By Hans Ebert & Jenny Bridle
“Of course, we’re not going to see this during our lifetime”. This is a much-used sentence these days about every aspect of life- and horse racing. Instead of retracing The Life Of Brian and Mr Creosote’s Meaning Of Life, let’s stick to horse racing, a sport, and an industry that’s not mainstream, and, therefore, not large, and try and understand what “we’re not going to see in our lifetime”. Personally, I don’t have time for that.
If there’s going to be the day when horse racing will see flying horses piloted by kamikaze pilots, or the world returns to chariot racing and revives the spirit of Ben Hur- or Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd- that’s fine. I won’t be around. But while still here, and coming from two completely different industries- advertising and music- horse racing, very much at the crossroads as an industry, appears to be in dire need of leadership- not a dictatorship, but a genuine racing body to guarantee that everyone adheres to the same rules or else gets red carded, and works towards making the sport bigger, better, and far more well-accepted.
Pollyanna and pie-in-the-sky thinking, perhaps. And, sure there are various meetings and conferences for racing’s leaders that have been going on for dogs years like the sad anagram for the Asian Racing Federation that is ARF- almost as goofy as FATR for America’s Fashions At The Races- but where do any of these REALLY lead to other than #junkets, some pleasantries about how “constructive” and “enlightening” it all was because of the “healthy exchange of ideas” and ending with “action points” or “Next Steps.” ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky and stifle a yawn. At the end of the day, it’s every dog for themselves, and every racing club for itself, and damn what the others are doing.
From a bottom line point of view, and looking internally, sure, it’s all about I Me Mine, and my interests come first. But, at a time when horse racing is as yet to make a dent on the mainstream consciousness, and is weighed down by the “gambling” albatross that closes more doors than opens new ones, and with it, business partners who can offer the sport the commercial appeal it lacks, the time is now for a coming together of one Team Racing- more on this later- that breathes new life into a sport that doesn’t appear to have too many more miles left on the dashboard.
American Pharaoh, brilliant as the horse was, didn’t save horse racing, and the recent snub by Sports Illustrated when the publication’s voting system did a backflip and changed the rules, shows how the sport- and its followers- are “not worthy”.
Yes, American Pharaoh is a horse, and so can’t be SI’s Sportsperson Of The Year, but why was he eligible in the first place? And if “only being a horse” was the stumbling block, let’s not forget the human face associated with American Pharaoh in regular jockey Victor Espinoza. If it had wanted to, Sports Illustrated could have found an answer to their belated question.
Without belabouring the point, for reasons known only to them, the editorial board of Sports Illustrated changed the rules, and Serena Williams- an extremely worthy winner- was named Sportsperson Of The Year. But the fact that American Pharaoh had more votes, and was eligible for this title- until he won- shows that horse racing doesn’t seem to count, and remains the Rodney Dangerfield of sports.
Frankly, does the mainstream media even consider horse racing to be a sport? And if not, have those managing the sport from Day One, miscalculated its branding and marketed horse racing into a corner where it’s pigeon-holed and has had its wings clipped?
How many in horse racing know that there are several music companies that will not work with racing clubs? Why? Some of their artists would not approve because they’re animal activists and horse racing is one of their targets. Why do many multi-national ad agencies not take on racing clubs as clients? Some of their blue chip accounts are anti-gambling- and horse racing is all about gambling. The social aspects of the sport don’t come into play. This is also true of one of the world’s largest advertising networks, Google, which regulates but tolerates a great deal of casino and lottery gambling advertising on its AdWords platform but has very restrictive — if not prohibitive — rules about promoting horse racing betting. If racing clubs think this doesn’t matter, they have no idea. How many terrestrial television stations will broadcast horse racing? Not many. It will drive away their core audience and long-time advertisers.
So, how does the sport win over these industries, and with it, business partners with a huge slice of the consumer pie, and able to offer racing clubs new business streams? Working with global partners with their own databases that could be tapped into might even offer those racing executives happy to be plodding down that one dimensional hard core world of betting, that there’s life and business opportunities after the winning post. In fact, the sport might just get a leg up in the process and enter a brave new world. This leads back to Team Racing.
There are a handful of extremely smart racing executives. They know everything about the sport- inside and out- and are curious enough to understand and appreciate other industries, customer demographics, and the importance of partnerships.
