By Hans Ebert
For those who don’t follow horse racing, it was something most wouldn’t have even read about: Rapper Dragon winning the Group 1 Hong Kong Classic Mile at Shatin racecourse on Sunday. To racing fans, however, here was something to celebrate, something to discuss, share, go through the history books and play trivial pursuit to see what this achievement meant so they could own bragging rights. It was one of those all-too-rare Feel Good moments in a sport too often allowed to meander along with little or no creativity and leadership. But Rapper Dragon led from the front and stayed there.
Racing fans talking about Rapper Dragon with other fans is no different to having, let’s say, a new artist coming out with a recording of “Purple Rain”, turning the classic by Prince on its head, and seeing the track suddenly start trending. Okay, that might be a stretch, but this is surely the time when the world should come together, start to really understand each other and embrace the differences.
There’s also the need to switch on that inquisitive mind. In the world of horse racing, the On switch has been off for too long, which means not even trying to make those with a passing interest in the sport understand the significance of that win by Rapper Dragon, the training effort by John Moore, and the ride of the mercurial Joao Moreira, a poor kid from São Paulo, who couldn’t afford to own a saddle until in his teens, fought all kinds of adversity, and is now known as The Magic Man- one of the two best jockeys in the world. If anyone can help bring horse racing into the mainstream consciousness, it’s the very marketable Brazilian. This athlete is the total package- charismatic, likeable, a fiercely competitive rider, hugely talented, successful and beguilingly media savvy. The man is no fool.
Understand, appreciate and creatively promote the Rapper Dragon/Joao Moreira success story, and it could even compliment the Nike ethos of Just Do It. Think about it.
The problem is that despite all this talk of “social media”, we live in a fragmented and insinular world. Can social media be used more effectively by those in horse racing to engage with consumers? What consumers? That same old captive market? Whoopee. We “share”, but not really. The sport is on various delivery platforms, but there’s a snobbery or distance attached to it. Not all the time, but there is. Let’s not get into the petty jealousies and politics involved. Often, it’s good to be exclusive, and not let the clutter in and stay grounded, focused, true to oneself and be a good ambassador for the sport.
This might also be the perfect storm for many in racing to take an interest in everything else happening in the world. Whatever happens next under the 45th President of the United States could have a domino effect on global socio-economics, and create an even more diversive world. What’s this got to do with horse racing? It’s the economics, stupid! It’s about what happens to the dollar and being financially solvent enough to be in the game. The last time one looked, horse racing, like every other sport, was a business and needs to be run like a business if it’s to succeed.
This new president’s inauguration speech was chilling. It made many uncomfortable. Maybe, just maybe, it was because he was saying what most of America had been thinking for around twenty years. That’s what some of my American friends believe. Or have to believe because, like it or not, he’s got the finger on the trigger, mother superior jumped the gun, and he’s in charge. Bang bang, shoot shoot.
From Yes We Can, America has gone to Yes We Want, and its new leader wants everything done his own way- and with politics being dealt as a business by someone no one really knows whether is successful or honourable in what he has done to date. Looking at what’s led to where he is today, it seems to say that it’s okay to lie, cheat, threaten and bully as long as you get what you want. It’s not a great mantra to spread, but Bane has taken over Gotham City and Batman is dead.
What would John Lennon have thought about what’s happening in the country that he fought to live, and where he was murdered? One has to wonder while “Hey Bulldog”, “Gimme Some Truth”, “Imagine” and “Mind Games” play in your head on Repeat.
Would the Protest Movement songs of Dylan still resonate with the generation swept along today not knowing where they’re heading? Doubt it. Same with the blue collar anthems of Springsteen or Neil Young. Those red, white and blues no longer have the same values.
So, where are we other than we’re here and trying to make the most of it? Personally speaking, when a horse like Rapper Dragon comes along and wins the way he did, and having watched in amazement at an athlete and rider like Joao Moreira, it’s inspiring stuff. It’s not going to change the world, but these days, every little thing helps. One never knows where they might lead.
As a horse racing hobbyist, and a full-time marketing person with a background in journalism, and part of the music industry, it’s something exciting- something to make the naysayers about the sport understand what this means. Show them that it’s not only about gambling. But would they listen?
Before boarding a flight, I called someone to say Goodbye and tell her about what had been quite a successful- and very enjoyable- day at the races at Shatin. Her reply: “That’s nice. But I hope you’re not getting too involved and mixing with the wrong types and being too generous.” Perhaps she was being protective. But “too involved”? “Wrong types”? Sure, we’ve all made mistakes in the past, but people change. They become street smart without the need for smart pills. Fortunately, I had a plane to catch and the conversation was cut short. But those words are hard to erase. As a marketing person, to change the perception of the sport to people like her has become a personal challenge.
