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That Sinking Feeling Issue

Let’s face it, only the Royal Ascot carnival that ended last week can pull off the pomp and circumstance surrounding the brilliant equine athletes, top hats, tails, strawberries and scones on display.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s all the everything else that shows how the other half live.

For example, Hong Kong in 2024 is a confused city of random won ton dumpling moments.

This randomness might be needed to see the way forward, but, jeez, it’s taking a rather long time for the government and everyone else whose job it is to to get the city where it needs to be- wherever this might be. Probably more dumplings.

Some of us watched part of these dumplings about two weeks ago when the rather bland band of local musos at the Beer Garden of the Happy Valley racecourse threw in a Cantonese song- a plodding ballad- into one of their sets for its audience.

Nothing really wrong with this as pretty much everything in Hong Kong has become Chinese, rather down market and very often somewhat goofy.

Hong Kong is a long way off these days from being “Asia’s world city”, or international.

It would be an understatement to say that today’s Hong Kong, with all its mixed messages and drone shows, light shows and Hello Kitty type cuteness promotions to, apparently attract “international tourism” is not exactly where cool things happen.

With low end tour groups from Mainland China brought to the city and their schedule including a visit Happy Valley racecourse to gawk at “the racing circus”, this takes place against a backdrop of odds and sods proving that money is never able to buy style.

What’s being sold today and branded as “Happy Wednesday”is certainly not what it was.

Happy Wednesday was an international smorgasbord of younger people over 18- French, Italian, British, Scandinavian, Canadian, Hong Kong Belongers etc-enjoying ‘live’ music featuring some of the best musicians in town, themed nights and fun people along with the night’s 8-9 horse races.

To continue referring to what’s now taking place as “Happy Wednesday” might even be considered by some as “false advertising”, or wishful thinking as there’s nothing “happy” nor young nor fun despite the efforts to get the motors running of what’s left of the television audience bothering to watch horse racing.

The truth is a bitter pill to swallow, Tonto.

One doubts any of this is lost on the CEO of what is still known as the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, a dyed in the wool horse racing man who certainly would not have been out of place at Royal Ascot in top hat and tails and enjoying sucking on strawberries with King Charles and doing his Octopus Dance with Queen Camilla.

The 70 year old German has done a wunderbar job of making Hong Kong horse racing an international product when the city was, well, international, and seen by the world as something that was perhaps more than the sum of its parts.

Today? Who knows?

Bresges has made himself almost irreplaceable through hires and fires, the constantly moving of goalposts, reshuffling the organisation chart, and having his Dad’s Army of well paid corporate loyalists paid to follow the leader.

Well played.

In 2024, however, when the world is being seriously challenged by several invisible enemies, radical changes in lifestyles, new life priorities including re-evaluating relationships, and with the global economy heading deep into the south, even the most cockeyed optimist would agree that horse racing in this new abnormal is a misfit- something that’s had its time- at least in its current guise.

What lies ahead, just like everything else, is murky and fuzzy and like today’s topic du jour-AI- far from being what it is and what today’s world is trying to be.

Does it even know?

As for horse racing, the more the pastime tries to change, there’s the reality that most of racing’s leaders are closing in on retirement age, and possibly want nothing to rock their casbah and their cash cow.


The more this happens, various Fawlty Towers type potholes appear along with seeing extremely little ammunition to turn things around for a possible future.

It’s not unlike shooting blanks. Or shooting one’s self in the foot. Or just playing for time.

The rudderless ship, for example, that’s Racing Victoria in Australia is proof positive that finding the “right people” to man the oars is almost mission impossible.

Maybe some want it this way? It allows for more control and less competition.

The now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t hiring of RVL CEO Andrew Jones has seen a Keystone Cops type of madcap search for a replacement.

How serious was this search?

Did someone or an entire board goof when approving the hiring of Jones, especially if he was supposedly so wrong for the job?

So what did the RVL board finally do this week?

Promote from within.

