for courses with possibly the most important objective being to give horse racing a future- a positive future- people can actually see instead of one-off events and more smoke and mirrors. It’s about enhancing and evolving the brand. It’s about business and sponsorship and creating the best possible racing product. It’s also about earning the trust of those who will support the sport.

And here, there’s only one leader I would be backing. He makes the time to understand the mood of the city through reading the mood of the people and has a very international knowledge of horse racing- repeat International- and is keenly aware of never losing the trust of horse racing’s greatest supporters- the public.

What’s not needed is another tedious mantra of I, Me, Mine and doing back strokes while enjoying being a big fish in a small pond forever blowing bubbles and pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

Happy Easter!

#WinfriedEngelbrechtBresges #HKJC #Hongkong #leadership #horseracing #CricketAustralia #SteveSmith

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