By Hans Ebert
Synchronicity happens for a reason. It’s like playing mental Snap. The night earlier, South African based racing writer and friend Robyn Louw was talking about how she feels the sport could do a better job of promoting and marketing its own heroes before bringing in celebrities for cameo appearances. What prompted the conversation was Usain Bolt being flown in to add some extra marquee value to one of South Africa’s biggest races, The Sun Met, and Robyn quite rightly wondering, And then what?
Usain Bolt attends the race meeting, this probably succeeds in bringing more people to the races, helps promote this one event and leaves. And, yes, then what?
The same can be asked of every one-off Group 1 race or gimmick horse race which brings thousands of people for their one Big Day Out at the races for a year with the token celebrity thrown into the mix. And then what? Speak to most racing executives involved in any of these events and they’ll do The Dance Of The Springtime Fairies and carry on about “already having full house signs” and the usual exercise of patting one’s self on the back before returning to hibernation after one more silly dance.
The next day, listening to TAB Radio from Perth, there was a lively discussion between Gareth Hall, The Boy Hill aka jockey Ryan Hill and this writer’s favourite race caller Darren McAullay. It started with one of them wondering whether Ryan Moore’s reticence to communicate with the media was good for racing, how top jockeys like Paul “The Pontiff” Harvey and Grant “The Iceman” Cooksley, even during their heyday, kept whatever was happening to themselves, and how these days, riders and trainers are far more giving of their time and happy to be good ambassadors for horse racing.
Joao Moreira immediately comes to mind, and though he might be an acquired taste, there’s Craig “Willowed” Williams, one of the first jockeys to really market himself by having his own website, providing almost information overkill when discussing his rides, and all the time looking after his own brand.
All this led to Macca, who doesn’t hold back, asking the same question as Robyn: Why can’t racing promote its own heroes better? Good question, but are there people in racing capable of doing this? And if not, surely it’s time to revisit the current media landscape that seems Hooked On Classics and catering only to that hardcore captive market. Nothing wrong with this as the customer group is crucial for racing to keep ticking over, but isn’t this 2017 and time for there to be less of more of the same?
Where, for example, are those who will look at horse racing differently and write about it from a different perspective as they’re not part of the racing fraternity. But their insight into an often misunderstood sport should be welcomed as it just might offer up new ways of marketing horse racing to those who wouldn’t know Ryan Moore from Roger Moore.
Believe it or not, much of horse racing that many think travels internationally doesn’t. It doesn’t even get past Old Kent Road. Why? Perhaps those introducing the sport are unknown to millions? And if an unknown in any industry today, it’s impossible to be heard above the online clutter. Ask any struggling musician whose idea of “fame” are some inconsequential views and “likes” and “shares” on YouTube and Facebook. And then what?
When the good doctor- Hunter S Thompson- wrote about the Kentucky Derby in 1970, he turned writing about horse racing on its head. That one piece about his observations travelled well beyond the racing pages of a newspaper.
It was even published later in Rolling Stone when the magazine was relevant- the Rock bible, and an independent creative hub for other writers like Dave Marsh, Cameron Crowe, who went on to write and direct the semi autobiographical “Almost Famous”, the brilliant Timothy White, Lester Bangs etc. And so, along with exclusive interviews with John Lennon and Dylan, first hand stories about Led Zeppelin and their inner circle, the drug culture and the New Politics was this piece of gonzo journalism about the Kentucky Derby. It was a completely different slant on horse racing. Those who have nothing to do with this pastime or whatever they might wish to call it- many still don’t even consider horse racing a sport- still talk about this piece of journalism. And as it continues to be shared from generation to generation, so does this brilliant back story about horse racing, the characters and the Kentucky Derby.
Fast forward to today, where writing about horse racing seems forced to fit into its own little box and relegated to being on the racing pages of a newspaper- the section of a newspaper that most women you might be living with discard with a dismissive, “Here- this must be what you want”. Suddenly you think about how Oliver Twist must have felt when asking for More.
Why can’t a rags to riches story about Joao Moreira find its way onto the Features section of a newspaper or a magazine or an online lifestyle site? Or what if the Magic Man can be interviewed by someone like Lewis Hamilton-who, in turn is interviewed by Joao?
Why can’t there be a New Writers Competition where the task is to cover A Day At The Races?
Why can’t anyone negotiate a television special featuring the amazing David Blaine at the races where he brings some of the sport’s leading players into his mind blowing world of freaky illusion?
