By Hans Ebert
There’s a new movie out called “Urban Myths” which flips things on its head- “true-ish” stories based on urban legends about a road trip featuring Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor with Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan in search of “Dave”, actor Cary Grant’s rumoured experimentations with LSD, Adolph Hitler and his “friend”, Samuel Becket etc.
Right here and now, everything in the world is being flipped on its head. Why? Because we’re living in unpredictable times, and leading many into the abyss of nowhere land is a confused global news media that’s more showbiz (and snow biz) than about factual news reportage. There’s The Silent Scream of, Stop the world, I wanna get off, and start all over again.
Couple this with the often whacked out world of social media, and what you have is a bizarre cacophony of sound bites that are equal parts fear, manipulation, distortion, negativity, deceit, and lost souls thinking they have a voice. What many don’t understand is voices that cannot be heard or ignored are like Buster Keaton trying to make it as a standup comic.
In the midst of all this “everything and nothing” is horse racing. Every racing jurisdiction is different, because the histories and cultures of each are different. So are the politics, especially rampant for the last couple of years, in one particular racing jurisdiction in the land down under, where, too often, we have seen battle lines being drawn, and everybody being wrong because nobody’s right. Its familiar plots being regurgitated by the usual keyboard warriors with opportunistic racing journalists fanning the fires while racing executives allow the same old story to go on and on and on, does nothing to help the situation.
How many different ways can the same old story be told? This is good for the image of the sport? Really? It doesn’t reflect badly on the legacy of The Old Boys Club in charge seemingly sitting back and singing, Silence Is Golden? It doesn’t say everything about very poor leadership skills? It doesn’t bring back memories of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”?
Whatever business and Integrity model that was once in place has been allowed to be ripped apart by those refusing to bring about closure. Seemingly, no one cares enough to step in with a lethal dose of truth serum and call it for what it is: Racing’s own shameless version “1984” orchestrated by its very own Dr Strangeloves. We have a problem, Dimitri, but we don’t wish to solve it. Let the horse opera continue, Dimitri.
Here’s the deal: Everyone has their little secrets. The truth is never black or white, especially when there’s an aversion to full disclosure. Does this case make one think how stress causes anxiety which leads to depression, which could lead to agoraphobia, which leads to counselling and self-medication until one becomes a prisoner at home? Of course it does. As a jockey suffering from depression once explained, “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Only a runaway train heading your way.” Depression is something that has affected more in horse racing than many think. It needs to be discussed. And it will. This is where there’s the bigger story.
What’s unforgiving is that all this that’s going on seems to be great viewing for racing’s Chauncey Gardiner, who “likes to watch” from the sidelines. And whenever he talks, he does so in riddles. “The leaves will fall in autumn”. “You’re a genius, Chauncey! Tell us more!” Ignorance and arrogance is bliss.
Why has the saga mentioned above with, by now, a cast of characters longer than the players in the bible, been allowed to meander along since 2010 when there surely could have been closure? Instead, it reads like a longer version of Ben Hur, but without the excitement of the chariot race.
From the outside looking in, who would want to have anything to do with anyone from this cast of thousands with its plots and sub-plots? Please, somebody, make it all go away! Let sanity prevail. Happy New Year! Time’s up! Let’s lighten up!
Where they and it and them and theirs can all come together as one global industry is by ridding the sport once and for all of the vapid blah blahs, and focus on making the sport fun again. Remember fun? It’s infectious. It doesn’t make people sigh and press the Mute button. Fun has no language barriers. Fun is in short supply in today’s flip flapping Angry Birds world.
Often, one gets the feeling that fun has decided to take its ball and go home, and been replaced, as Dylan once sang, probably when looking for “Dave” on Positively Fourth Street, by all those jugglers and clowns who did tricks for “yoooouuuu” along with racing’s own prophets of doom, masters of war, and way too many with a warped sense of self-importance. In layman’s terms, this is known as bullshit. And if even the slightest bit streetwise, it’s very easy to spot those who ooze it.
Despite all the nattering about “engagement”, and being “customercentric”, for example, this is nothing more than Corporate Waffle. All these free-falling Tom Petty words are too often coming from those incapable of inspiring and motivating racing fans, which means losing their support- the support of those who are, in many ways, their employers. Yet, many to blame for this polarisation between Them and Us are industry “leaders” who constantly trip over themselves when pretending to lead and create chaos in the process. They’re an army of Basil Fawltys. And yet, over and over again, these buffoons are given a free pass to fail. Why?
Are these Basil Fawltys with their bumbling Manuels the only ones out there available for jobs in the sport? Are these hires not scraping the bottom of the barrel? Are they the only ones interested in listening to basso voices on Victoria’s dead people’s racing radio station where its depressing radio commercials for great send-offs for dear “Liz”, and savvy divorce lawyers has one gulping down handfuls of Valium?
Can’t the sport attract visionaries who are leaders with a positive outlook on life and in touch with this century? At last count, there was one. In Hong Kong. Having met quite a few racing executives and their “mates with mail” from the land down under, they are graduates from The Peter Principle School Of Incompetence with the people skills of King Kong. Sorry, Kong.
