By Hans Ebert
The problem with hardcore racing purists is that they want everyone else to think like them. It doesn’t work that way. What also doesn’t work are racing club executives talking about “customer engagement”, while, truth be told, they don’t actually know where to start this process. More, not too many can lead. They move in packs paying corporate lip service.
We hear it every day, and this “leadership” is really only all about “Looking Out For Número Uno”. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s not be irritating sanctimonious dweebs in the process.
When you really think about it, horse racing is an insignificant industry in the grand scheme of things. Most of those who work in it full-time have not worked in any other industry, and usually go into massive overdrive to camouflage their one-dimensional shortcomings from those who see right through them. In spite of how transparent their flaws are, these people have managed to sucker punch those other ineffective dweebs- the Human Resources managers at racing clubs – human resources being one of the most irrelevant jobs in any organisation- and now work for obscenely overpaid packages to self-serving agendas knowing they’re traveling first class on the gravy train and only need to do some regular shoe shining to keep the good times rolling in. It’s sycophantic stuff, but this is not exclusive to horse racing. It exists in every industry and no doubt why almost every industry today is struggling to survive: those running it are not good enough.
Should we expect the bulk of these people to be game changers in a sport that desperately needs a damn thorough house cleaning? Of course not. Most couldn’t find the broom closet let alone the broom. And if they finally find the broom, they don’t have a handle on it.
Over the past few months, horse racing in Australia has been rocked and rolled over the cliff by one scandal- and that’s too polite a word- after another. Just when one thinks it cannot possibly get worse, it defies the odds and does exactly that. As Bob Dylan sang, nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong, and right now you wouldn’t know the white hats from those who’ve probably always been on the dark side. It’s just one massive chasm of grey with no knight in shining armour from within or without about to rescue it. The wheel is not only broken, it’s fallen off, but it’s business as usual. Every day, this business and the business of marketing this sport becomes less and less attractive and more and more disheartening.
When Richard Callander, one of those supposed “racing personalities”, recently described kickbacks in the buying and selling of horses as “racing’s dirty little secret”, he single-handedly did a greater disservice to a sport already struggling for survival than most likely any other person. As a member of the Australian racing industry, it was an act of treason- an ignoble act by someone cornered and going through severe brain freeze. That one line will be what Callander will be remembered for. If it isn’t already, it will be his epitaph. Who wants to be associated with anything or anyone that has “dirty little secrets”?
The big problem is that what happens in Australia doesn’t stay in Australia. In this day and age of social media and various delivery platforms, news and quotes like those from Richard Callander not only travel far and wide. Everything is discussed and dissected until no one knows truth from fiction. And how many really want to? What’s in it for any of us on the outside looking in to fight the good fight? For what? What’s the point? Because you actually still believe in a word like Integrity where there is none?
Racing clubs and their inner workings are being exposed everyday as flawed business models- houses of cards, still with glass ceilings being manipulated and also mangled through incompetence. They continue as examples of The Peter Principle with everyone expected to be docile order-takers- even those with absolutely no need to report to anyone. Racing clubs trying to enforce rules regarding members’ use of social media? How long will this last? As mentioned, whether one likes it or not, that man-eating plant from the Little Shop of Horrors is multiplying and it cannot be reined in. The genie is out of the bottle.
Again, news travels fast and a few bad apples can not only fell an entire tree, they can bring down an entire industry. If racing clubs cannot see a Them Versus Us scenario being drawn in the sand, it’s time to remove the blinkers, winkers, sheepskin nose bands and the saddle.
Racing fans pay the upkeep. They are owners and they are in very many ways, the employers as they are the customers. And if customers are unhappy with a Basil Fawlty product, this must be fixed toute de suite.
Horse racing has some very good people. This great sport is not a meeting place for cheats on the one side of the fence, and elitists on the other. There’s that very important middle ground comprising passionate racing people constantly trying to improve the sport, make it less insular, make it more likeable, make it less, well, boring, and not always about that horrible four letter word, the PUNT.
