THE CHANGING FACE OF HORSE RACING IN A CONSTANTLY CHANGING WORLD

By Hans Ebert
Visit Hans-Ebert.com

A friend was keeping me company as I watched the cricket test match between England and India where the latter crumbled like soggy papadums after the dismissal of their captain Virat Kohli.

We had been watching the match for three consecutive nights and it didn’t take her long to understand the rudiments of cricket. Being a lawyer, she’s no airhead. During the intervals for lunch and tea, we had talked about where to go out for dinner or a late night drink, but just how “monotonous” it all is these days. And how boring most of the people we meet can be. Negativity is contagious. Who needs it?

After refusing to go to the hotel lounge of a five star hotel adjacent to where I live describing it as “a depressingly expensive waste of space for old people”, she decided that we try another venue at another hotel. We got there at 10.30pm. The ‘live’ music was being turned off and it was time for a last order.

Once a throbbing meeting place for so many, much like the hotel lounge mentioned earlier, it had become another Le Rue Morgue where, if one stayed long enough, seen would be dead people.

During this off season for horse racing in Hong Kong and with many of us travelling to get away from any withdrawal symptoms, it made me think just how much I miss a Happy Wednesday night at Happy Valley racecourse and all the “preparations” to be done before Wednesday rolls around.

My friend mentioned how her father was cranky as it meant that with no horse racing, how he had to accompany her mother on shopping expeditions- to Paris and Italy- and everywhere else he didn’t want to go. Marriage can sometimes be a real bitch.

Being involved in the Happy Wednesday brand for the HKJC, this break has made me think about what more can can be done to press the Refresh button and make everything more inviting and attractive to those who have yet not been to one of these nights.

It also had me thinking of the present and future of horse racing, whether it still has a pulse, and just how different it is from country to country. Ever attended a race meeting in Nuwara Elya in Sri Lanka? It’s a trip.

Amazing to think that when Sri Lanka was the British colony called Ceylon, this island where I was born, and maybe Shanghai, were the first places in Asia to have horse racing. This was where an Australian jockey named Ted Fordyce aka The Railwayman ruled.

Though it’s always interesting to watch racing in other countries, and personally, even more interesting to try and understand the mood and needs of those involved in the sport, there’s no place like home and Hong Kong racing. Nothing is ever perfect, but imperfections often lead to positive changes.

How attached this city is to the sport as a form of entertainment and a hobbyist sport by many is quite extraordinary and revealing. So is just how far horse racing has travelled from the days when there was one racecourse and racing on a Saturday afternoon.

As for the image painted of “gambling mad Asians”, it’s something easy for some “gweilo” racing writer fortunate enough to be in Hong Kong to churn out without thinking.

Firstly, Chinese don’t consider themselves “Asians” whereas though there will always be very very big money wagered online by those hardly interested in the on course experience, but only about winning, and those we in Hong Kong describe as “racing uncles and aunties”- the hardcore and elderly race goers, especially attending the racing at Sha Tin which is not far away from where many of them live- the New Territories- horse racing is a break from the monotony of daily life. It’s something to keep interest in something alive.

For the HKJC it’s about keeping everyone happy- the Hong Kong government and those across the border who keep tabs on everything going on with their One Country, Two Systems spoilt child.

Sure, the racing is much to do with turnover. But, more and more, it’s about ensuring attendance doesn’t drop. Horse racing without spectators? It could happen. In some places, it’s already happening. And happened. Why? The economy. Waning interest. Lack of forward thinking. More and more choices when it comes to leisure activities.

This means having to constantly improve the on course experience. But even before this, looking at new marketing mediums to promote horse racing knowing full well the reticence of many to be involved in what might be perceived as being an old school solely gambling oriented product.

Even if true, it’s about introducing the entertainment element that will attract those to the races who know absolutely nothing about horse racing other than that the first horse past the post wins.

These are the international regulars who attend a Happy Wednesday and there to soak up the on course atmosphere, meet like-minded people and see if horse racing and trying to win at it is for them.

Imagine having a dedicated and inter-active entertainment oriented channel just for this customer demographic. But why imagine? Why not just DO it? Probably will.

Not being a “horsey” city with no one born to ride nor with any interest in knowing about the legends of the turf and very few having an affinity with the horse, in Hong Kong it really doesn’t matter if it’s a lowly Class 5 race or a Group race. It’s about having a good time.

Here’s the deal: The more good times the younger race goers have, the better the odds they’ll be back with more knowledge about how it all works and with their own strategies for winning. Tipsters? They’re locked out of the equation unless those “tips” come with a money back guarantee.