The New Journalism Tom Wolfe wrote about exists today in the online world, and no matter what it might think, horse racing is an also ran in this department when talking about content that doesn’t speak to the usual suspects.
It often seems that instead of offering audiences/readers a buffet of choices from which they can pick and choose what interests them, they’re offered the same limited a la carte menu with a choice of two flavours of ice cream.
Meanwhile, racing executives chant the Customercentric Om Mantra whenever there’s nothing much happening, but seldom practice what they preach. It’s just paying lip service.
This is most noticeable when swept up in keeping “corporates” happy, or, if in the land Down Under, bringing out another episode of Fashions On The Field, booking John Farnham, Jimmy Barnes and Daryl Braithwaite etc, with everything leading down a well trodden path where those who are hired to bring newness to horse racing are blinded with bullshit, can’t see the forest for the trees and are happy to work within the walls of confinement created internally.
Customercentric? What customercentric? It’s all shuck and jive, corporate backslapping and plenty of snowbiz mixed with showbiz. Girls will be girls.
Again, it’s more corporate navel gazing and the reason why so much racing content is more of the same. It’s stuff from that limited a la carte where sometimes there’s only a soup. And this is one of the great hypocrisies of horse racing: It continues to pretend it’s changing, it often pretends it cares, but it’s running while standing still. There’s very little sustainability to anything. Just a series of knee jerk reactions and total panic from amateurs who’ve seemingly stumbled out of bed and ended up running marketing in a racing club or trying desperately to be seen as a big player in a small game- and looking lost and confused and throwing everything against the wall hoping something sticks. It never does.
All this is why the programming content for horse racing is the same as when Ben Hur had that chariot race and a masked man in tights rode the prairie with a Native American named Tonto. Those smoke signals from way back then are today called tweets.
So how does horse racing go from being in its little box to new fashioned thinking that makes it break free and takes it OUT of the box?
Journalism in general has been hijacked by social media. Freedom of speech has opened the floodgates to negativity, especially in the world of sports, and even more so when money is involved. The overnight power of this online world- a huge paradigm shift- has taken many by surprise and is one major reason why the music industry was crippled.
Horse racing talks about embracing social media, but looking at how it’s currently being used, it’s as satisfying as embracing a pillow in an empty bed. Like it or not, the online world is part and parcel of today’s media landscape, but is as yet to find its voice. It often comes across as being about who can shout louder and more often, where everyone is a critic and an empty vessel for self promotion. It’s seldom about working together for the common good of something. It’s too often, a splintered world of make believe.
When in advertising, we were always told about the importance of the tone of communication and to look at a product and “humanise” it. If an actor or actress, who would the product be? Same if the product were a song or singer or band.
With this in mind, who and what would horse racing be and what would be its tone of communication? It’s voice. Does it even have a voice or is this now in the hands of keyboard warriors who communicate in 140 words or less? There’s something almost Neanderthal about this.
From where this writer sits- and definitely not a “racing” writer- how and what is communicated and by whom can add such an important new dimension to horse racing. And to focus on the new, it needs a gonzo breed of new Hunter S Thompsons and a heavy dose of New Thinking.
Imagine for example if JK Rowling can be persuaded to cover the Melbourne Cup or the Hong Kong International Races in December. Would whatever she writes be tucked away in the racing pages or make it to the back page of the Sports section? Of course not. It would take front and centre stage across the length and breadth of the online world and be read by her millions of followers around the world. Her association with the sport, no matter how fleeting, would make horse racing respectable and acceptable to a completely new audience.
A couple of days ago I was listening to Michael Felgate interview Hayley Moore, sister of Ryan Moore. After a very long time, Melbourne’s RSN, the dead people’s racing and sports radio station, came alive. It was a Young Frankenstein moment.
Hayley Moore is an intelligent, knowledgeable and articulate young lady, someone who can certainly “speak hardcore racing”, but makes the sport and all those around it sound so approachable while offering an insight into someone like her brother that’s never been heard before.
With the right concept and format, Hayley Moore can host a programme on horse racing that can be pure edutainment, something very much missing in the sport’s gunnysack of communications and marketing tools.
So while most definitely needing reportage, horse racing also needs to look at who and what can be part of a new media landscape for the sport that can attract those on a long term basis who, at the moment, believe that “this property is condemned”.
Only then will at least a major part of the question, And then what? be answered.
#RobynLouw #TABRadio #DarrenMcAullay #RyanMoore #JoaoMoreira #TomWolfe #HayleyMoore #horseracing