By Hans Ebert
Not knowing where to start this as it covers ground previously covered here, let’s just jump straight into the middle by saying that another problem with horse racing as an industry is that it often forgets, or has never actually bothered to think that it has a certain image to uphold. In today’s consumer driven world, horse racing has no “brand equity.”
Unlike the saying how, What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, the pockmarks that pop up almost continually, and, let’s not be coy here, especially in Australia, impacts the entire horse racing brand. And the more those so-called leaders of the industry understand this, it might have a chance of surviving. Raising prize money only creates an even more elitist sport. It’s hardly “innovative”. It’s lazy thinking. It’s lousy leadership.
Meanwhile, those who are constantly angry with almost every aspect of the sport in this day and age of social media, and are fighting the good fight to bring about change- mainly change in the leadership of the sport- enemies of horse racing are watching and working on their next plan of attack. What are most leaders in racing doing about any of this? Nothing. They’re too busy coming up with some new horse race to raise prize money, and trumpet this as yet another brilliant example of innovative thinking. Please, Pete. The needle’s stuck.
Whether animal activists or the anti gambling lobby, these organisations are not led by stupid people. They’re strategic, they have very well mapped out agendas and campaigns endorsed by very big name celebrities, the mainstream media is on their side.
These are organisations who don’t see horse racing as a sport, but something that has everything to do with animal welfare and that taboo word called gambling.
To some, it’s almost a sin to participate in with some even referring to the bible in which Jesus Christ threw out the money lenders from the temple. It would be an extremely naive racing executive who thinks that horse racing is not under siege today from all sides.
My ex wife, for example, a very intelligent woman and a senior marketing executive in the hospitality trade, could never understand what I saw in horse racing. Knowing me to be an animal lover, she felt it hypocritical that I could accept horses being whipped. She was, and is still not a supporter of the gambling aspects of this pastime and many of those that racing attracts. And having myself seen some of these people- executives in racing clubs- become Middle Aged Men Behaving Badly once away from home and in the welcoming arms of Wanchai, who can blame her?
There are millions of people like my ex wife. And with the explosion of social media, everything is out there for everyone to photograph, film, upload, see and read about the sport, warts and all.
The image- the horse racing brand- does it even have one?- needs to not only be protected, but how it’s communicated to those who are still to be convinced this is a pastime that’s entertaining, can’t be fobbed off by the hardcore racing purist with a flippant, “Who cares?” or “What about looking after those who are supporting the sport here and now?”
This thinking not only shows a naïveté, it shows a certain selfish streak- old fashioned thinking in a new-fashioned world, and a stubborn refusal to understand that, at the end of the day, making the sport successful, and for it to grow its customer base, it must be popular. Duh. It comes down to executives who can keep horse racing alive by making it a successful business- a popular pastime, which will definitely mean having to reinvent itself. Horse racing today is a tired brand that’s irrelevant to many and trusted by few.
In short, horse racing needs smart business-minded executives and equally strong marketing teams to make this happen. It simply cannot carry on regardless with bad hires, mediocre executives and “leaders” with self-serving agendas.
It cannot carry on with vocal racing purists, most travelling with blinkers on, thinking everything will be just peachy if this and that person were to leave the industry.
Let’s say those holding the sport back- and in each racing jurisdiction, the local “participants” whose livelihoods depend on the sport know who these people are- are shamed and named and kicked out. Who’s there to replace them?
There are not many kicking down the doors to become part of the racing industry. If an executive from another industry who’s dealt with leaders from the technology sector, the retail sector, has a good roller deck of names, and understands where, when and how to wheel in celebrities, what can the racing industry offer them? Where and what’s the challenge? Who’s the competition?
Let’s also say, some of these racing executives see how the economy is affecting far bigger and more popular consumer driven industries. Despite all those positive sound bites to create the illusion that here are the saviours of the sport, through some miracle of life, they manage to find greener pastures. Who’s there to replace them? Go to the same old well and resurrect the ghosts of racing past, give them a new title and trumpet their “experience”, which is another term for someone ineffective being able to hang in there?
Believe me, there are many executives in the horse racing industry who remain in it because there’s nowhere else for them to go. They’re unemployable, because they’re simply not good enough. So, they keep their heads down, ensure they’re not accountable for anything, make mewing sounds and stay and stay and stay so their pension fund matures.
The even smarter of the species knows all the ways to feather their own nests with frequent outbursts of false bravado backed by a fawning racing media with a dwindling audience. But one has to wonder if their modus operandi is finally being seen for what it is: smoke and mirrors and the ability to bamboozle the naive…
A few days ago, there was a telling comment on a thread in Facebook about the harassment of trainers in racing- racing in Australia. Someone asked why these online debates must always deteriorate into vile language and over the top handwringing. One reply was that “this is the only language they understand.” They?
Not only did that line make me wince, worse was the appalling spelling and grammar. It was illiterate gibberish, something that has, and continues to further tarnish the image of horse racing. It certainly doesn’t help make the sport likeable. It drives it back into the wilderness of the bushes without a rotten apple for company.