Of course, turnover is the business side of horse racing and the livelihood of every racing club, but has the modus operandi of marketing this changed, and, if so, how and where? Shouldn’t the marketing change? As Adele might say, Hello. it’s 2016, and how is that customer base going to expand by peddling the same old same old to the same old same old who are not Dorian Grey? Hello.
Forget the glib corporate speak and those well known junkets to places like Mumbai and Qatar or Meydan and that lead nowhere except for some tweets and a blog. The horse racing industry needs to face some home truths. The main one is that it cannot control everything. Control is very much in the hands of the customers. And it will be the customers, who, without being Django chained to bureaucratic red tape and navel gazing, that will eventually get horse racing back on track- those customers still passionate about the sport from a long term point of view and not here for short term returns. It’s them who will help turn this ship around.
YouTube and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and everything else have changed the world forever, but most horse racing clubs have been extremely slow out of the blocks to understand today’s very creative DIY world and how they can only benefit from this.
Trust your customer. Work with them. If racing did this, maybe one or more DIYers will do for racing what all the white hat hackers and self-styled MacGyvers have done for the modern world: change it for the better. It’s 2016. And, it’s an open source world: everyone is adding and editing and changing everything they see, customizing their lives and their entertainment. Horse racing needs to join in.
If not, the odds are that the DIYers and others will work against horse racing and have that court of public appeal on their side. Allow them in as your street marketing team. They will not only surprise you, they will create a new and more positive way of looking at horse racing at a time when the sport needs it if it is to not just survive, but look healthy, attractive and vibrant. And likeable.
Remember that old saying about being so close to something that one cannot see the forest for the trees. This is what’s ailing the racing industry- the inability to see the problems staring it in the face- and with those who are supposed to fix this problem too self-centred or one dimensional to know where to start.
Racing clubs are guilty of gouging their membership with expensive food and drink. They are tweaking “rewards programs” in a downwards/fewer benefits spiral.
The one thing I learnt over 30 years of managing large groups of people with all sorts of personalities, ages, experience and skill sets is that you listen to every single one of them, even the most negative. They might not have the positive ideas that you are looking for but they could have that one brilliant idea that just saves your business, company or organisation. This is what the racing clubs should do. Get on board and across every platform of social media, ask for ideas, dont be afraid to take peoples comments on board be they good or bad. Yes, there will be a lot of crap but I can bet that there will be one or two gems that come forward.
That’s the problem at the moment and as you write about. Too many of these are just managers and not leaders. Managers are there just to keep the business or organisation afloat. Leaders are the ones that take it forward and make it and the people succeed. Managers worry about their own legacy and self interests, leaders will worry about where the organisation is headed. Managers maintain the status quo, leaders kick it along to match the client’s demands.
Until strong leaders come on board to make the managers get off their arses then nothing happens. If boards or members recognise a good leader then they need to get behind them. Yes, there will be some hurt but in the long run, they will succeed if they can overcome the managers. Organisations need managers to also keep the leaders in check but not as many as Racing has now.
I compare racing today in line with our current political farce. We have no leaders running the country. Turnbull, Shorten, Rudd, Gillard over recent times were all in the game for self interest so theyy were just managing the country. It is/was going nowhere. Our last great political LEADERS were probably Hawke, Keating, Howard and even Abbott (don’t laugh) but they had vision, ideas, they weren’t afraid to make decisions with the big picture in mind.
How do we resolve this impasse in politics and racing? IMO we just need to keep making noise. The people within have to keep on fighting and when a riduculous decision like the 6 months to Prior and Callander is handed down then people have to write to authorities and voice their displeasure. A few grumbles might not achieve much but it is all we have to make that start. It is surprising but blogs such as Racing Bitch, Punters forums can start off the revolution but it must be relentless then the managers back away and the great leaders step in. It is a simplistic idea but its all I have.