The Chief Executive Officer of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges aka E.B, and Chairman of almost every horse racing federation in the world plus his army of homies from 1 Sports Road in Hong Kong left for Melbourne earlier in the week for their three day love fest- the 39th Asian Racing Conference (ARC).
Quick Question: Is it really a somewhat Third World sounding “Asian” racing conference? Are racing clubs from India, Mauritius and Sri Lanka represented? And Singapore, Malaysia and Macau?
Anyhoo.. Along with Team E.B were the pocketful of corporate mumbles and sound bites that are sometimes promises trotted out by the usual suspects, some of whom are now 39 years older. Yes, it was time again for Noah’s ARC- the love-in organised by ARF-the Asian Racing Federation- where some of horse racing’s greatest minds chewed the cud, listened, patted each other on the back for work well done, played Show And Tell presentations, and very probably ended up speaking to themselves.
Knowing how some of those knee deep in horse racing, who, for one reason or another, think of these conferences and describe them as “junkets” and a waste of time, these are still part of taking care of business just like other industries have their own conferences that are also pretty inward looking. Despite all the talk to be “bold” and forward thinking, many in horse racing who are hired to lead eventually suffer from shrinkage, become risk averse and fall back on old ways. It’s not unlike when Executive Director with Universal and EMI Music Asia and travelling around the world for international marketing conferences, or when Director of Creative Services at ad agency DDB and going to Hamburger University when working on the McDonald’s business. What did we get out of these worldwide conferences? It depended on the individual and the mentors we had and how committed we were to our careers. Apart from clocking air miles, checking out the newest six star hotels in London, Paris, Amsterdam etc, having some fun times clubbing and finding a Chinese restaurant after tiring of tapas in Barcelona, we met a few executives who were Don Draper savvy and inspired us to have inquisitive minds and grow some balls.
Though never having attended any of these Asian Racing Conferences, but having created the Happy Wednesday brand for the HKJC, one can only assume that these gatherings keep coming back to a Gordon Gekko type of corporate culture driven by turnover and where Greed Is Good. It’s nothing personal, it’s business and this is about the business of ensuring that horse racing continues to keep running and making a profit. It’s hardly about trying to save the world. At the conference in Melbourne- and there’s still a day to go- the powerful head of Racing New South Wales- Peter V’Landys-never walked up the gang plank to be part of the ARC.
This just isn’t the way he rolls. And without old Pete present, well, nothing happens. It’s just spinning the wheels and getting nowhere- at least in Australia.
On the first day of the ARC, Robyn Whishaw, below, a respected board member representing Tasmania at Racing Australia, announced that she had resigned.
She’d had enough of the “toxicity”, politics played out by the untouchables in racing in Australia and was getting out.
How many women with clout are involved in horse racing to stop it continuing to be an old boys club getting older and older?
As for Pete, it’s been over three decades and his relationship with the Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO, and the Chairman of the ARC- E.B- is still frostier than Frosty The Snowman at The Icecapades. There’s a long story behind The Big Chill. This year, and slap, bang in the middle of Noah’s time to shine and walk on water, Pete was busy taking another group of racing people to court- this time, Racing Victoria along with the every other racing clubs in Australia. It showed that nothing has changed and things are as dysfunctional and fragmented as ever. The king of disruption had found a new way to make sure that nothing could really happen without him and try and rain on E.B’s parade and that of host Andrew Jones, the CEO of Racing Victoria and the rest of their RVL posse. Still, the show went on and this paved the way for the experienced and knowledgeable E.B. to shine and be the Chauncey Gardener, Solomon and Spider-Man of horse racing.
He had the floor, he had the ceiling, and had the tight shirt and the ears of old mother Hubbard’s cupboard all to himself. The Theme From “E.T” should have played every time E.B. jogged up onstage.
Presentations were made, questions were asked and answered, everyone played their designated roles, Martin Pakula was there, and, er, Dress Codes were discussed.
How does any of this matter in the grand scheme of things? Is there a Big Picture objective to enhance the overall image of horse racing and attract those looking for something, well, young, different and fun?
Where are the female racing executives, especially those below forty? Think these appointments wouldn’t have an enormous impact on the image of horse racing and make it more likeable and mainstream friendly? As for the here and now, I am being dead serious when saying that from a corporate point of view, it was a pity that Pete was once again a no-show at the ARC. It’s high time that the racing industry saw The Pete And E.B Show on the same stage, and at least pretending to work as a team.
Both have their strengths and weaknesses, both have enormous egos and both no doubt love the smell of napalm and power in the morning. Both are strong individuals with one possibly more streetwise and rough around the edges, and the other more academically inclined, measured and dressed in very tight shirts and Hugo Boss suits. The irony is that if they were to offer each other an olive branch before they retire, this just might be something for the betterment of the cause they’re supposedly so passionate about- the success of horse racing on a global scale- as opposed to individual agendas. Having both occupy the stage at the same time to tackle the pros and cons in horse racing, apart from being damn good theatre, is needed. It’s needed to take, especially horse racing in Australia, out of the Dark Ages and almost a feudal system with village elders engaging in an ongoing and tedious Game Of Thrones, but without all the sexy gore.
Meanwhile, though one listened to an enthusiastic and an excited Eddie McGuire, the one-time President of Collingwood football club, mention to Matt Stewart and his sidekick from the dead people’s radio station how horse racing must change with the times, to those who have worked with brands like Apple and Nike and Netflix, he was hardly saying anything new.
What’s evident is that horse racing continuing to go it alone with blinkers on and the usual players protecting their turf is not working. It looks old, it IS old, it’s bereft of new, relevant ideas and is lumbering around like Orca the whale flirting with Monty Python’s Mr Creosote.