It’s no doubt why, over the years, the sport has laid out the Welcome mat for shysters/outsiders with the gift of the gab to peddle half-arsed “dreams” that have never become reality- thoroughbred racing in China, thoroughbred racing in Cebu, thoroughbred racing in Sri Lanka, where, when approached around eight years ago about this, those making the pitch had given no thought about a Quarantine area, or from where the horses were to be imported, nor the fundamentals needed to have a bet, nor where the funding was going to come from, and with the only thing available in exchange for investing to build- from scratch- a world class racing club being pretty much a paddy field for a racecourse.
Coming from a Dutch Burgher family that had interest in what once was the Royal Turf Club in Nuwara Elya when Sri Lanka was Ceylon, and under colonial rule, there is a fascinating back story to the first country in Asia to hold regular weekly race meetings.
Those were the days when Australian journeyman jockey Ted Fordyce aka The Railway Man, below, ruled racing in Ceylon and India with his career told to me in great detail over lunch many years ago in Macau by the late maestro and brilliant raconteur George Moore.
How the island allowed the popularity of its horse racing product to keel over is another example of why Sri Lanka still cannot even get a kite off the ground. The country is broken and broke. At least it has a good cricket team. And the food is sensational.
Recently came news that racing in Nuwara Elya has made a comeback with Wayne Wood named as the Turf Club’s CEO. The press about it from Sri Lanka reads well. Press releases from Sri Lanka about anything and anyone in Sri Lanka reads well. Whoever he is, Wayne Wood has ambitious plans.
One would like to give Wayne Wood and those behind him the benefit of the doubt, but can one believe everything they read these days? Is horse racing in the former island paradise really on the front foot of progress, or does it has even more holes in it than former Mumbai-based billionaire and horse owner Vijay Mallya’s promise to bring Group 1 racing to India? This was before his high flying lifestyle and Kingfisher empire crumbled, and the dish ran away to the UK with all the pukka silverware, Gungha Din.
Of course, horse racing and its cast of “colourful characters” will continue to pop up like zits wherever there’s some land, especially in a Third World country, in the hope that this could be sold as “a racecourse”. And there will always be those who will believe and buy into these dreams and schemes, which often end in tears. Is any of this good for the image of horse racing? You decide.
Let’s get back, however, to creating a fun customer on-course experience, and let the sharks and piranhas splash about on their own while concocting castles in the air with the Mad Hatter and The Joker.
Forget “the punt” being this fun experience. Few get rich on “the punt”, whereas those who are only capable of repeatedly flogging “the punt” mantra can quickly become tiresome to many in racing and, as has been written here many times before, those novices to the sport, who wouldn’t know a quesadilla from a quinella, but wish to learn, and wonder if there is a place or role for them. These are the people often asking themselves, Where’s horse racing’s fun police? Think about it. But don’t overthink it.
Those given the reins to lead horse racing seem to think that their raison d’être is to say what might be wrong to bring into the sport as opposed to seeing what can come out of thinking from left field and be very right, especially during these often numbingly negative times. Must horse racing add to this negativity?
As a sport, horse racing is, in the most basic terms, about being the first to get from point A to point B the quickest with some horses and riders being better at playing this game than others.
Is horse racing capable of reinventing itself the way cricket has done? Definitely- but from a customer experience point of view.
Having said this, how many racing clubs have those who can actually create and consistently deliver this particular customer experience for so many different demographics? More to the point, how many actually understand what this customer experience could be- and have the foresight to see how far it can travel? Let’s not get into asking how many of these people actually understand customers or even know their own racing product. Or know how to have fun.
At least in these books, horse racing must be a solid marriage of the old world, and that new world, which is yet to be fully tapped. The hardcore world has some excellent racing writers- Robyn Louw in South Africa, Alan Aitken, Paul Haigh, David Morgan and a few others. But like those in new media in every other industry trying to get things back on track, where are these people when it comes to horse racing? Can horse racing attract this talent- talent usually from consumer-driven industries, where the technology is not the idea, and who refuse to be sycophantic order takers?
Even if having only a passing interest in horse racing, we’re each proud of what the sport has given us. At least, we should be. If not, well, follow another sport. Like synchronised swimming.
Being in Hong Kong, and personally speaking, there’s great pride in seeing the evolution of the sport in a city that was, perhaps, a “late bloomer” to the world of international horse racing. There’s pride in the leadership of the HKJC. There’s pride in having been here to see the accomplishments of Douglas Whyte and Joao Moreira. There’s pride in seeing how the wins of the mighty Silent Witness inspired a city under the dark clouds of the SARS crisis. And there’s pride in the very international direction that the Happy Wednesday brand has taken.
Recently, it was decided to ask Happy Wednesday regulars what makes them happy. Sounds simple enough, but it’s an important step to try and understand more about the city’s customer wants and needs. Here’s hoping their feedback might provide answers and ideas to make horse racing- and other aspects of life in Hong Kong- a fun experience. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know and nothing will change. And who better to ask than the sport’s biggest supporters- the very diverse group of racing fans- instead of trying to second guess these customers and getting it all horribly wrong?
Who wants to just carry on with the blinkers on for the sake of carrying on, and being angry with the world? Life’s too short for that. Life is about Change- changing with the times and doing one’s best to bring about positive Change. Even in horse racing.