By Hans Ebert

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Build it and they will come. It worked for Kevin Costner in “Field Of Dreams”, but the sad fact of life is that many have built “it”- restaurants, clubs, shops, recording studios, fitness centres, hair salons etc etc- and they’re still at the door watching with binoculars for signs of human life, and still believing in a pocketful of mumbles that are sometimes promises. More often than not, these go up in smoke faster than Cheech and Chong inhaling a bong and asking, “Hey, Dave? Is that you, man?”

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So, deciding to build a beer garden- not some little pop up bar- but an open-air beer garden on a racecourse, which, today, is so much more, was not only a brave move, it had to answer the question, And then what? Memories of that song about the pub with no beer, but with also no customers, must have crossed the minds of the Hong Kong Jockey Club when this idea was first floated. Let’s face it, racing clubs, and many of those making corporate cookie cutter noises inside of them, are hardly known for stepping outside of the square where they enjoy being imprisoned by the limits of their Positively Fourth Street thinking and lack of accountability. It’s often a gig from heaven.

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Ideas are a dime a dozen, and everyone has them, some more daft than others. Making these a reality, and then having them evolve into something that becomes a local landmark, a tourist attraction, and a brand that looks and sounds almost out of place on a racecourse, is a field of dreams that needs looking beyond the obvious and knee-jerk reactions. It also means understanding both the customer, the mood of the city, and being able to read the tea leaves.

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The HKJC’s Happy Wednesday brand has taken horse racing where it’s never gone before- a mid-week break that brings together the die-hard racing fans who have done all their homework, and are looking for the Big Lebowski, and those younger and newer customers standing on the sidelines, and wanting something to convince them to pass Go, collect $200, and not be stranded on Old Kent Road.

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The Beer Garden at the uniquely located Happy Valley Racecourse, where high-rise residential skyscrapers look down on a marvellous venue smack dab in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, is that magic kingdom comprising location, location, location, and a playground-cum-carnival-cum-social media platform. It’s a melting pot where people actually interact in person with each other, where horse racing is brought up close and personal, and which gives the image of the sport a much-needed facelift. It makes it approachable. It makes it young and fun. It gives it scope to grow organically.

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It’s fine to remember Phar Lap, Seabiscuit, Kingston Town, Zenyatta, Piggott, Cauthen, Carson, Eddery, Shoemaker, and all the other heroes of the sport, but there’s also a need to remember to improve the business and personality of horse racing. There’s a need to step back and respect its glorious past, see its exciting future, and understand how, as in every other industry, without expanding that customer base, one is stuck behind the barriers. The HKJC’s Happy Wednesday brand has kept evolving. And it’s being constantly enhanced. What this does is bring horse racing into the 21st century and makes it relevant, and not some exclusive old boys club looking out for “eye candy”, and one-trick marketing ponies.

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Today, bringing ‘live’ music to the Beer Garden seems a given. It wasn’t the case when first introduced almost four years ago. There were some genuine concerns from trainers- and owners- that the hills and happy valleys should not be alive with music. This, they said, would not be music to the ears of nervous horses being trotted around the nearby paddock area. Points taken and problems solved: the music started up only before and after the horses left the paddock. Easy.

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Along with the ‘live’ music, the Beer Garden had grown to include booths offering all types of cuisine, wines and various activities. Each month, there were promotions and events that helped to keep pressing the Refresh button. Over the past few years, Happy Wednesday’s different promotions have taken its thousands of regulars around the world- France, Bollywood, Germany, Korea, the digital world, Italy, Rio- all of which have dovetailed with the main attractions – Hong Kong’s United Nations Of Racing starring jockeys like Brazilian Joao Moreira, South African Douglas Whyte, Irishman Neil Callan, Mauritian Karis Teetan, Frenchman Olivier Doleuze and Australians Zac Purton, Brett Prebble, Chad Schofield, and Nash Rawiller.

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This season, Happy Wednesday fans found their pinup girl- jockey Kei Chiong, below,the first female in fifteen years to be granted a riding license in Hong Kong- and an immediate success.

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There have been cameos by the great Ryan Moore and Silvestre de Sousa, whereas Happy Valley continues to play host to the Hong Kong International Jockeys Championship every December. Perhaps more importantly, like the city itself, Happy Wednesday continues to attract a truly cosmopolitan group of regulars and newbies. And every week, this number grows. It’s not a one-off event. It’s horse racing’s longest running party.

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With the Beer Garden becoming everyone’s favourite meeting place in Hong Kong, other venues have opened, each with their own personalities and USPs- Adrenaline, the Gallery, Stable Bend Terrace and The Leading Edge.

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From a marketing point of view, a horses-for-courses strategy has been adopted. After all, one size can never fit all, and variety is the spice of life. Adrenaline, with its ‘live’ music and very unique atmosphere, has evolved to become an upmarket club that attracts those who want their racing, but with entertainment and a chillaxed atmosphere to fill in those twentysomething minutes between the races. They loathe clutter.

From there being only time for one song between races, changes were made in the format of how the customer experience can be enhanced and presented. Bringing in what has become the venue’s regular band led by singer Jennifer Palor, who has her own local fan following, and have her not only perform three songs- it’s made a huge difference to the popularity of the venue- but recently create Adrenaline’s After Race Party, has opened up things even more. It’s heightened the customer experience.

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The Gallery, meanwhile, caters to a more local customer demographic- one that knows its racing, how the game is played, and needs and are given all the tools to find those winners. And there’s more happening throughout every Happy Wednesday evening- competitions, a film crew producing new content that’s used on every social media platform. Racing fans are given the opportunity to meet the sport’s main attractions, yes, up close and personal, and new sponsors like Samsung have become part of the Happy Wednesday brand’s present and its future.

What’s the future for the Happy Wednesday brand? How long is a ball of string? But don’t be surprised to see and hear visiting international musicians performing at the Beer Garden and Adrenaline, other new sponsors being associated with the brand, ways of creating awareness of Happy Wednesday outside of Happy Valley Racecourse, but with everything always leading back to this truly unique Field Of Dreams that’s become a reality.

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Follow Hans Ebert on Twitter @HansEbertHK