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The HKJC and Finding Never Land...and its holistic self.

Updated: Jan 10

Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the long serving CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, is an extremely knowledgeable racing man who, quite rightly, is very proud of his racing product and which, over the years, he has elevated to an international level. 


Hong Kong owned horses winning three of the four Group 1 races in December this year at the International Races in Shatin further cemented this position of Hong Kong being seen as a leading racing jurisdiction.

The million dollar question being asked by some who have even a passing interest in horse racing is, “What’s next?” along with what exactly does horse racing bring to a city that appears to be on a steady decline despite bibs and bobs to get Hong Kong onto an even footing and attract international tourism and not only budget tour groups from China.


With questions like these being asked, what was interesting to read on Tuesday was the CEO being quoted in a piece by racing writer Sam Agars in the SCMP, where he was honest enough to mention his feelings concerning the seemingly lack of kudos from the government- specifically from the Chief Executive of Hong Kong- John Lee- about the international successes of Hong Kong racing.


The CEO- and having worked alongside with him for over a decade to make the Happy Wednesday brand happen and knowing him more than many- seems somewhat concerned that horse racing in Hong Kong is seen only as some bloated cash cow through the income the government receives from betting taxes. He hopes to turn this perception around.

As John Lee praises ‘world-class’ tennis, Jockey Club chief implores government to see racing ‘not only as an income source’

It’s obvious that while throwing his support behind the Rugby Sevens and Robbie McRobbie, Chairman of the Hong Kong and China Rugby Union, and, most recently, being full of praise about the return of the Hong Kong Tennis Open, described as a “world class sports event”, John Lee, unlike his predecessor Carrie Lam, pretty much leaves horse racing to its own devices.

One can’t really blame John Lee for doing this. It’s his prerogative, and in his position, he’s very likely to have greater priorities to address. Plus, what is newsworthy is something decided by the editors of what’s left of the media landscape. John Lee attending the opening of an envelope is news.


On the other hand, being very proud of his racing product, the CEO of the HKJC, comes across in the SCMP piece as being somewhat miffed by the absence of big love from the government- and coverage of the Hong Kong racing successes by the news media.


The question is whether horse racing is really “news” per se to a mainstream audience and a mainstream media?


As has been written here for years, the one USP that the HKJC has over every other racing club in the world is its Charities Trust, which still continues to travel under the radar and with many in Hong Kong in the dark about how it works to benefit the community. 

Sponsored advertorials and piece meal announcements about how what is a truly holistic version of the HKJC comes together to give millions of dollars back to the community remains unclear and is seen as lots of random numbers. 


Sometimes these numbers add up and other times they’re too much hard work for the average person to bother trying to understand unless married to the mob- and the pastime.


After all, we’re living in a post pandemic mixed up fruitcake world where many have far greater priorities and anxieties than following everything happening with the HKJC or wondering when Golden Sixty might race next and checking out jockeys latest Facebook posts. 


“We have to sometimes show a little bit more what we do for Hong Kong and what we can do for Hong Kong”, said a rather contemplative Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges to the SCMP, and found time to mention the “entertainment” value of horse racing through its night racing, and the worldwide audience figures that, for example, last year’s HKIR attracted.

The CEO could have been reading what has been written here over and over again about what myself- and others- see as a weak communications strategy and a lack of the necessary skills to market its all-important Charities Trust.


Along the way have been some rather awkward and confusing attempts recently to tart up the image of jockeys by having them wear bow ties or picture them to be brooding movie stars.


News flash: None are actually doppelgängers for Ryan Gosling or Timothee Chalamet or male models. 


They are hard working jockeys and should be seen as such- and on horses.

What perhaps the CEO needs to be reminded is that here is a city trying to understand itself better after the lockdown and racing bubble years and what its brand personality might be moving forward. 


This, plus trying to win over a generation going through a myriad of personal changes as they have changed forever.


As someone very much part of the international music and movie industry, there’s also “entertainment”, and then there’s strategic entertainment marketing that somehow needs to be in sync and relevant with horse racing- in Hong Kong and in 2024.


This is where something like the hiring process of talent is crucial as there’s the need to find those who are intuitive and have the marketing experience and chutzpah to deliver by scoring home runs- as opposed to scoring own goals. 


There also needs to be an understanding of today’s different customer segments, and who amongst them might be interested in horse racing- and how to tap into their level of interest. 


For example, those very local youngsters who recently attended the races at Shatin when Canto Popsters Collar performed onstage as a warm up act before the main event of Group 1 racing were fans of the group. 


Having zero emotional attachment with horse racing and very probably risk averse to gambling, they left soon after their idols had performed. 


Their seats were taken by Hong Kong’s racing uncles and aunties who might spend around HK$300 each race day.

Having said this, wouldn’t this younger age group, and who is the future of Hong Kong, be interested in knowing how the HKJC Charities Trust operates, and which these days includes the rather vague sounding Institute of Philanthropy?

How far has this “philanthropic” idea moved since the big press launch almost two months ago and where are the updates?

Why can’t the work of the Charities Trust not be used as infotainment as part of the “on course experience”, or marketed to television and streaming audiences during those often tedious twenty something minutes between the races?

Instead of depending on the local media, why can’t a credible journalist like CNN’s highly respected Christiane Amanpour or Anderson Cooper be asked if they might be interested enough to interview the HKJC CEO about the HKJC Charities Trust and its role in the “betterment” of Hong Kong?

Has this ever been done- throwing the net wider than Kowloon?

Why can’t the Charities Trust have 2-3 Global Partners and goodwill ambassadors like Angelina Jolie who works with the UNHCR, and former football great Ruud Gullit who recently visited Hong Kong and was not happy to know about the very little exercise that kids here get?

Wouldn’t these names give the Charities Trust the global branding and fresh new start that it needs?

At least from the outside looking in there appears to be a marketing and communications team at the HKJC seemingly haphazardly throwing everything against the wall and hoping something sticks. 

Did someone at the HKJC actually recommend that the now 93 year old diva Rebecca Pan perform at some Hong Kong racing event?

Surely not?

Nothing sticks unless the person leading the project understands that the definition of “entertainment” and “the customer experience” alongside horse racing in 2024’s down economy are very different to what might have worked before and when Hong Kong was the most international city in the world.

The city is no longer attracting international tourism whereas entertainment at a racecourse has to be different to a DJ or some ‘live’ music, something wheeled out these days by almost every other racing club to try and attract those “younger people”. 

Today, having something called a “Happy Wednesday” against the backdrop of an unhappy Hong Kong really doesn’t work. 

The branding of the city’s horse racing is out of sync with the times we’re trying to work out for ourselves and none of this nor audience and turnover numbers attached to the pastime are going to enhance the image of Hong Kong. 

Maybe, like many of us, this is what John Lee is waiting for- a racing product that is likeable, accepted by a mainstream audience and interested enough to be picked up by the mainstream news media.

Maybe only then will the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, China be interested enough to be seen to be endorsing what remains an old business model with no new business streams offering some exciting opportunities for growth?

It’s not going to be easy, but no one said that it would be.

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