It was good for what it was meant to be- HKIR week- during these uncertain times and in the midst of the constantly changing of the guard taking place in Qatar at the World Cup.
The world class event worked for most and maybe not for others because of goalposts having to keep being moved as there’s still no bubble strong enough to contain the constantly moving beast called Covid.
On Sunday at the big dance known as The Turf World Championships at Shatin, it was a Full House. Most had come to see Hong Kong equine hero Golden Sixty in the Hong Kong Mile.
The Canto Popster with the unlikely name of Hacken Lee was wheeled in as the special guest performer and sang some “ho hoi sum” songs including one called “Victory”, which was a real toe tapper.
After this, there was a well choreographed farewell ceremony for Joao Moreira who had confirmed his retirement from race riding sometime next year.
Meanwhile, the tai tais and the “big fish” arrived in their chauffeur driven limousines and were ushered into their private or corporate boxes and the Members area.
The others found their usual spots in the public enclosure armed with rolled up newspapers, toothpicks, lunch boxes and readied themselves for the four hours ahead.
Having lunch with someone at Repulse Bay and streaming the races from time to time, the mind travelled back in time to those wonderful lunches for the media at the races hosted by James Smith, the charismatic General Manager of the Hong Kong Hilton.
These annual afternoons that brought together fashion editors, columnists, magazine publishers, heads of advertising agencies and their clients, music executives, film reviewers etc etc are something lost forever. It was good to have experienced them.
Getting back to 2022 and Shatin, the highlight of the undercard was the extremely impressive win of the Douglas Whyte trained and Lyle Hewitson ridden Dragon’s Luck.
As for the first Group 1 race of the Turf World Championships- The HK$22,000,000 Longines Hong Kong Vase over 2400 metres- this was taken out by Japan’s Win Marilyn ridden by Australian Damian Lane.
The Hong Kong Sprint was taken out by Wellington ridden by Ryan Moore and trained to the minute for this big day out by Richard Gibson.
Just as an aside, shouldn’t it be The World Turf Championships? Just asking.
Though no student or graduate of equine talent, obvious was just how International this HKIR brand has become with the International riders, the gallopers, the owners, the travelling teams, and something that continues to happen year after year because of the commitment to excellence from Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.
Take a bow, Winfried.
When the team behind California Spangle led by The Zac Man and Tony Cruz combined to get the better of Golden Sixty, it might not have been the result everyone was hoping for, but only the most churlish could begrudge the win.
Those who stayed behind to watch Romantic Warrior blitz the chasing pack in the 2000 metre Hong Kong Cup would have seen a changing of the guard taking place.
Trained by Danny CS Shum and ridden by James McDonald, this looks set to be the new Hong Kong racing hero.
Where this very very special galloper goes from here and what he brings to Hong Kong is going to be interesting to see.
On the Wednesday night at Happy Valley Racecourse, there was the International Jockeys’ Championship, and though a little weird to have a Brazilian who’s a British resident and a former Champion Jockey of Britain represent Hong Kong, Silvestre de Sousa shared the winning spoils with visitor Tom Marquand.
Other visiting riders Ryan Moore, Jamie Kah, Hollie Doyle, below, and James McDonald showed why they occupy a rarefied space in the big race riding ranks with some exceptional performances.
It goes without saying that the overnight popularity of Jamie Kah with local racing fans after her debut in the city hasn’t been missed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. They are no doubt tripping over themselves to woo her back.
Appearances by these marquee value names helped bring some balance to the annual HKIR week that ended at Shatin.
Until Sunday, it had been a roller coaster ride of dramas with a chain reaction of jockeys being tested for Covid and found to be positive, sidelined and super subs receiving last minute call ups.
Were enough column inches given to saluting the wins and performances at the HKIJC of homegrown racing heroes like Vincent Ho, Derek Leung, trainers Francis Lui, Frankie Lor, Ricky Yiu and new boy Pierre Ng?
The performances of Vincent, Derek and Matthew Chadwick, who came second in the first leg of the HKIJC, deserved more than to be a footnote or an after thought.
They are Hong Kong heroes at a time when Hong Kong heroes are thin on the ground.
One cannot help but wonder rather loudly if it’s time for an independent multilingual multi media sports entertainment company- one that understands the significance why news that music festival Clockenflap will return to Hong Kong next year made it onto the front page of Saturday’s SCMP and the HKIR didn’t.
Attracting a mainstream audience by understanding the most effective mediums for different messages as opposed to throwing everything against the wall and see what sticks is very much needed.
The way horse racing is being marketed and reported and written about in 2022 hasn’t changed in decades.
Often it’s like looking at some parochial old boys club.
One was reminded of this on Saturday when listening to veteran Australian racing talking heads Steve Moran and Matt Stewart discussing the HKIR on RSN, a relatively new media partner of the HKJC pushing the “Australianess” of Hong Kong racing.