This is where those so knee deep in the sport with facts and figures need to change their tune: There’s no point preaching only to the converted over and over again. This makes even the most loyal racing fan switch off and not wish to be associated with this team. It’s about taking the high road and not getting caught up in the cobwebs of pettiness and those desperately in need of anger management.
Give it a rest, people, or seek help. The drum has been banged long enough, and someone who’s been given the power to bring about closure to all the questions that still need answering, should bring everything to a screeching halt. But turning a deaf ear with a What? Me? Worry? modus operandi does nothing for the sport. Guess this is what happens when leaders can’t, or refuse to lead, and are just waiting with that golden parachutes strapped to their backs before making a quiet exit. Sound familiar?
All this does nothing for the sport or entice a popular global brand like Nike with its huge database and marketing dollars to look at horse racing as a positive, inspiring and strategic marketing partner.
For Nike, it’s not about selling more running shoes. It’s about the evolution of the brand. Now more than ever, the brand’s corporate ethos of Just Do It has more relevance than ever before.
Perhaps now is the time for Nike itself to, well, Just Do It and look at where it’s never gone before- supporting horse racing, and a racing hero like Joao Moreira. Imagine what this exercise in branding can do for the sport. And the communications strategy it can give Nike as a smart marketer and constantly evolving brand…
So, okay, let’s say Nike has got the message and has decided to support horse racing. Now what? Well, it’s a start. It’s something new. It’s something that can lead somewhere. It’s looking beyond the obvious. It might even lead to booting out those unnecessary “leaders” staying on for a free ride.
It might also lead to breaking away from the dumbed down numbness the world is in today, where, to some, the measure of one’s “status” is based on the number of Twitter followers picked up along the road of life.
Twitter is a database-driven business and why, as a business, it allows click bait and does nothing to stop all those selling fake followers from places like Moldova. It’s a numbers game.
It’s all part of this faked down, jumbled up world in which many in the promotion of horse racing are happy to plod along with blinkers on with no understanding that nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung up about, because real emotions have been replaced by vapid tweets, some “likes”, retweets, emojis and non-verbal communication through smart phones.
Why WhatsApp someone when it’s easier to pick up the phone and speak to each other? Why the high avoidance? Seen people on a date these days? He’s texting someone, and she’s Instagramming her food.
In horse racing, there’s a big song and dance about using the “right” hashtags. Please. How’s Google going to thank you for doing this for them? How’s Facebook thanking you for giving them- and others- your content? For free. How’s WordPress going to pay for this post? It can’t. At least, writing is therapeutic.
Again, it’s all a numbers game and we’re a very small part of the business equation. But so many want to belong and be part of this fake world that has more negatives than positives. Don’t talk about horse racing being “addictive” when many go through withdrawal symptoms if faced with one day without a smart phone.
We have all these social media delivery platforms for “instant messaging”, but when we really need to see someone, they’re not around. If lucky, you might get a text to say, “I will get back to you in five”. Five turns to twenty and that moment is gone. So much for the immediacy of social media.
Change today isn’t going to come from the pre-programmed rants of an irrelevant celebrity like Madonna and her being cheered by lemmings for dropping a few f-bombs. That’s an old school opportunistic publicity stunt. Turning all the time to Old School thinking is something those in charge of marketing horse racing in 2017 to the new world order need to change. As Grace Slick once sang, Feed your head. She might have been ahead of her time.
Songs, celebrities, and late night programme hosts in America taking out their angst on what has happened does nothing to change anything. Move on. The subject for all this vitriol has far bigger plans on his agenda. The genie has not only escaped, he’s in charge, and immune to criticism. He probably eats kryptonite for breakfast.
Where there can be real change is change within ourselves. By not falling back on old ways. By not being slaves to technology. By finding ways to be inspired in the real world no matter how hard this might be.
The win of Rapper Dragon might have been a fleeting moment of inspiration. A rare Feel Good moment for horse racing. But there are more, some flying under the radar like the Hippo Clan, a fun group of young racing fans built around Sydney-based jockey Adam Hyeronimus. Bring the Hippo Clan over for a Happy Wednesday night at Happy Valley in Hong Kong.
There’s the magnificent Winx, Brenton Avdulla’s impromptu bow to the crowds after winning the Oaks, and that wonderful picture of sportsmanship after the last Melbourne Cup featuring that Magic Man Moreira again.
At least to this writer, all this becomes the inspiration to find new ways of marketing a sport still not understood by many, and doing everything possible to get Nike to Just Do It by looking at the back story of Joao Moreira and making this theme part of the evolution of horse racing, broadening its customer base in the process, and making the sport a source of inspiration.
Well said Hans.
Good marketing will follow good leadership. Our leaders in Australia are hard-working and well intended but not good enough. Most of them have been at it for a long time and it’s time for them to move on. They are tired and it shows.
Despite the spin it is very clear that a large part of the audience has lost interest. That’s a great shame because it is a fabulous sport and industry.
In my opinion the whole industry needs revitalization.