By Hans Ebert
In every industry it’s about expanding the customer base. Retaining the current market and expanding it. Always expanding it. It’s business 101. Marketing 101. Do those in leadership roles in horse racing lose sight of this? And its importance? Too often. And the racing media? How does it help spread the word? Improve the perception? Could there possibly be a new-fashioned entertainment media waiting in the wings to take horse racing beyond where it’s going now? Hmmmmm.
In this nanu second world of constant “engagement” where so much clutter is allowed in, people tend to have short memories. Easily bamboozled by whatever is supposedly “trending”. Those Delete and Refresh buttons must constantly be pressed.
Jockey Christophe Soumillon helped press Refresh the other day. It was by tweeting a photograph of him “doing a Ben Hur” dressed immaculately in a sharp suit and balancing atop two white horses at a gala dinner. Seeing this woke up many. Not necessarily in the racing world. It dared to be different. It was something positive. It wasn’t something that was another feeding frenzy for racing’s usual Bad News Bears.
Of course what’s amusing are those who didn’t and refused to press that “Like” button when it came to that picture featuring the great Belgian rider. We know why, don’t we? A serving of Belgian waffles isn’t for everyone.
In Hong Kong, the new horse racing season is just around the corner. It promises to be the season of change with a new cast of characters. Apart from Sha Tin and Happy Valley, there are also the new training facilities in Conghua, below, and everything in between. Everything points to change.
What’s needed is something special to signal that this season will be truly spectacular. Something bigger than Ben Hur. Good old Ben. He’s really making a comeback here today.
A little over a month ago, the English racing media who seems to move in packs were jumping aboard the same old tired bandwagon.
Joao Moreira was leaving Hong Kong to try his luck and gain a license to ride in Japan on a permanent basis. This was described as a “bombshell.” Veteran jockeys Brett Prebble and Olivier Delouze deciding to call time on their riding careers in Hong Kong? Apparently another “bombshell”. Please.
It was monkey see, monkey do “reportage” on racing’s twitterverse. To those who really knew the back stories, none of this was riveting news. Hardly “bombshells”. Joao Moreira leaving for Japan had been on the cards for two years. His eleventh hour decision to tell the Licensing Board that he was bidding sayonara was what was surprising. It was a surprise attack.
If anything, perhaps the HKJC should have been better Boy Scouts. And been better prepared. Not everyone plays by the same rules.
After a great start to his short term riding license in Japan, a cameo appearance in the Shergar Cup, and returning to the land of the rising sun for short hit and run missions, Joao Moreira is prepping himself for the two mandatory exams he must pass before receiving a permanent license to ride in Japan as a foreign jockey. They’re not easy exams to pass: To learn to read, write and speak fluent Japanese. Then again, the Brazilian magic man is not just one of the world’s best jockeys. He’s very very smart. Especially about maintaining his brand.
As for the upcoming Hong Kong racing season, let’s just backtrack for a while…
We were spoiled for four years. Being introduced to the best and seeing constant displays of brilliance and watching an amazing horseman break records and create new ones. He made it look so easy. We got used to seeing the best in the world. Want eight winners? Watch. The magic man delivered. And then Joao Moreira left. But not without one final curtain call. This was being a key player in one of the best races seen in a very long time also starring Zac Purton and Douglas Whyte.
It was an ultra competitive 1,2,3 featuring three of Hong Kong’s champion jockeys in the final race of last season. The Magic Man lost to the Durban Demon. But he still won hearts by showing himself to be a good loser. Who knows, it might have been killing him inside, but Joao Moreira owned the photo opportunity.
Again, that picture said so much. It was reminiscent of when the brilliant Brazilian came a close second to Australian Kerrin McEvoy in the Melbourne Cup.
Hong Kong racing, even without Joao Moreira, is still the most international and competitive racing in the world- and available twice a week. Not to take anything away from the phenomenal effort of Zac Purton to ride off with last season’s Jockey Premiership, only a fool would think it will be business as usual without the Brazilian magic man. But there are different ways of looking at the business of horse racing.
Life goes on, and, like any amicable divorce, on the one hand it’s about finding that special someone who can come close to filling that void. Maybe it’s not a someone, but a special something. Something sustainable.
On the other hand, there are those who see the departure of Joao Moreira as a good thing. It offers more value. Not too much of everything being well under the odds. This quickly becomes boring Those following the magic man in Japan are quickly starting to understand this. Following the best and most popular has its drawbacks. The payback is not enough.
A few of us were recently discussing who might come close to being possible candidates as replacements for Moreira. Some of us gave up. We couldn’t think of any. Others asked why there was such a rush for a replacement. These are those who play the odds.
Still, Joao Moreira showed some of us that there’s a big difference between turnover and popularity. Between being a very good jockey and becoming, well, a superstar. Possibly the only superstar rider, who, in this social media driven world, has very real “likes” “views” and “followers”. In Chinese and in Japanese. He has no need to be on Twitter. Joao Moreira is someone, who, in time, just might be right up there with Lewis Hamilton when it comes to being a global sporting brand.
