“Riding at Happy Valley is like having a disco full of thousands of people in your living room! I love it!” Jockey Neil Callan
When, after Wednesday night’s racing, Nash Rawiller tweeted how great the atmosphere at the Beer Garden looked, it made some of us chat (again) about why the Happy Wednesday brand and everything it entails simply cannot be replicated on any other racecourse, anywhere in the world. That would be Mission: Impossible.
Sure, many racecourses have music- after the races- and the point of this is?- or ‘live’ music for their carnivals, but music, the Beer Garden, Adrenaline and all the other venues at the unique setting that is Happy Valley Racecourse on Wednesday nights work because of the people- a truly international melting pot, meeting at their favourite mid-week drop-off point to take in the races, up close and personal, and also just kick back and interact- with each other, and whenever they can, the riders and other racing personalities. It’s like Breakfast With The Stars, but at night, under the stars, and without the media niceties. It’s all down-to-earth Everyday People that Sly Stone sang about with their only agenda being to be themselves and, as Nike says, Just Do It.
Stand by the railings backstage of the Beer Garden and the boys riding past to the 1650 and 1800 metres barriers make it a point to wave to the musicians, the fans, and give a shout-out to familiar faces whereas during the Paddock Parade, Jenny Chapman and The Three Amigos point out to television audiences the Happy Wednesday Party going on at the Beer Garden and which goes hand-in-hand with the horse racing.
They’re each attractions in their own way and, in 2015, it’s difficult to imagine when the former venue was inviting albeit, well, dull. It was The Pub With No Beer, or, The Garden With Only Beer and a bit of a wallflower waiting to be asked out on a date.
After a brief period when themed “Sassy Wednesday”- “Sassy”?- Happy Valley Racecourse created its own “Happy” brand long before Pharrell Williams came along with his Vivienne Westwood-designed hat.
Then came the ‘live’ bands in-between the races, which had a few Nervous Nellies up in arms over “the noise” upsetting the horses. That came and went quickly enough while coming onstream were short-form reality-based programming from the Beer Garden like “Finding Happy Wednesday”, which might not have been “Keeping Up With The Kardashians”, but helped build a brand.
For two years, the Beer Garden played host to number of local music talent until plucking a singer-songwriter from the obscurity of a small town in Wales and making him- Ben Semmens- the resident performer, which took things up a notch.
His two and a bit seasons performing exclusively at those Happy Wednesday nights took the Welsh singer-songwriter from playing to a handful of drunks in Cardiff to, overnight, playing to thousands once a week and building a fan base.
With change always needed to keep familiarity breeding contempt, saying Goodbye to Semmens earlier this month- to many musos in Hong Kong, Semmens had the best gig in town- has seen the Happy Wednesday brand once again evolve with DJs and dancers brought into the Beer Garden to create more of a party atmosphere whereas the arrival of songstress Jennifer Palor, below, at Adrenaline has given the venue a style boost.
Like Neil Callan, Dougie Whyte, trainers Tony Cruz, David Ferraris, Caspar Fownes and others, The Zac Attack aka Champion Jockey Zac Purton is an unabashed fan of racing at those Happy Wednesday meetings: “I love riding at Happy Valley- the tight track, all those people so close to the racing, the lights, the atmosphere gives me a huge rush. Shatin might have the better horses and racing, but it’s very businesslike. Happy Valley is like what it’s name says and always reminds me why I became a jockey- for the excitement.”
Having two race meetings in two uniquely different venues, each attracting very different customer group, two equally different levels of racing, and, no doubt, different ways of approaching the punt, work very well. It keeps horse racing entertaining and fun despite the millions at stake. It stops the sport becoming too much of a good thing and too much of the same thing until the only way left is down with way too many trying to be heard over the din of the Titanic going down.
It also doesn’t attract all those, especially on social media with their onslaught of opinions, and desperately trying to be somebodies by thinking they’re taking on the power brokers and untouchables running racing clubs. Sorry, but you can’t fight and beat City Hall- not on social media. It all falls on deaf ears and comes across as the rants of simpletons.
As Matt Stewart of the Herald Sun so correctly pointed out and dismissed recently as “uneducated talk about rogue Cobalt salesmen”, there is way too much prattle going on from self-styled experts, especially in Oz, where, like assholes, everyone has an opinion. Free speech and the Court Of Public Opinion is fine- but only if it’s really making a positive difference. If not, rein in the clutter.
In Hong Kong, despite being a monopoly and the only game in town, even the most hardened Chinese punter has no problem with what the HKJC is doing. Why? Because the Club, under a very strong leadership, does most of it very well.
Sure, the HKJC is not perfect, but its good points outweigh the not-so-good ones, and which is why Hong Kong racing can attract such an incredible group of international riding talent led by the likes of Joao Moreira, Zac Purton and Douglas Whyte.
As many have said, the competitiveness of racing in Hong Kong makes one a better rider. But there’s more to it than that.
Being involved in racing in Hong Kong- and depending on what your role might be- forces one to enter Bright Lights, Big City with all the trimmings, and look at the sport from a new perspective that’s never blocked by the Tall Poppy Syndrome that stunts growth.
As Zac points out, “As with any industry in Hong Kong, you need to be seen as being the best and this goes for racing. Owners wish to have the very best- in cars, in fashion brands and in the jockeys and trainers they choose to use, which means having to work hard, on and off the track. Hong Kong really does teach you to be a ‘businessman jockey’ and constantly work at staying at the top of your game. It’s character building stuff.”
Just ask Nash Rawiller why, despite the several suspensions, but with now seven winners on the board, and his first Jockey Challenge under his belt, he’s in that Happy Place- literally and figuratively- in Hong Kong.
FROM THE RACING TWITTERVERSE