By Hans Ebert
It’s been part of Hong Kong since what were humble beginnings starting with the annual Invitational Races between Singapore and Hong Kong and when the Lion City’s Colonial Chief, trained by the legend that was Ivan Allan and ridden by Tony Cruz was the star of the show. This was in 1989.
But this had to evolve into something bigger and better. It did when then-Chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the late Alan Li, gave an idea by Executive Director of Racing Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges “a little nudge” and the green light. The idea was to make racing in Hong Kong more international- and also convince many local owners to be part of this movement towards quality and not quantity when it came to the purchase of equine talent. It created a domino effect. It also created one of the very few Made In Hong Kong products and what is known today as the Longines-sponsored Hong Kong International Races (HKIR)
Li, a passionate horse racing man and “Chinoise Francophile”, who understood the wants and needs of the well-travelled racing community and possessed one of the best roller decks containing a Who’s Who of the sport in France, and Engelbrecht-Bresges, now CEO of the HKJC, wanted to see racing in this city become the centre- the magnet- that brings the world of racing together. It was about moving the chess pieces from being invitational races where the foreign raiders came, plundered and left to the introduction of international races with bigger prize money, better quality horsepower purchased by local owners and which created a much more level playing field that, simply put, raised the standard of racing in Hong Kong.
That was the long term plan- the Big Picture- but baby steps are always needed when whether looking at moving towards that Stairway To Heaven, or, in racing parlance and marketing theme lines, staging The Greatest Show On Turf, Where Champions Meet, The World Turf Championships, or whatever is the advertising glue that binds together this event in December. Wait: Is “event” even the right word? Is the word big enough? Is it worthy enough for what has evolved and been enhanced to become a real sense of occasion?
In every racing jurisdiction, there are major “events”- Le Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, the Melbourne Cup- and what a great spectacle it was this year- the Cox Plate, the Caulfield Cup, Royal Ascot, the Japan Cup, the Dubai World Cup, the Breeders Cup, and the Championships in Sydney. But are all these international events open to everyone, or are these horse racing tea parties staged for a privileged few?
Or are they one-off annual events where everyone is welcome, the party ends, the guests leave until next year, and one is left holding that left shoe and wondering, Now what?
The Longines Hong Kong International Races are today as international as the city itself- a week comprising two world class race meetings, the Hong Kong International Jockeys’ Championship on Wednesday at Happy Valley Racecourse, and the other being the truly global showpiece on the Sunday at Shatin.
Horse racing is still “The Sport Of Kings” that these days include sheikhs, the nouveau riche in Mainland China who wish to pay to be part of it all, and where old money must allow in new money and try to live together in perfect harmony like a Benetton poster or that old Coca-Cola television commercial.
Where the HKIR breaks with “tradition” and any whiff of elitism is that it charts its own course and where everyone is welcome. Like the city that hosts it, Longines HKIR week is able to be all things to all people- and have it all come together seamlessly.
From a business point of view, it’s about appealing to different “customer segments”, and knowing how, where and when to reach everyone by taking a horses for courses strategy. It also means constantly ensuring that bigger and better marquee value names will be the main attractions and which will showcase great racing. It’s not an easy job each year to try and outdo what’s come before, yet, somehow it happens. Guess like that Nike slogan, it’s Hong Kong’s Can Do spirit.
Hong Kong is a remarkably resilient, diverse, bilingual, and now even a trilingual city with much to offer. During HKIR week, it is host and guide- a knowledgeable and multi-dimensional host. Horse racing will, of course, always occupy centre stage, but the actual mood and excitement- and this is key- creating the ANTICIPATION of what to expect for the thousands attending, or thinking of attending HKIR week by highlighting everything else happening around them- the restaurants, the shopping, the nightlife, singing “Strangers In The Night”, discovering the new Hong Kong, and seeing how this once barren rock has become what it is today, is an important part of the mix.
How all this is captured and communicated by the media- the racing and mainstream media along with that very immediate and unpredictable delivery platform known as social media, which is all about interactivity and constantly feeding “it” with everything needed to enhance the experience, is key in setting the stage. It’s key in creating that ANTICIPATION mentioned earlier.
Social media, despite all the talk about algorithms and #hashtags is not an exacting Google science. That’s what like Google would like a gullible and easily led world to believe. Like horse racing itself, social media is unpredictable with a mind and interpretation of its own. “Build it”, but there are no guarantees that they will come to someone else’s field of dreams. Feed it constantly with great visuals and make it fun with interactivity along with today’s equivalent of “Be There Or Be Square” and some might bite. Or many. Their interest might be piqued- all those different “customer groups” aka people like you and me. Please don’t call us “punters”.
