By Hans Ebert
World Cup Fatigue had struck as hard as the three goals the night before by Ronaldo, so we never made it to the races at Sha Tin.
Truth be told, we extremely rarely go to Sha Tin- and especially if there’s racing across the Big Waters on a Saturday. It’s hard to imagine these days that once upon a barren rock, there was only horse racing in Hong Kong on a Saturday- and only at Happy Valley.
Kowloon was where the nightlife and everything else throbbed- the clubs, the nightlife, the gorgeous dancers back from the USSR and working at upmarket escort clubs Club BBoss and Club De China.
Before those Wolf Of Wall Street days, Kowloon was where there were the best ‘live’ bands, the most popular nightclubs, and the discotheque known as The Scene in the basement of the Peninsula hotel where Led Zeppelin and manager Peter Grant dropped in to check out the scenery before leaving after less than two minutes. The scenery wasn’t up to standard.
Today, Kowloon has its moments, but they’re few and far between. Everything is on the island. With progress having actually slowed many of us down, going over to Kowloon side- a 20 minute cab ride- is an extremely rare occurrence and usually saved when needing to get to the airport or that shocking venue for ‘live’ shows located at what seems like the other end of the world called Asia Expo. I’ve been there twice in my life.
Having recently been to the Hyatt Shatin after a number of years, there was the feeling that I had somehow ended up in some remote province in Mainland China. I couldn’t wait to escape.
Maybe there should be a Mayor of Kowloon or a marketing programme to attract visitors from Hong Kong to Kowloon. Perhaps the races at Sha Tin can be the magnet? If horse racing at Happy Valley can be a tourist destination and be recommended by the very influential TripAdvisor, again, this year, why not Sha Tin?
Frankly, though hearing about various Group 1 races and, of course, the race meeting during the Hong Kong International Races, it’s hard to think of anytime when the races at Sha Tin were actually marketed and promoted and advertised to those who live outside the confines of the HKJC website.
Taking aside the current all-consuming interest in the World Cup, what needs to always be factored in is that consumers are spoiled for choice. Restaurants, bars and clubs are fighting for the same consumer dollar. Many are losing mainly because no one wishes to become a creature of habit, not when there’s so much of everything out there waiting to be tasted.
These can be found in revamped areas of Hong Kong like Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Poon where there’s a young, vibrant and very international community led French residents in Hong Kong. Here are many of the Happy Wednesday regulars- cool, creative, fashionable and the city’s new entrepreneurs and game changers.
This is where the new restaurants, bars and artist colony is growing. Lan Kwai Fong, Soho and especially Wanchai are dead. More dead than Le Rue Morgue.
There’s a pulse down Wyndham Street, but it’s only found at the club dragon-i where self-indulgence and pretentiousness seem a prerequisite to being allowed to make it past the Velvet Rope. And once there? Who do you meet?
As for horse racing in Hong Kong, and specifically, Sha Tin, there’s turnover and there’s attendance. Turnover for Saturday’s meeting during World Cup Fever of nearly HK$1.5 billion was good. Very good. But looking forward in this day and age of ‘live’ streaming and every other which way of watching horse racing, what’s the key driver- the main attraction- for non racing uncles and aunties and those owning horses running that day to attend? The racing? No matter how good this might be, how many know or appreciate “good”? Really.
Having horse racing be the centrepiece, but dressing this up and giving it a certain entertainment value is why a Happy Wednesday has become a brand. It ticks all the mandatory KPIs regarding turnover and other figures, but those regulars see attending the races at Happy Valley as being an unpretentious mid-week break. It’s being part of the racing. It’s getting to meet the riders up close and personal. It’s about becoming a fan. It’s fun.
It’s about the FUN of COMING to the races or the FUN of GOING racing and the excitement and anticipation of what’s in store when there. It’s like that Babs Streisand song about people needing people.
So does this mean that making the trek to the races at Sha Tin- doesn’t this make it sound like a chore?- it’s not about people needing people? Babs would have nothing to sing about? Probably not.
It might be about attending the races as a group- and “attending” is hardly an inviting word- but this must be a fun experience. It’s gotta last more than a couple of hours to make the effort to attend worth it. It’s what creates regular return visits. It’s about having a magnet. It’s about changing with the times and understanding the mood of the city and customer preferences. It’s about getting out more and realising that maybe you’ve been Rip Van Winkle.
This is something for all those handed the reins to make racing clubs rattle and hum and run to understand. They can’t continue to be dullards surrounded by other dullards with dullards on Twitter joining the fray without any idea that the world doesn’t stop at Bendigo or Royal Randwick. Being blinded by the irrelevance of prize money to “participants” and bloviated corporate egos allowed to run free and roll in Trojan horses and slot merchants because of a malleable racing media used to rolling over and making mewing sounds.
Mercifully, the HKJC has a CEO who has an open mind to listen and take on board what might actually make sense. Good presentation skills backed with facts, figures and common sense are needed. One can’t just wing it and hope for the best. That’s a bluff that could be called.