Especially in Australia, there are some very angry people- angry at what is plainly an old boys club that’s a law unto itself. Despite all the talk about upholding the integrity of the sport, we should all know by now that these are just glib words for the very simple reason that the Genie of Integrity has not only escaped, it’s multiplied. Many are lost as to what to do about anything. And so they serve up another tray of waffles.
There’s a great deal of hypocrisy in the racing world and a refusal to face some home truths. Many of these same people screaming out for justice for all, are only too happy to get involved in things like the buying and selling of horses, often at obscenely inflated prices, because, in racing, there’s a sucker born every minute. Often it’s the same sucker who either knows he’s being had, but so wants to be seen as a “player”, and a legend in their own lunchtime that they keep going to the same well to be taken for another ride.
There are then the dark knights of horse racing who see it as being another opportunity to launder money by being on the losing side of the ledger. The trainer knows what’s going on, the bloodstock agent knows what’s going on, the jockeys riding these dud purchases know what’s going on, and yet it continues because it’s tap dancing on the periphery of what’s legal and what’s not.
Again, what does this say about the image of horse racing? Bad news travels. Why would any talent from another industry with any sense of decency wish to be involved? Why, when it’s also painfully obvious that the bigger wagering companies- let’s not mention Crownbet- hold the keys to the kingdom by having a better business model, far more savvy executives who know how to play the game, know the maths and taxes, and ensure that the house- their house- always wins?
If one of these executives had spoken to Emirates, they’d probably still be sponsors of the Melbourne Cup. But, again, a racing club couldn’t read the tea leaves and that big bird of sponsorship paradise took off to destinations unknown.
Let’s say, racing clubs manage to attract the next generation of racegoers to come through the turnstiles. And then what? Apart from the racing, what else is there to hold their interest- something that will have them coming back on a regular basis and not just to get legless and make arses of themselves once or twice a year?
The HKJC and its Happy Wednesday brand is, without a doubt, the only successful answer to this. It’s a weekly night out at one of the most picturesque racecourses with the added attraction of different entertainment options appealing to various age groups. It’s where horse racing can be watched, up close and personal, where it’s fun, and where everything is not reduced to “the punt”.
One comes to Happy Valley racecourse for a night out just as one would any other night out to have fun with friends. It’s where there’s always the chance to meet new people-interesting people who you wish to be around- and whose raison d’être for this night out is not to discuss what’s going to win the next race. It’s to interact, connect, have a good time, and become a community.
It might be baby steps that eventually lead to participating in the racing product, but this can’t be forced. That hardcore racing world is, whether those who live and breathe it might not wish to hear, still here, but part of the past. As someone in their twenties who comes from a racing family asked earlier this week, “Isn’t horse racing more for my parents’ generation?” That’s telling.
Again, it comes down to those running racing clubs knowing how to enhance the current business model, and be strategic and creative enough to see that the image of horse racing evolves. The question is this: Evolve into what? Not more of the same, please with a few minor tweaks no one outside of the racing club responsible for the work will notice. Then again, how many racing clubs keep talking to themselves and running around wondering what to do, and then wonder why no one is listening?
The other answer is that horse racing evolves into something more attractive than it is today. But how many would know what this is when few racing executives actually get out and interact with all those customer groups many claim to know so well?
There’s then that familiar “strategy” to hire outside suppliers who work with younger consumers. Thinking this can lead to an ongoing business partnership, what they present is what the client wants to hear. The result: A nuked version of déjà vu that appeals to no one, but is so safe that it offends no one at the racing club. Wallpaper communications are wrong wrong wrong.
These are the days when racing executives should listen, interact, absorb, and take their lead from the wants and needs of today’s tech savvy consumer, many fixated with and extremely knowledgeable with what’s going on in the online world. See how they approach things, and how they might even change the ways in which this sport called horse racing is played on-course.
Racing clubs can provide different betting types and all manner of apps which are basically the same- sorry, but I am starting to laugh- thinking these will attract millennials in only one way. They won’t. These tools will very soon be turned into a chorus of That’s Entertainment. The tail will start to wag the dog.
Many of us have seen what happens when racing clubs get involved in trying to bring entertainment to the races: Irrelevance. It’s as irrelevant as featuring ‘live’ music after the last race has been run. As irrelevant as anything where those who own businesses try to second guess any customer. No, there’s no market for burgers made outta raspberry patties. Why can’t horse racing produce a piece of communication as effective as this- IF it meets all the strategic criteria and as long as the technique is not the idea? It can, but how many with the power will have the chutzpah to approve something truly original?
The bottom line is that it’s always about striking that right balance and having the leadership that recognises this. It’s probably most important to an industry that has seemingly forgotten to change for over three decades except for increasing prize money. That’s fine for a certain group of customers, but what does this mean to all those others who won’t be able to play? They’re not invited? That’s fine, too. They literally have hundreds of other options where to spend their money when it comes to sports entertainment. And again, this is something understood far more and marketed far better by the likes of Paddy Power, William Hill and Ladbrokes.
Where the racing industry must go back to Old Kent Road and start again is by turning horse racing into a brand- an attractive sports entertainment brand whose marketing is clever enough to not only stop the critics, but win them over.