Does this even make sense?
Then again, The Dead People’s racing and sports station in Melbourne with one of its main sponsors being a funeral parlour is hardly a throbbing hub of inter-activity.
Moving right along...
With Hong Kong as a backdrop, other than constant updates in the racing pages and good old Twitter, there’s nothing much else happening to really take the world’s best International racing to the next level.
If trying to convince a mainstream global audience that there is something to horse racing worth following without going down the same old garden path, this year’s HKIR week could have been a great opportunity for some forward thinking.
Though continuing to attract the best jockeys and equine talent in the world, there’s really nothing consumer friendly to the various layers of the hardcore sponge cake being served.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but, ideally, HKIR week should have been a week long celebration, not only to Hong Kong racing and how far it’s travelled, but also to Hong Kong, the city- something talked about for months for all the right reasons.
It’s more than one night or one afternoon where the objective is often to have corporate KPIs met, but with seemingly no contingency plans for sustainability.
If true, this has a somewhat shallow “love you short time” mentality.
Here could also have been the chance to offer overseas audiences who believe that the city is in a vice-like grip because of a Zero-Covid policy with a different and less gloomy picture of Hong Kong- a Hong Kong that has, for one reason or another, become one of the most misunderstood cities in the world.
As a Hong Kong Belonger with much to be thankful for what this city has given me- primary and secondary schooling, a marriage, a daughter and careers in advertising, marketing and the music industry- it’s really about putting this “house” back in order without smoke and mirrors and the enticement of $50 food coupons.
At least when Hong Kong was a barren rock, there was a future to look forward to and see the unlimited opportunities that lay ahead.
Today’s Hong Kong is like the Beatles’ Jo Jo trying to get back to where he, she or it once belonged.
In a city that’s kinda lost when it comes to where it might be heading, this affects tourism without which nothing works.
The pastime of following horse racing has always offered those who are now twenty and thirty years older than they were some shelter from the storm.
Where the only other pastimes available to people remain shopping, hiking and playing mahjong, horse racing hasn’t wrung in any changes other than new betting apps and masked people bumping elbows together.
For all the talk of “customercentricity”, one wonders where those juicy carrots are to attract those who are not part of a captive audience like those ageing “racing uncles” who shuffle through the turnstiles for their freebies.
Did HKIR Week attract those younger people of different nationalities who attended the three days of the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens? Maybe horse racing doesn’t need them.
Shouldn’t the Hong Kong Jockey Club be looking at giving one of the city’s most popular pastimes an emotional attachment instead of always veering towards pandering to the very rich?
This type of thinking goes all the way back to the colonial days of Hong Kong which James Clavell wrote about so knowingly.
Those days are long gone, baby. They left the Noble House with Ian Dunross.
For myself, I have always held firm to the belief that the Hong Kong Jockey Club should be positioned as being more than another racing club.
This is because of its invaluable USP that is the Charities Trust.
Through this Charities Trust, much is given to the community via various programmes for the elderly, children, advancing education, the arts etc.
How many in Hong Kong know what this Charities Trust does beyond perhaps coming across a sponsored page in a few newspapers with some happy snaps?
More to the point, this part of the Club’s product personality not being part of HKIR week is, at least to me, missing out on a huge brand building opportunity.
By cherry picking and bringing the more commercially interesting aspects of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust into the mix could only help take a horse racing product packaged pretty much as it has been for decades to a mainstream audience.
Done well, here’s something that could also reach a far greater global audience by showing that Racing Cares- about everyone.
It could even help bring in some well-known brands and their marketing teams and expertise instead of continuing with subjective over-thinking and corporate waffling.
Trotting out numbers and reporting on which jockey won what and on which horse is fine as news that goes straight into the racing pages and, like always, stays there.
Showing horse racing having a more community oriented side to it- and, gawd forbid, perhaps even a fun element- just might be what Hong Kong needs in the here and now- and a pastime that’s no longer what it once was.
It was interesting being with and listening to a group of friends in the global entertainment industry who happened to be in Hong Kong for meetings during HKIR week.
Did they wish to go horse racing? Not in the new abnormal, no, and especially because they had been to the International races when Hong Kong was one of the most exciting cities in the world.
They weren’t interested in seeing some scaled down masked up version for one night with what some mentioned was an intrusive light show and a DJ pumping out some eerie sounding repetitive beats in between the races.
These friends were looking for a totally different and Made In Hong Kong multi media and on the ground experience.
There’s always a need to listen to others and be open enough to man up and take on board what they are saying and see the forest for the trees. It helps to keep from getting lost in the clutter.
There’s also a need to take the blinkers off, remove the masks, smell the dim sum and see what the future holds and where this future lies.
Better yet, work with the new generation of entrepreneurs and marketers in Hong Kong to help create and shape this future- and know how and when it’s time to pass the baton.
Copyright © Hans Ebert