Again, it might have been World Cup fatigue, but as my friend snored next to me, my eyes could only stay awake until the fifth race. The rest? Nada. And though it’s easy to write about the “stoush” between Joao Moreira and Zac Purton and hear an excitable race caller in the background as you drift into that rabbit hole of mixed dreams with Alice and the Mad Hatter, there’s no glue to make anything stick.
Not all of Hong Kong are passionate racing people who live and breathe horse racing 24/7- not in a city that has a buffet of leisure activities and with so many wishing to be seen in all the right places. Shallow? Of course. But many in Hong Kong have the money to be shallow as hell.
Who are we to argue? Many pander to this exhibition of shallowness by blowing hot air kisses across the lounges of swanky and hugely over priced restaurants to celebrity hair dressers and those who’ve mastered the art of looking beautifully important. Yicky? It’s not exclusive to Hong Kong. There’s just more of it to go around in Hong Kong. You get used to it.
My dear departed mother had a joke about mangoes: “Man goes where woman goes”. As her Alzheimer’s disease got worse, that joke was repeated many times. I was thinking about it whilst writing this: How I need a woman to accompany me to the races at Sha tin, but actually relieved and look forward to going racing at Happy Valley alone.
Has it to do with a certain sense of freedom? Adventure? Being with the boys? Meeting up with that special person that’s been kept hidden for years? That it’s different to going racing anywhere else in the world except for what passes as horse racing in Nuwera Elya in Sri Lanka? All of the above?
Sha Tin is different. Racing is in the afternoon. And usually on a Sunday. If after a late Saturday night, one needs a damn good reason to get out of bed before noon.
To go racing in Sha Tin, what’s the attraction and the distraction from the mundanities of life? What’s the plan after the races? Dinner in Kowloon? But where? When’s the last time one went out anywhere in Kowloon on a Sunday night?
Maybe that’s it: Make it a complete day at the races. There are many who still don’t know everything else other the parade ring that has gone into making the racecourse at Sha Tin what it is: World class.
There are experienced executives to look after and massage the racing product and work on the evolution of where it’s heading, but ensuring that the on course experience results in high attendance figures as this is what makes racing anywhere in the world come alive, requires a different mindset.
For this to work, there’s a need for the HKJC to reach different customer groups- and with the correct content. These crowds are the heartbeat of horse racing. They’re not only about turnover. But with more and more choices, there’s a need to cater to their needs- not with a scattergun approach of throwing everything against the wall and hoping that something sticks. It’s about looking at who and what can complement the racing product.
Could, for example, those presentation ceremonies be improved? Everywhere in the world where there’s racing, these celebrations of victory are staid, boring affairs and which have been around since Methuselah played marbles with his father. What’s in these presentations for the thousands of other race goers? Chilling out to the National anthem?
Why not a cameo personal appearance by Japanese female “idol” jockey Nanako Fujita? This 20-year-old is a star with a fan base in horse racing and outside- and growing very quickly in Hong Kong.
A few Happy Wednesdays ago, a racing newbie who’s decided that she loses following tips and has come up with her own formulas, asked why there can’t be a combined jockey and trainer challenge every day. Daft? Not really. But it showed someone probably thinking that the wagering landscape in horse racing needs a reboot and offering new opportunities to win. This type of thinking should be encouraged. The best ideas could even be rewarded.
Why not a season long thematic campaign that dovetails into promoting the big races? Yes, no other racing jurisdiction does this. Is this correct? In today’s world offering so many choices? Not everyone has a built in racing calendar keeping track of every race meeting.
Still on this subject, with horse racing in Hong Kong taking place twice a week, perhaps there’s a need to have an ongoing marketing programme where those standing on the sidelines wondering if horse racing is for them can come together as a creative community to spread positivity and happiness as part of Happy Wednesday AND which will have a spillover effect to Sha Tin. Why not?
At least from where this writer sits and having listened to many who look at horse racing as a pastime, what’s taboo to them is any mention of that word called gambling.
Though life’s a gamble and betting on every other sport is accepted, history has saddled horse racing with this albatross. It’s not a good image and there’s a need to show a different side to what many don’t consider to be a sport.
Just as there was the Musicares campaign which helped the image of the music industry when it was receiving a bashing from music fans, there’s something to be said about horse racing embracing a worthwhile cause- not some cause célèbre that goes nowhere because everyone can see right through its insincerity- but something that gives back to the city and its people honestly and with tangible results.
With the HKJC having its Charities Trust, it would come as a major surprise and do much for the image of the sport if horse racing in Hong Kong turns out to be the knight in shining armour- and bring back that Can Do mojo of positivity missing in Hong Kong these days.
Leading riders like Douglas Whyte, and Zac Purton are today part of Hong Kong. They have families here. Hong Kong is their home away from home.
Same goes for Karis Teetan, Chad Schofield and Neil Callan. Don’t think they’ll do the best they can to help? Of course they will.
Think about it. Gawd knows there’s much to think about.
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