Seriously now, what was there about horse racing that first attracted us to the sport and keeps us in it with a vice-like grip as if in the throes of sexual activity with the heat turned on to a maximum high?
Is it the high of winning that often takes us into an even greater high than Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth inhaling amyl nitrate in “Blue Velvet”?
Then, there’s the thrill of winning that one Big Lebowski that’s never ever satisfying as one goes for those Fifty Shades Of Grey to mixing it with reds, whites, blacks and blues, or is it that undefinable intoxicating high of a Charlie Sheen-type of winning?
Or are we charter members of this sport because of a love of horses, the excitement and romantic notions of watching riders on beautiful animals doing battle like latter day cowboys and those Knights of the Round Table with someone singled out to be the traitor Mordred?
My ex-wife, a sane, intelligent woman, saw- and still sees- horse racing as an addictive and, ultimately, destructive pastime with no saving graces. The cast of characters who entered my life along with the sport- drastically different to those who inhabited my orbit as an Executive in the music industry- drove a wedge between us. I became more distant, whereas this new circle of “racing buddies”, skilled at preying on one’s ego, took me to places- always at my expense, of course- that would have made the Wolf Of Wall Street go into immediate hibernation and stay there. Of course, no one can go to places where they do not wish to go, and, as Sinatra sang, Regrets, I have a few. We’re all different, and no one thing ever determines the roads we take to obscure destinations in those crooked windmills of one’s mind. But, it would be fair to say that those early “racing years” flirtations helped detonate a marriage already on the Bridge Over The River Kwai.
The problem with horse racing, and why it remains isolated from other mainstream sports, might have to do with its portrayal all those years ago in gangster films as a meeting place for mobsters and life’s great losers who couldn’t fall any lower while “playing the ponies”. Even ‘feel good’ racing movies like “The Sting” or “Let It Ride” needed to show the dark side of the sport. Same goes for the jinxed HBO miniseries “Luck.” The image of horse racing just can’t seem to get a break.
These days, the ongoing airing of dirty laundry in Australian racing circles has, unfortunately, not managed to keep that genie under control and ensure that what happens in Oz stays in Oz.
Bad news travels fast, and bad news is bad for any sport. It’s especially bad for the perception of horse racing where there’s always been an unhealthy need by its own media to keep those bad news bears running for as long as possible with today’s often creepy use of social media making every bottom feeder a self-proclaimed expert on conjecture and innuendo. It’s ugly and does nothing for the sport. It drags it down to even murkier levels and only helps in resurrecting the cons and con men associated with its inglorious past.
Away from the hard rain falling on the sport in Australia, there’s the belief held by many that if one loves animals, they couldn’t possibly enjoy or support horse racing with its whips and “cruelty” of horses being “forced to race” for the thrill of a handful of people. If these animal welfare lobbyists had their way, horse racing would be banned and racing fans publicly caned and shamed.
There’s also a flip side to the coin where horse racing is still seen as “The Sport of Kings” with its sheikhs, royalty and the rich and famous, and many wishing to be invited into this elitist domain. It’s not unlike wishing to Keep Up With The Kardashians and all the other Joneses that this messed up world throws up and hurls at us with increasing regularity. But when this warped form of “aspiration” happens in horse racing, it’s seen as skipping the plastic fantastic, and the groupie syndrome, accepted in other sports with its assortment of WAGS, meaning going down the wrong path and into unhappily ever after territory.
Horse racing desperately needs a media savvy white knight to come and rescue it from its past, erase the negative perceptions and help accentuate the positive. Pollyanna thinking? Perhaps, but Pollyanna has her time and place.
For the past few years, I have been asking my friend Simon Fuller, who’s gone from managing the Spice Girls and SClub7 to guiding the careers of David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray what keeps him from entering the horse racing industry. His polite answer is always the same: He can’t see where he might fit into a sport that, to him, is divided into those who love to watch horses race against each other and those who wish to gamble on it. It’s his way of saying, “No thanks, I don’t get it, and it’s too gambling driven.”
Yes, but is this any different to every other sport? Why is horse racing always singled out to be weighed down by this albatross known as gambling and reduced to playing in its own Jack Horner?
