By Hans Ebert
It used to be only about the Beer Garden. It was actually a friend in horse racing from Melbourne who first told me about it. About its “vibe”. What more it might be.
He had visited it during one of his HKIR pilgrimages and was, quite rightly, impressed with its unique setting. The unique setting of Happy Valley racecourse. Especially under the lights.
These were during the days when Wednesday night racing at Happy Valley was named Sassy Wednesdays.
It might have been the name that didn’t exactly get my mojo working. Sassy. Or the ads that resembled a sassy come on for an escort club in Macau. Ads with four runners, three sassy models and an empty grandstand.
Those were the days when some of us were still with a music company and working out some type of method in the madness of the deal.
Guy Hands, the private equity fat boy who had made his fortune restoring public toilets on the Autobahn and taking over nursing homes in Germany, had suddenly taken over the haemorrhaging EMI Music. Holy merde!
Many of us who joined the music industry to work with creative artists and savvy music executives were trying to make sense of it all. It didn’t make any sense. That is until Fat Boy Hands was finally sued by Citicorp for millions in debts and was thrown out.
The arrival of The Guy and his Terrarists had Paul McCartney, whose home had been Parlophone, a label under EMI since his days with the Beatles, take his new record to Starbucks. Yes, Starbucks.
Radiohead left EMI to go it alone. Joss Stone left. Thirty Seconds To Mars sued to leave. Coldplay threatened to leave, but were convinced to stay. Lesser known acts were dumped. Offices were closed.
With Chairman and co-Chairman- Alain Levy and David Munns, respectively, ousted in a very well orchestrated coup by EMI Group Chairman Eric Nicoli aka The Biscuit Bungler, below, we knew our time was up. Nicoli left with a payout said to be £1.95m. There’s more to that story.
Guy Hands and his private equity company Terra Firma had bought an iconic music company, and were clueless as how to run it. And who should run it. So they ran it into the ground.
For us bit players in the region, it was about survival. And so it was all about meeting after meeting with various investor groups looking to buy themselves into the entertainment world, and pressing palms trying to figure out our next port of call.
The Beer Garden and horse racing on a Wednesday night weren’t on our radars. The meeting places for business and hanging out with pretty much dullards were the Blue Bar at the Four Seasons and business dinners at restaurants like Guru and Marouche. With more dullards.
Looking at career options, there was the idea of bringing entertainment to horse racing. In the UK. And closer to home, the HKJC. How? Through a more indie and content driven website- younger, cooler, autonomous and with horse racing news, but communicated in “a voice and tone” that would be accepted by a younger demographic- those still thinking that horse racing was for their uncles with no idea how any of it worked. They already had a buffet of far more consumer-friendly leisure activities. Some with even fireworks displays.
The presentation to the HKJC went through. The site- Fast Track- was launched around eight years ago with a staff of 3-4 doing it all- writing and creating- and owning- all content, months working with web designers, attending meetings and going through the type of dramas to get any startup off the ground.
Some fell by the wayside. The pie could only be cut so many ways. Some wanted a bigger slice. Friendships bit the dust. Personal relationships at home crashed and burned. But when driven and believing this little idea might just be a big one, the business of business took over.
It was during this time that Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the HKJC, mentioned the Beer Garden.
What more could be done here other than being the venue for the annual Oktoberfest, so that, like the website, it could be a magnet to attract newbies to horse racing. Perhaps there could be a new field of dreams?
Time has taught us that the CEO of the HKJC does nothing casually. It’s not an order. Merely a suggestion. It’s like Detective Columbo leaving the scene of the crime, but then turning around, scratching his head and saying, “Well, just think about it.” We did. It’s why there’s now ‘live’ music at the Beer Garden. Why Sassy Wednesday became everything and more that is a Happy Wednesday.
It wasn’t easy to get everyone to buy into the idea. Music inbetween the races could spook the horses during the paddock parade. But wherever there’s a problem, there’s almost always a solution.
Of course, this is like a Monty Python song. But there was and probably still is something Pythonesque about how Happy Wednesday became- and continues to be- what is the Happy Wednesday brand. It’s quite remarkable how we got from there to here.
While the Beer Garden evolved, there was Adrenaline at Happy Valley racecourse. This had started life as a club. Maybe a chill out lounge. Some friends with a penchant for adobo were regulars. They mentioned always making new friends there. It just wasn’t for some of us.
Meanwhile, Fast Track grew. As content owners and providers. It wasn’t about being a website at a time when these were becoming lumbering white elephants. Fast Track included a small film crew and 2-3 hosts creating what were weekly Finding Happy Wednesdays short form programming.
Realising that Hong Kong wasn’t exactly overflowing with good original local music talent, discovered on YouTube was Welsh singer songwriter Ben Semmens. He was brought to Hong Kong.
Ben, who had never left Cardiff in his life, came out to Hong Kong to be the regular performer at the Beer Garden for a season. He stayed for four years. He was that good. Four years where we used GoPro onstage to shoot short, fun videos, experimented with different musicians and backing bands, wrote and recorded Happy Wednesday theme songs and more.
The Beer Garden suddenly became the most popular open air club in Hong Kong with the main attraction being horse racing.
There was always the entertainment factor to fill in those twentysomething minutes between the races. There was more than three weeks of Oktoberfest.
With there being a truly international young crowd, social media became real- and truly social. There was Happy Wednesday networking.
It goes on today, especially with Adrenaline having evolved into something far more than we ever thought it would be.
From those days when Ben Semmens and his band would sing one song between each race before rushing down to the Beer Garden to perform between the last four races, at Adrenaline, Jennifer Palor and her band perform three songs between each race. And continue with ‘live’ music for an hour after the last race. It’s made a huge difference.
Adrenaline today is a chic- but fun and a casual meeting place.
It’s made horse racing accessible. Where those new to it can approach how it’s played in their own ways. Without studying the totalisator and being force fed lessons from the hardcore school of Puntology.
The Beer Garden continues to be that rare combination of horse racing enjoyed up close and personal, ‘live’ music, conga lines, a few goofy games, and flash mobs. Pharrell would be Happy.
There are now competitions hosted by Hannah Butler, below, and the girlfriend of jockey Chad Schofield, to find the week’s most popular fashionistas.
Musically, regular performers at Adrenaline have gone on to record original recordings. This will soon become more than ii is.
Jockeys have been marketed so they are known to Happy Wednesday regulars. Often it helps them decide on whom to follow. No more do these regulars think that the same horses run in every race.
This week many in horse racing will descend on Hong Kong for the Longines Hong Kong International Races. The annual racing love fest. The usual suspects will be found in the usual haunts. The good, the bad and the not so okay. Whatever will be will be.
Many will be at Happy Valley on Wednesday for the Longines International Jockeys’ Championship. There’ll be fireworks on and off the track.
It promises to be a red carpet Happy Wednesday. At the Beer Garden. At Adrenaline. And after the exclusive After Party and the last song has been sung? Who knows.
Happy Wednesday has come very far in a fast and furious few years. Through spontaneity. Having fun being part of it all. No strings attached. There’s still a long way to go.
As with anything in life, it’s knowing how to get there.
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