By Hans Ebert

What the world has seen for almost six months- the peaceful protests against the now withdrawn extradition bill which suddenly morphed into some bastard son of Voodoo Chile and Rosemary’s Baby is not just scary, it’s pretty surreal.

With family weekends having to be put aside because of “cockroaches” and t-shirted brigades of different colours hell-bent on selfishly bashing this city- physically and mentally- to smithereens, it’s either some minor miracle or it travelling in some parallel universe that has had horse racing in Hong Kong carry on relatively unscathed.

Sure, two race meetings have had to be cancelled with all this mayhem and extremely well-choreographed plans to bring the city to its knees having affected staff needed to find their way to work. This has impacted, especially attendance, and turnover. But compared to small businesses that have had to close shop, a huge decline in tourism which has severely affected the image of Hong Kong as a destination and being “the safest city in the world” plus forcing big business to change course mid-stream, how the HKJC, through its leadership, has managed to continue bringing horse racing in a city under siege is not just something to be applauded, it should be studied.

This leadership has taught a loopy and dysfunctional Hong Kong government how, when the going gets tough, the tough needs to get going by adopting the Boy Scouts credo to Be Prepared- and the ability to lead from the front. No shrinking violets allowed.

Real leadership is never about hiding behind skirts, making mewing sounds and hoping no one will notice. It’s about taking charge with quiet diplomacy.

As far as the HKJC is concerned, it’s about always reminding itself of the organisation’s “product personality” of being a racing club that’s much more than a racing club and everything it gives back to ALL of Hong Kong without taking sides.

On Wednesday night, at a time when Hong Kong is still, literally, picking up the pieces of everything negative that has steamrollered over the city, there was the start of HKIR week, the flagship horse racing product of the HKJC. The gates and barriers opened to allow the horses to run and the races to begin.

Twelve jockeys including world class names like Frankie Dettori, Ryan Moore, Oisin Murphy, James McDonald, Colin Keane, Silvestre de Sousa, Pierre-Charles Boudot, and Yuga Kawada competed for the Hong Kong International Jockeys Championship (HKIJC) against the very considerable Group 1 talents of Zac Purton, Joao Moreira, Karis Teetan and the home grown riding talent in Vincent CY Ho.

It was a more subdued opening than previous years, but only the village idiot would have expected the usual fireworks.

The venue was the most unique and spectacular racecourse in the world at Happy Valley and with the HKIJC being part of another Happy Wednesday night. This is important to understand.

Happy Wednesday is a much-needed night out, especially for the younger and very international group of exchange students, budding entrepreneurs and others who have decided to make Hong Kong home no matter how short their stay might be.

These regulars are not horse racing anoraks. They’re not “the Hawk”, the Sparrow or the Woodchuck. If horse racing is to have a future, they’re it, and an event like the International Jockeys Championship, and not the appearance of some Pop star after the races are over, helps introduce them to a different facet of horse racing- its competitiveness, the athleticism and skills it takes to be the very best.

Being second best is not good enough. It’s about showing a different type of horsepower and horse racing having the marketing skills to create its own Lewis Hamiltons. Plural.

Speaking of whom, there’s much horse racing can learn from Formula 1. Like how it evolved from the days of Fangio, Sterling Moss, the great Ayrton Senna, and Michael Schumacher to today and the Instagram world of the brilliant Lewis Hamilton with his million dollar endorsement deals and putting the pedal on the metal and burning rubber with Supermodels. He is the new face of F1 and knows it.

On Wednesday at Happy Valley, some from this younger generation on course might have got something out of HKIJC night. Hopefully they did because excitement is contagious.

This excitement- the excitement of winning- now needs to be translated onto relevant online and mobile delivery platforms. It cannot be another episode of The Wobbleheads and yet another interview with the legendary Frankie Dettori when everything about this charismatic sporting personality is already available on YouTube.

This is a consumer group that comes racing to have a Happy Wednesday- to have fun with like-minded people and have several Tik Tok and Instagram moments. They’re not on Twitter. What for? They’re multi dimensional and know what leisure activities appeal to them and where best might help in their networking- and THEIR business plans.

How to present all this and cater to the needs of these twentysomethings at the Beer Garden and the slightly more mature crowd at the venue that is Adrenaline is a delicate balancing act. It’s not about throwing everything against the wall and hoping like hell that something sticks. Fakery is easily smelt.

Filling those twenty odd minute between races is no stroll in the park. Neither is finding ways to attract this generation to the races when it’s not on their radars. Social media? Please. Why would this potential audience bother to Google search “horse racing”? Word of mouth advertising is still the most effective.

If this audience in Hong Kong isn’t having a good time, they go to where it is- clubs like Drop, Ophelia, the funkier Sheung Wan area and the fun holes in the walls worth discovering down Wyndham Street. Not for them is Wanchai, Lan Kwai Fong and anywhere in Kowloon.

By the time it was decided that Mauritian Karis Teetan had won this year’s International Jockeys Championship, many who don’t follow horse racing had learned a little bit more about it.

At least they knew they had been privy to see some the best riders in the world in action while still being entertained with ‘live’ music, dancers, competitions and different venues.

This is a very different Hong Kong and understanding the mood of the city is imperative. At a Happy Wednesday night, there’s much to learn- if one wishes to listen to learn.

The future of horse racing could also be staring one in the face- and not just in Hong Kong.

Horse racing- worldwide- needs an overhaul. At a time when there’s a global economic downturn, animal rights activists are closing rank backed by very popular celebrities, savvy social media strategies with the mainstream media onboard and onside, horse racing with its Ye Olde World reportage is looking dated. Plus, it’s facing competition from everywhere for the same consumer dollar in a risk averse world.

Surely it’s time to press that Refresh button? Surely it’s time to make horse racing relevant to those spoiled for choice and still looking to see who and what and where one needs to be so that their time is well spent?

It’s not going to be easy as those leading horse racing- like those running much bigger industries- have spent decades engaged in navel gazing and talking to themselves thinking everyone was listening. They weren’t. They had moved on.

A quick anecdote: Speaking to two people last week in their early Thirties about music and thinking they knew what I was on about, I was jolted into reality when both had no idea who were in the Beatles. James? Darren? One asked if I knew that Norah Jones’ father was a Native American Indian and that a sitar was like a balalaika. Huh?

Lesson learned here is that none of us is getting younger. The world has moved on with many able to change it, or get it back on track, stuck in the past without even knowing it.

Every industry has its problems, something that has much to do with a huge generation gap.

Horse racing? It’s golden age was the Eighties. Today? Today, it plods along the same old path and very rarely looking at things like that word-of-mouth advertising and which ONLY then can translate effectively onto that often mentioned, but seldom understood place called “social media”.

Word-of-mouth advertising also means industry leaders knowing and understanding their customers. It means going out there and communicating with them. It’s about listening. It’s about allowing them in past the velvet rope that keeps them out. It’s about making them part of the team and giving them a sense of belonging.

Without this sense of belonging, you haven’t won them over. Think about it. And as Cat Stevens once sang, “Think about everything you’ve got”, especially that content.

For horse racing, it’s not about continuing to go through the desert with A Horse With No Name and the blinkers on.

Give the horse a name and sense of belonging before it bolts and disappears forever.

#Horseracing #HKracing #HKIR #HKIJC #KarisTeetan #Hongkong #marketing #LewisHamilton #HappyWednesdayHK