Horse racing needs to make it a priority to attract and understand how potential creative partners and popular global brands market and advertise their products, especially to that smarter, younger audience with more and more female executives in seats of power, and through original content in the constantly changing social media landscape- and seeing what else new might be around the corner.
It’s ammunition for a future that’s already here. Technology is never the idea, and it’s not about following trends and thinking that finally embracing Netflix is being revolutionary.
How many even know the role of key executive Bela Bejara at Netflix?
It’s about having the right teams to CREATE content that perhaps become trends relevant to today’s consumers. It’s something during the ten years of working with the HKJC on creating the Happy Wednesday brand that the subject of Netflix, ‘live’ streaming and original content was brought up. This was FIVE YEARS AGO, and one cannot see the current crop of racing executives and their underlings moving the chess pieces forward. The doors are opening rather quickly for an independent brand like Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker did with music file sharing company Napster.
These two young entrepreneurs- a kid named Zuckerberg was with them- brought the big music companies to their knees.
It really would not surprise if something similar does the same to racing clubs and the wagering landscape. Thoughts on those hires who are brought in these days to market horse racing? No thoughts at all and it really depends on their roles and where exactly they fit into the organisation chart. What no creative person wants, however, is to work with mediocre talent. It’s why when with Universal and EMI Music and in advertising, we never wanted to work with executives in horse racing. They were the enemy and, well, uncool. We knew that the work would never end up on our showreels nor win us any awards. There were the times, however, when I was a consumer and drawn to horse racing because of being with like-minded friends and enjoyed adventures together. During these post pandemic days, there’s not so much enjoyment. I have seen too much, haven’t liked what I have seen. There’s zero interest in going racing as friends prefer to use their time doing something else- like being the next generation of entrepreneurs. Some friends know too much about the inner workings of racing while others believe that the game is “not fun” and “don’t speak their language”. Others believe that horse racing offers nothing of substance to society. I can’t change their minds, and it’s not my job to try. After all, being in advertising and marketing, I have used my god-given talents to convince people to eat more McDonald’s burgers and sold aspirational values through showing celebrating success with friends and enjoying bottles of Martel cognac in upmarket escort clubs. If there’s one thing I can do without, it’s the hypocrisy in horse racing like being told to “Gamble Responsibly” and then offered a cheese platter of gambling opportunities. Especially as a parent, I don’t like this. I also cringe at the ongoing games of musical chairs where the same old names keep showing up despite being long past their Use By dates. And yet these are the people talking about “innovation”. Personally speaking, though Elon Musk would have been an interesting choice, this 39th Asian Racing Conference should have perhaps invited someone like Craig Williams as a keynote speaker.
The man does his homework, he’s no fool and listening to what the champion jockey might have had to say about the marketing of a pastime that some say is suffering from shrinkage no matter what the numbers say might have offered something different from corporate babble. Numbers often lie because of hires needing to meet KPIs, whereas most of the inhabitants of the ARC and ARF have already made their retirement plans. Talking about a future they know they’ll never see seems rather daft. I know, I know: So what’s the point of the ARC? With what happened in Melbourne now coming to a close, the racing scribes present will write, the pontificators have pontificated, and everyone is about to return to their respective corners telling their respective racing bubbles just what a fabulous success it all was and how this was the most successful Noah’s ARC. Again, what does any of this mean? Horse racing is a business and offers an opportunity for those interested enough to gamble on the various wagering products made available. What needs to be understood as part of trade communications in publications like Bloomberg and The Financial Times is what will go missing if there’s actually no horse racing. For instance, in Hong Kong, the betting taxes on horse racing means lower taxes. There’s employment for over 30,000 and the profits are ploughed back into the community through the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. In Australia, horse racing is the third most important industry and Racing Victoria profits do go back into the community. This is where the great minds in horse racing skip a few beats and forget about doing an internal inventory, and promoting what racing gives back to the various communities. What also goes walkies is forgetting to work at making horse racing a more LIKEABLE pastime to those who see it as a pox on society with the face of Joe Pesci.
For my money, this is where the corporate world of horse racing drops the ball and keeps having to go into Defence mode. Horse racing might be what some describe as a necessary evil- but so are many other things in life that are somehow accepted without question. When working on the McDonald’s business, the Golden Arches were regularly under fire from all sides. What did the brand do? Introduce McSalads, rebranded the fast food outlets as restaurants, identified a dinner trade and gave the creepy Ronald McDonald the boot. Now, all THIS was bold!
Sesame Street had happened and Ronald and his McDonaldland friends had run their course. It was about being in tune with the times- the music, the mood of the world, and then distilling everything into what mattered and how to sell this.
In the music industry, we learned the hard way that we in the music companies couldn’t sue everyone who disagreed with or went rogue. The music fans were siding with the independent upstarts online like Napster and agreeing on illegal file sharing which was also winning over the artists who had their own problems with the arrogance of those running the majors. For horse racing, it’s still not too late to look beyond the obvious of things like the very different aspects of ‘live’ streaming. There’s also a need to look at better creative corporate communications, and- THIS IS KEY-what more can be done during those 26 minutes between races other than some gawdawful cover versions of the hits from forty years ago. It’s getting late, too late to see, and it’s time for what I describe as The New Post Pandemic Honesty. Enough of more Corporate Speak from those completely out of touch with The Now. The wagons are circling pretty much everything to do with gambling- perception and otherwise. Add to this, horse racing simply not looking attractive enough and starting to be too much of a hassle to bother with. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re invisible now, you have no secrets to conceal”.