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Is horse racing airborne or heading for a crash landing?

By the time the various “mandatories” are included and everyone offers their input and output, any semblance of a concept to what’s being produced is gone and what’s left is something created by committee.

Not knowing the modus operandi like this and how small marketing budgets can be, at one time or another, every major advertising agency wanted the Hong Kong Jockey Club as a blue chip name on its client roster.

Quickly, however, came the realisation that the creative work was always going to be formulaic- jockeys riding horses, jockeys exercising, the usual rent-a-crowd cheering squad shots, thundering hooves intercut with innocuous sound bites and everything glued together with a rather grandiose sounding track like the William Tell Overture and ending with the obligatory “winning shot” of a jockey pumping the air with their fist.

This formulaic thinking appears to keep running through the marketing of the horse racing product, which is somehow bludgeoned to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

From once selling horse racing through aspirational advertising strategies of being seen as a winner and associated with everything that comes with winning, especially in the advertising behind expensive brands of cognacs, it’s now become a hodge podge of clichés.

As an ad man who has worked as the Regional head of Creative on accounts like McDonald’s, MTV, STARTV, Universal Music and others, the objective for every creative director was to produce work that was of international award winning quality.

When seeing what we had to work with in horse racing, this came down to producing a pastiche of random shots- early morning trackwork shots, drone shots of a race, behind the barriers shots, tracking shots...

When taking over what was labelled “Sassy Wednesday” and creating the Happy Wednesday brand for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, here was at least the opportunity to produce and show a unique weekly on course entertainment driven experience associated with horse racing.

Having the support and trust of the CEO certainly helped. So did having the head of Wagering- and Marketing- and Merchandising- and betting apps- admit that he didn’t know what was “creative” until he saw something he liked. This was usually something from Japan and then copied for local consumption.

Being given the freedom to do what one intuitively knew to be right and bringing in one’s own team for the heavy lifting in a very different Hong Kong to what exists today is what made the very international Happy Wednesday brand the game changer that it became- a sustainable and relatively cool young brand as opposed to one-off pop-ups that have now pretty much become de rigeur in horse racing.

Times change and one can’t continue to live in the past forever and keep repeating the same old stories going back to the good old days of the eighties and nineties while producing, well, schlock.

What racing clubs need to realise is that nothing lasts forever.

Those who might have once enthusiastically supported horse racing are now 30-40 years older and the world has gone through an explosion of what’s called “social media influenza” and the lockdown years.

In their wake is a new generation questioning many things made on their behalf and without their “approval” by those who think they know these “younger people”.

They f***ing don’t.

Even younger people don’t know what other younger people want whereas a gambling oriented pastime like horse racing might bring out the party people a couple of times a year, but there will never be the sustainability, have audience and sponsorship appeal of Formula1, basketball, cricket, tennis, golf, football, rugby etc.

Those running racing clubs might look at documentaries being produced for them and by them and feel that this work is “Netflix creative and exciting”. Please, man, it’s not.

It’s more corn on the cob for those longing to be seen as hip and “happening”.

This work is not “streaming and steaming”, because the audience for horse racing is less than small whereas attendance and turnover are two very different things, especially in these days of a down economy.

What’s there to show, anyway?

Haven’t there been enough of documentaries on the most recognised person in the international world of horse racing- Frankie Dettori?

Miles In Front | A unique look into the world of racing

Just like turnover numbers and the whirlpool and the World Pool, coomingling and fixed odds, everything today is a numbers game because every business KPI is based on the algorithms of Fawlty Towers.

For work to be seen as being successful with audiences- and extended for another season- it’s about winning the ratings game and not unlike a show like “American Idol” or the Kardashians being kept alive.

Who and what in horse racing commands a mainstream audience comprising millions and attracts global brands- megastars like a Lewis Hamilton or a Kohli, Messi, Ronaldo or a David Beckham?

For horse racing, it comes down to the pastime being made to be more likeable and not more talk about turnover that can be a turn-off with few bother to listen unless it’s those doing the maths and there’s something in it for them.

The pastime desperately needs something with substance and built around empathy to hang its hat on before pressing the Refresh button.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club was described by me back in the day as being “more than a another racing club” because of its Charities Trust.

A couple of months ago, this Charities Trust that few in Hong Kong really understand what it does despite the paid advertising to show its commitment to the city announced a HK$5 billion initiative known as The Institute Of Philanthropy.

Sounds big and full of beautiful and bountiful promise- but, not to sound facetious, what exactly is it and how does it work?

Are those highly paid racing executives going to donate a year of their earnings to their favourite charity?

What are these philanthropic projects and how do they become reality and not another herd of white elephants that time forgot?

Having worked with the HKJC for over twelve years and enjoying my time creating the Happy Wednesday brand and seeing it evolve, I learned much about the very odd and sods and backends of horse racing.

Priorities included the annual million dollar fireworks shows and those black tie gala events dinners and all those expensive carrots needed to lure marquee value names in horse racing for HKIR week.

There were the good and the nearly fine, the rather odd hires and organisation charts, meetings a-go-go, massive egos, the posturing, the power plays, the fickleness of racing fans and the importance placed on “face”, feng shui and the need for corporate smoke and mirrors, and posses of superficial toadies.

Having said all this, there might be a very Big Idea to do with being likeable lurking in the sagebrush, but those running racing clubs must first realise that talking to themselves leads everywhere and nowhere.

The racing world needs to understand that there are those who actually believe that the Cox Plate is spelled as the “Cock’s Plate”.

They have also- wait for it- never heard of many of the most well known jockeys and trainers in the world for the simple reason that they don’t follow horse racing and watch simulcasts from places like Argentina.

Those leading the charge in horse racing need to somehow find ways to work with those who are experienced and knowledgeable about marketing because of having been with far more creatively driven and savvy consumer-driven businesses.

These are individuals who might actually know where something like horse racing MIGHT fit into a world in constant change- a world with far greater priorities than dress codes, Neil Diamond songs, tipsters, battlers, being “airborne” and what’s said on whatever Elon Musk is calling his online platform today.

The question is how many of these people believe that something like horse racing even needs marketing?

It’s a very good question.

Horse racing is old enough to finally grow up and reshape a one dimensional business model into something that’s more than its parts and is seen by governments as being useful to society.

Every government wants to be loved by its communities and to be associated with businesses that are a success- even businesses that are often weighed down by the gambling albatross of bad vibes.

Maybe it’s time for Old Spice corporate pomposity to shake off the mothballs and think of things outside of the barnyard square dance.

Like what?

Like maybe going back and watching the brilliant Joe Pytka directed “Let It Ride” and just chill.

After that, maybe throwing caution to the wind and producing something as fun and goofy as “Horse Racing: The Musical”.

Either that or get hold of Christopher Nolan or Tarantino and see if they see something in horse racing that’s more than regurgitating everything that’s come before- no matter how “airborne” things might be.

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