This marquee value name is what Hong Kong racing needs to expand its customer base. It knows it needs to be a global brand by looking beyond horse racing. By looking and learning at what attracts so many to the NBA and its players. To the Premier League. To what was once stodgy old cricket with Geoff Boycott at the crease for five days. Today, cricket offers numerous wagering opportunities. It has a new generation of heroes who have changed the format and image of the sport.
Despite there being betting on every other sport, horse racing has always been weighed down by the gambling albatross. It’s a turn off to many. It keeps horse racing tied to the post of the past. This restricts progress and forward thinking. It makes horse racing look tired and old.
None of this is lost on the CEO of the HKJC. He knows he has a movie on his hands. There’s a cast of characters. There are the locations. Sha Tin. Happy Valley. And now Conghua. There are the thousands of extras. It’s now how to turn vision into reality. It’s about new content. Looking at new mediums carrying the different messages. About striking that right balance.
One must also think about champion jockey Zac Purton aka the Zac Attack and wonder if he’ll become Zac Rabbit. Who will give him the competition that he thrives on? We know who’s on first. But who’s on second and third? We can guess, but how far back from the leader of the pack are they?
Sure, there will be stop-gap measures. Cameo appearances in Hong Kong during the winter months in Europe. Amongst an international cast based in Hong Kong and starring Karis Teetan, Douglas Whyte, Chad Schofield, Umberto Rispoli, Derek Leung, Alberto Sanna, Sam Clipperton and Neil Callan, who amongst them can make a real race of it?
The mantra how there will “more opportunities for everyone” is wearing thin. It’s sounding as silly as those repeating how today “there’s more music than ever before.” It’s true. There is. But what’s the point when it’s quantity versus quality? How does one cut through the clutter?
As for there being “more opportunities for everyone”, can “everyone” compete against the talent and ammunition belonging to the Zac Attack?
There’s always the chance of people upping their game. Realising their power. Unleashing it. Being creative when it comes to marketing one’s self. The HKJC can only do so much. In the end, however, it’s about building one’s own brand. Seizing every opportunity that presents itself. This is how it works in the new world order.
Frankie Dettori, Douglas Whyte and Hayley Turner knew this long ago and long before social media swept across the world. They built their own brands. Today, Frankie Dettori is still keeping his brand alive.
If in the public eye it’s about upping one’s game, Hong Kong racing has some good young riders whose potential has yet to be realised. Sadly, the rider below is not one of them.
These young guns are brands waiting to happen. There are always ways to get from here to there. Imagine suddenly having the opportunity to ride Pakistan Star. And winning on the enigmatic one. And becoming his regular rider. Let’s say this rider is Karis Teetan. Think this isn’t going to make a world of difference to his career?
With no Joao Moreira and Zac Purton unable to ride every good horse in a race, here’s the chance for especially the young guns to improve their skills of persuasion and then let action speak for itself. Be a wallflower and the guile and experience of Douglas Whyte and Neil Callan will be there quick as Jumping Jack Flash to say, “Thank you very much. We’ll take over from here.”
This creates a fascinating script that will be rewritten as the season goes on. It will include a constantly changing cast. For the Zac Attack, could it be a case of Heavy Is The Head That Wears The Crown? One truly doubts it. Zac Purton? Lose confidence? Perish the thought.
Away from the actual horse racing product, Hong Kong has two vastly different racecourses attracting very different groups of race goers. The HKJC’s Happy Wednesday brand has its own cast. A growing cast. Younger, independent thinkers and wishing to play by their own rules. They don’t need tips. Except maybe about dress sense.
A Happy Wednesday at Happy Valley has become the huge Trip Advisor success that it is almost organically. Almost. But there are definite strategies in place. Like the venues. The ‘live’ music INTEGRATED in between the races. There’s not the silliness of having ‘live’ music after the races. How does this help introduce horse racing to those still new to the game? Look at what recently happened at Newbury. Those coming for the music rioted when technical problems beset the music act booked for the night. After the races.
Earlier this week, forwarded was an email from someone outside of horse racing. He was replying to a thread in which a video for Keeneland was featured.
Apparently this video had been discussed and praised by those on this email thread. His reply was sent “with love”. It was an outsider’s opinion of where horse racing is going wrong. In essence, he was talking about how many in the sport are unable to see the forest for the trees. Perhaps this has to do with lacking working experience in other industries. Bigger consumer driven industries.
He mentioned about imagining what horse racing might look like in 2050. And working backwards from there. Interesting. It was like Marty McFly and Doc traveling Back To The Future and seeing Biff with all the power.
It was (director) Steven Spielberg and his screenwriter seeing that day in the future when America would be run and owned by Trump. When it had become a wasteland. When there was a need for a Mad Max.
What will horse racing look like in 2050? Work backwards from there. It just might lead to a new and very different field of dreams for horse racing. It’s definitely what’s needed to attract new thinking through new talent into the equation. The odds that this will start in Hong Kong? High. Very high.
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