The point is that horse racing has changed. But not enough because the oldsters refuse to let go of the past. Still, one can’t stop progress which is why, love it or loathe it, social media has made the print medium irrelevant. One even wonders about the interest many have in reading and appreciating the written word. And dumbing down many. Too many and of all ages.

Twitter, especially, has brought out the self-proclaimed “opinion leaders” of horse racing. A few might have something intelligent to say, but how many out there understand the fine print? Certainly not those out there flogging their personal agendas and others busy collecting “followers” like some badge of honour. Silly stuff.

Meanwhile, was it only around five years ago that Francesca Cumani was a global racing personality hosting a programme on CNN?

Though no longer on CNN, she still is and still looks amazing in flats. But now being a wife and mother, the Fran Brand is not what it was. Not that she cares. She has nothing left to prove.

Francesca Cumani is in a class of her own- an incredibly knowledgeable horse woman, and with her DNA, very much part of the racing elite in Europe. She’s doing more than fine. What’s not is horse racing dragging out the past through more “Fashions On The Field” and “Breakfast Of The Stars”. Please.

Who’s the new Francesca Cumani? Give them a bit more time and there’s the elegance and style and no airs and graces of Hannah Butler, the girlfriend of jockey Chad Schofield, and an integral member of the Happy Wednesday team.

In Perth, there’s young Brittany Taylor. With the right direction and opportunities, this multi talented girl who certainly knows her horse racing could be anything.

Think about the emergence of Joao Moreira. He was known as “Ghost” in São Paulo for popping up in a race when least expected, but where did he come from- and to suddenly be seen as one of the best riders in the world.

There are very good jockeys, but who else is the total package and marketing person’s dream that is the Brazilian magic man- a brilliant horseman blessed with charisma and natural interpersonal communications skills?

Joao Moreira is very probably the new, improved Frankie Dettori when the flying Italian was in his prime. Joao Moreira is horse racing’s answer to Lewis Hamilton. And where did Lewis Hamilton come from? Suddenly- BOOM- he was there- a brilliant driver and a charismatic personality with huge sponsorship appeal.

Accept them or not, but one-off races like the Pegasus in America and The Everest in Sydney have crashed the party overnight. Quelle supris!

Whether it’s social media or savvy marketing, especially The Everest is the new kid on the block in Australia. It would be amazing if it’s not forcing those in charge of some of the iconic races in the country make at least some cosmetic changes to their business model and product. But you never know.

It’s all about change. The world seems in a rush to change, but with no real idea where all this change might lead. This isn’t the same Change Obama promised America with Oprah at his side. If it was, Trump wouldn’t be in the now even whiter White House with America an angry and divided country under siege on all sides. Think all this vitriol doesn’t have a spillover effect on the rest of the world?

Movies, television, music, fashion, communications, lifestyles, they’ve all changed. Every sport has changed. They’ve all had to in order to survive. In order to attract those demanding change and seeing falling bottom lines. It’s never nice to see bottoms falling.

Has horse racing changed? Not nearly enough. It’s stuck behind the eight-ball. It’s still about panels of wobble heads of pundits often leading the “sheeple” astray. It’s still about brass bands and the most boring presentation ceremonies.

The old guard accept all this, but they’re of no relevance to the new generation of consumers who racing should be falling over each other to try and attract.

Spending hundreds of thousands to have some celebrity, usually a second rate one, attend a race meeting is just plain goofy. It shows how out of step some in racing clubs are with reality.

We’re creatures of habit. It’s what made my friend and I try to revisit a past that’s gone forever. Social media has made many prisoners of habit. Being around them stunts self growth and inter personal skills. Run! Run when you see them approaching!

Getting out and discovering everything else out there needs months and years of planning. There’s little or no spontaneity. There’s way too much overthinking and navel gazing, talking bollocks and settling for whatever doesn’t cause ripples.

This type of thinking, this habit to fall back on the past while pretending to move forward has hobbled many industries. Not helping are those who make the rules and are paid the big bucks to break the rules and understand who their consumer is and to look beyond tomorrow. But don’t.

Sound familiar? This is why instead of procrastinating, tweeting, tweeting and more tweeting, revising profiles and waiting to piggyback on the success of others, just get out there and be a Nike slogan. Just do it or die trying. Cut the cord.

#horseracing #HKJC #HappyWednesdayHK #FrancescaCumani #HannahButler #BrittanyTaylor #Trump #Change #socialmedia #JoaoMoreira #LewisHamilton

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