There will always, always, always be that captive market- the racing pundits, the hardcore, softcore racing fans and, more and more, that customer base whose interest has been shaken and stirred by what they have seen and heard, but who wouldn’t know Rapper Dragon from the Wu Tang Clan and Douglas Whyte from Vanilla Ice.
This is that other world some in racing simply don’t understand and probably never will- a constantly evolving market that includes tourists being recommended to take in a Happy Wednesday by the hotel concierge, those on the periphery always “sampling” what racing might have to offer them, sponsors and other businesses wishing to be part of Hong Kong’s favourite pastime, and even the new Hong Kong fighting for their rights with more angst than the Beastie Boys. It’s about working with partners like the local hotel industry, which is part of the tourist industry and all the telcos who can reach millions with an HKIR SMS strategy. It’s about utilising their databases to increase reach and awareness. It’s about the Hong Kong Tourism Association coming to the HKIR party and being part of this week of a world class Made In Hong Kong product with the city and all it offers being the backdrop to it all. It’s about, yes, thinking global and acting local.
Horse racing is not one dimensional in Hong Kong. The HKJC is Hong Kong’s biggest tax payer, and one just needs to look at what its Charities Trust gives back to its home to understand this. Many even in Hong Kong needed to be constantly reminded. People have short memories. There are too many who still remain in the dark as to how this HKJC USP known as the Charities Trust works- and what it contributes to the people of Hong Kong. The success of HKIR week adds to this contribution. It adds to the international image of the city. Perhaps HKIR week needs its own unique contribution to the city- and have this known to the community through all media, but especially the mainstream Chinese media. Nothing in life can be left to chance.
Speak to any of the jockeys and trainers and they’ll be happy to talk about what Hong Kong offers- the country walks, the restaurants, everything going on at the Convention Centre, the HKJC-funded Academy for the Performing Arts and so much more.
As we keep saying, the HKJC is more than a horse racing club. And Longines HKIR week is more than a one-off racing event. It’s not a sprint. It’s about having the staying power to go the distance.
The horse racing product is like any other sports product, and which is much like any other consumer product and needs to be approached and marketed this way. It needs to be made more than it is. Constantly. Where many racing clubs and their executives go wrong is to believe that a “racing product” is something niche. That it’s only about appealing to that ageing hardcore market. This thinking stunts the sport from growing and being so much more. Not so the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The racing product has become entertaining and approachable. It’s consumer friendly.
Knowing that there will always be those racing fans who are hardcore to the bone, and providing everything they need to win, the Club is not oblivious to the wants and needs of today’s consumers who are spoilt for choice and influenced by constantly changing trends. A balance has been struck. No balance and there’s imbalance, Grasshopper. One way traffic leads nowhere.
While many can appreciate a champion horse like Maurice and the great horsemanship of a Ryan Moore or a Joao Moreira, and understand all the on-course action, what’s also been taken into consideration by those with an eye towards the future and new and future racing fans is the convenience factor, the importance in creating the right venues with the right atmosphere- and content- for the very different customers horse racing already attracts, and what’s needed to make this audience grow- a steady and easy to follow stream of information that never becomes information overload. And in this DIY world, there’s only one person who will decide what works best for them: the customer.
Visit the HKJC’s venue Adrenaline, watch the racing fans, see how they use their time to make their decisions in-between the races, and there’s much that can be learnt about appealing and marketing, not only to millennials, but to those who are simply changing with the times and want the sport to change with them. It’s about having fun, sure, but also having all the opportunities to receive a return on one’s time and investment. No one likes to spend hours on something to lose easily. They want to let it ride. And be given every opportunity to collect.
For all those who study stats and handicaps and track work etc, that’s all there on the official HKJC website and various apps. For those new to the sport, whether prince or pauper, it’s about heightening their experience and interest in horse racing in order to play a greater role in the sport whether as horse owners, forming a racing syndicate or understanding the plus sides to a ledger by showing them in 140 words or less how to win any of the exotic bet types available- especially, the Six Up and Triple Trio. In other words, Keep It Simple, Stupid.
All of the above can be seen answered in very different ways at Happy Valley Racecourse on December 7 during Longines Hong Kong International Jockeys’ Championship and, of course, Longines Hong Kong International Races on Sunday, December 11 at Shatin.
The Wednesday night race meeting is more casual and where Hong Kong’s largest open-air carnival of food, drink, music and horse racing that can be enjoyed up close and personal brings together an international melting pot at a racecourse situated in the most unique of settings.
Over the years during HKIR week, many have discussed what is their favourite track. But that’s like discussing apples and oranges. After the last race has been run at Shatin, the discussions about which race was the best, who were the heroes and villains mixed with the hard luck and Feel Good stories will continue into the night and the next day. It’s a book waiting to be written and a movie waiting to be made. And every December, Alan Li must be looking down and smiling. From small beginnings come great things. But before anything else, there must be The Idea.