Racing cannot continue to only be relegated onto racing pages. This is very much needed for that captive market set in their ways about how and when and where they want their information, and how they’ll use all this. But, every business needs to grow- globally- and be seen as one global brand. Horse racing is not a global brand- never has been- and can’t afford to coast along anymore while long time passengers continue to drop off what might have once been a gravy train.
Long-term plans are fine, but the right partnerships can fast-track new opportunities. And no matter how incongruous it might sound, Team Racing must be a global partnership between that handful of racing visionaries, and those outside of the sport. It must, it must, it must. If not, it’s a futile game of navel gazing and Ring Around The Rosies, where we all fall down. Subjectivity must be tempered with great objectivity.
And if the racing side of the team is looking for what can be marketed to those visionary executives outside the sport, they need look no further than the HKJC’s Charities Trust and the Club’s enviable record of integrity. Many may not know that Hong Kong horse racing is a non-profit exercise for the Jockey Club, which funnels profit to the community through the Charities Trust. While there are some who may have moral qualms about gambling, it is difficult to maintain the argument when the Club is the largest community contributor in all of Hong Kong. This arrangement is similar to that of lottery gambling in Canada. In Ontario, for example, where — with the exception of pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing, which is governed federally — gambling is illegal, lottery gambling is strictly controlled through licensing by the provincial government through Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG). Moneys earned by OLG through gaming flow back, both directly and indirectly, to the people of Ontario. Although there are some who descry gambling as a morally bereft activity that the government should not be participating in, most tolerate it because the financial returns to the community at large are so significant. The point to discussing this example is that Hong Kong has a similar opportunity — a way to market horse racing as “acceptable” because it is not some profit-driven activity for elitists (which is its current persona to those outside the sport).
On the second point, integrity, Hong Kong holds the ultimate hand because it has such a superb record in this regard. In fact, if you were to ask most people from any other racing jurisdiction around the world, “What is the most enviable aspect about the HKJC?” they will say the brand is the epitome of integrity. In the US and Australia, the actual and perceived lack of integrity, are huge issues, which, at times, make it look as if the sport will never survive. Recently, in North America, the situation has become so dire that some are calling the integrity issue a “Do or Die” moment for the sport and its future. And some have said that integrity is the very way the sport should be marketed. If, as we are constantly told by organizations such as the US Jockey Club and others, that the sport is all about the horse, then the care and treatment of the animals who make the sport possible are central to making it likeable both from a humane and an integrity point of view. The HKJC can take a lot away from this.
For one, Hong Kong can certainly use the integrity brand to its advantage, if not to the advantage of racing around the world. After all, if one racing jurisdiction can show the others, can lead the way, and prove that the sport can grow new fans through marketing its best parts — how it gives back to the community at large while protecting the majestic animals who make it all possible — then surely others will follow.
Both of these aspects of horse racing in Hong Kong could make racing more palatable to those outside the sport who believe it is merely a betting game involving rich people and/or degenerate gamblers who have a high tolerance for animal abuse. And, the only way to persuade those who believe these myths is to educate them to the contrary. The education required cannot be done by racing insiders. That that has been tried in many a racing jurisdiction, and, let’s be honest, the results have been less than stellar.
Most racing executives, apart from being poor ambassadors for the sport, are arrogant, superficial and witless communicators not to mention poor presenters. It’s extremely difficult to imagine them engaging in a freewheeling conversation with the likes of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple along with Simon Fuller whose X1X Management guides the careers of Brand Beckham- David and Victoria and their brood- Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton plus owns the Rights to the American Idol juggernaut, Susan Wojcicke, CEO of YouTube and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google Inc. Only HKJC Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges can hold his own in this company.
For horse racing to stop looking like a train wreck, and to grow its customer base and reach the mainstream media, it needs to aim this high, and interface and form partnerships with people of this calibre and this amount of clout. It needs to have the persuasive powers to bring them to the table, and then present horse racing as not being something seen in Jimmy Cagney and Edward G Robinson movies, and explain why a partnership will work, and horse racing will start to find its feet.
Start with Hong Kong and every other racing jurisdiction will benefit from the ripple effect. Bet on it.