Here in Hong Kong, the HKJC has successfully managed to lead horse racing out of the darkness and deliver it into a new era of lights, colour and action. And fun. And music.
It’s managed to actually instil a sense of- dare I say it- pride and ownership- amongst racegoers in even the enormous turnover figures trotted out to the world after every race meeting while, thanks to its Happy Wednesday brand, its variety of venues, a United Nations of Racing roster of riding talent, and an almost overnight team of equine heroes- Able Friend, Aerovelocity, Thewizardofoz, Blazing Speed, dirt freak Gun Pit etc- and a carefully chosen portfolio of business partners and sponsors, been able to attract many from that much-discussed new and next generation of racing fans.
Whereas many racing clubs chatter incessantly about increasing its customer base, the HKJC has turned talk into tangible results in a holistic manner.
This has nothing to do with “Asians” and “their penchant for gambling.” That’s just the often-angry, frustrated and racist rants of the less-traveled buried underneath the Tall Poppy Syndrome. It’s also the laziness of looking from afar and needing excuses for Hong Kong racing’s long run of success.
Being an Asian- and proud of it- where the HKJC has succeeded is in making everyone feel welcome- removing barriers and creating one giant United Colours of Benetton poster. Hell, even my ex-wife might find some redeeming qualities in the sport if she were to venture out to the racecourses in Happy Valley and Shatin and take in what is pure entertainment, twice a week, in a city not short of other leisure activities.
As with any business anywhere in the world, there will always be those wolves baying outside the door and tempting Little Red Riding Hood on her walk to Grandma’s house. Turning a blind eye to these Shylocks is character-building stuff, and it’s those who have turned their backs on “easy money”- it never is- who have become stayers in Hong Kong and great ambassadors for the sport, globally.
Maybe that savvy shining knight needed to change the perception of horse racing is actually the monopoly that is the HKJC, a racing club unshackled by politics and ongoing wars of attrition for control. And with its Charities Trust, it is much more than a racing club. It’s part and parcel of the community with a support system comprising Members from every powerful industry with a vested interest in seeing the Club succeed.
To that small Hong Kong choir in horse racing with an Oliver Twisted complex always wanting more, look around and see what’s happening to the sport elsewhere, where Neros fiddle while their Romes burn, and thank your lucky stars you’re here. It might not be perfect, but who, what and where is this perfection?
Speak, however, to the sport’s leading players- jockeys and trainers- with their champagne supernova lifestyles including chauffeurs, domestic helpers and Hong Kong’s five-star 15% taxation benefits, and they wouldn’t trade it for the world. Why should they?
Racing in Hong Kong has made them healthy, wealthy and wise, which is better than making them Larry, Moe and Curly Joe. It’s made them grow up and be businessmen and entrepreneurs. Their success stories travel, and which is why there’s always a waiting list from around the world to work here when the tiniest opportunity arises.
For myself, looking back, it’s been a long day’s journey of mistakes and discovery to where, thanks to how horse racing is managed and policed in Hong Kong, I now see the sport very differently, and no longer drawn to its dark side populated by vapid glibsters. It’s actually taught me some invaluable life lessons about real friendships, and where there’s no longer the need to sing, Should I Stay Or Should I Go. I intuitively now know when to walk away from strangers bearing gifts and wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Someone recently asked if the success of horse racing in Hong Kong can be bottled and exported. It cannot because what we have here is inherently Hong Kong, and a business model not beholden to anyone other than the government. Then again, what’s always been said is that it’s the HKJC that runs Hong Kong.
While admiring the success of the HKJC, there are those who also murmur that the Club succeeds “despite itself”. Maybe they’re right, or partly correct. From the outside looking in, where the HKJC has succeeded, almost through osmosis, is to win over the local community.
It’s the ongoing support of the public that really is the heartbeat of the Club. It’s what keeps the sport ticking over. When one sees the frustration and disappointment of racing fans overseas at “their” racing clubs where they have no Voice except on social media, it just makes so many of us here damn proud to be cheerleaders, have some small form of “ownership” of that building at 1 Sports Road- and to do our part to ensure that everything it does succeeds. If it can make a convert and disciple of a cynical “music guy”, the HKJC must be doing something right. Let the music play on…
Chairman and CEO
We-Enhance Inc, Fast Track Global Ltd