In a somewhat desperate attempt at finding someone to fill the hole, someone named Tim Eddy, who’s been sitting on the board for over five years, was named the new Chairman.

Not surprisingly, Jonathan Munz, head of the racehorse owners, has come out with guns blazing over this appointment just as he did about the qualifications of Andrew Jones to run a racing club.

Interested about how any of this is going to play out?

Gawd knows, RVL is not the only racing club to consistently bring in expensive hires and hide their expensive mistakes just in case someone at the top of the tree gets worried about looking less than savvy and an overrated dodo bird.

Another thing to those who might believe that the world stops for horse racing is this: There really aren’t many takers for senior executive positions in what is a sunset industry that’s almost a semi retirement home for the aged.

One cannot help but wonder if these executive searches, no matter how pointless they might be, include trying to find those who really really really understand (A) technology and something as obvious as how much ‘live’ streaming has and continues to change attendance figures and the sporting landscape (B) Rights issues and new online copyright laws (C) Why the introduction of subscription based sites for just about anything is not working (D) the need for organisation charts relevant to the business world in the new abnormal and (E) Hire those with the ability to have mentoring skills and nurture new talent…

The bottom line is that whatever else it might try to be through smoke and mirrors, a subservient media, a quaint and set narrative and various meetings of the corporate talking heads, horse racing is a business.

There’s a need to understand that this business is on very shaky financial ground and with a quiet sense of loud desperation strangling it.

While always remembering what happened to the Singapore Turf Club- and why- and what also brought about the end of horse racing in Macau, even the once immovable object that’s Peter The Great at Racing New South Wales appears to be facing problems.

These problems have to do with the War Of Rosehill, and gaining Group 1 status for his (?) Everest horse race.

These appear to have provided him with a face-saving way out by taking his NRL ball and pitch the sport’s entertainment value to America, where there might be a far bigger audience for it and a better future.

Meanwhile, Gillon McLaughlin, 51, below, who was meant to be a shoe-in as the replacement for sacrificial lamb Andrew Jones, has resigned as head of the AFL and joined the other old boys club that’s Tabcorp.

Tabcorp has been asleep at the wheel for well over a decade and has allowed the more “entrepreneurial” bookmakers like Ladbrokes and Sportsbet to roll all over them with a host of new wagering options including some that appeal to those players rather unconvinced with the “whirlpool”. 

Though a successful businessman, and not a gremlin when it comes to knowledge about wagering on sports, the jury is still out on how well McLaughlin will do in a role which will require a very different mindset and creating a far more exciting brand personality for Tabcorp- and horse racing.

Who’s going to be horse racing’s charismatic knight in shining armour and with the nous to create a new business model for an old product- a product that might have the potential to attract a new customer base?

This question is not only about finding that next generation of racing fans. It’s about attracting those OTHER than the usual suspects and who can AFFORD to be part of horse racing as INDIVIDUAL investors in what is an expensive BUSINESS decision, especially in a down economy.

There’s a very big difference between the two.

Being a one trick pony, something the much larger entertainment industry is learning about and where Taylor Swift reigns supreme, could become rather scary, and eventually, boring.

Here’s some possible food for thought to chew on that goes back to when in advertising, then running two different global music companies and creating the Happy Wednesday brand for the HKJC and looking at trying to make horse racing attractive and RELEVANT to possible business partners…

NONE of this is going to happen by regurgitating what might have worked in 2010- which was fourteen years ago and included the Covid and lockdown years.

According to the head of a multinational ad agency, “Any business that comes with a mandatory warning about gambling has a stigma attached to it that makes it difficult to be likeable to a mainstream audience and the mainstream media”.

There also appears to still exist an old school chasm between the racing product and the holistic business model of horse racing- and the need for very different business and marketing strategies.

Then again, one has to wonder whether a gambling driven product like horse racing even needs marketing, let alone creative marketing and award winning advertising selling aspirational values?

Or could there also be something so very basic missing, because of those who should, not knowing who its potential customer might be in the new abnormal and how to attract and communicate with them in new ways?



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