Where to next for E.B.? Horse racing, vision, being a Soul Man and the Octopus Dance...
His son Kai probably said it best a few years ago when asked if his father would retire: “He never will retire. They’ll have to physically carry him out of his office”.
Kai is correct. Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, pictured above, is passionate and driven. He lives for his job- not necessarily for the money of which he has plenty- but, as CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, it’s still all about the challenges of making horse racing a global success and, one can only suppose, looking after his own legacy.
When first arriving in Hong Kong from Germany in 1998 as the Director Of Racing, it’s obvious that the man known as E.B, saw everything (and more) that horse racing could be in the city and worked towards making all this happen.
He wasn’t Don Quixote tilting at windmills either. He has certainly succeeded in his quest- many times over.
Like the city itself, Winfried, working closely with then Chairman of the Club in the form of the urbane and very much well connected businessman and horse owner, the late Alan Li, below, made horse racing a vibrant and international product.
Hong Kong soon laid claim to becoming the world’s best racing jurisdiction.
This certainly fast tracked the image of racing in the city at a time when everything about Hong Kong was seen as being world class.
It’s an interesting point to think about and understand- how this one time barren rock became “the gateway to China” and also its own independent brand.
Understanding this might help in making Hong Kong get back on track again. Hmmmmm. Maybe.
Is Winfried ambitious? Anyone who wants to bring about change and raise the standards of everything around them, needs to be ambitious in one way or another.
More importantly, they must be able to deliver. Talk is cheap.
As CEO, Winfried has been delivering for over two decades.
He’s seen it all, heard it all, and being a successful horse breeder and owner himself, knows everything and more about an industry, that those who are not in it, will never understand.
He has navigated this multi headed beast through the good times and was here when Hong Kong was saddled and crippled by the SARS crisis in 2003.
Especially during these pandemic and lockdown times that quickly followed the city riots in 2019, taking a leaf from what Bruce Lee said- “be like water, my friend”- he has been doing what he believed needed for horse racing in Hong Kong to stay afloat.
Some of the things he deemed necessary to keep everyone involved in racing in their own “bubble” and away from the rest of the city might not have been popular with everyone, but it helped win the confidence of the government.
It showed that the Club was working with the Hong Kong government and adhering to its very strict restrictions to quell the Covid pandemic.
Though someone I consider a friend, he and I don’t necessarily agree on everything. There are those times when he seems to get bogged down in the minutia of it all. But who knows what else is going through his mind?
The bottom line is that it’s hard to think of horse racing- and not only horse racing in Hong Kong- without everything it takes to have the leadership skills of Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.
There’s simply no one else around I know who could fill some very big shoes. Not even Kanye West.
Sure, a few names have been mentioned over the years as being his successor, but all have turned out to be third class fringe acts.
If they tick this box, they don’t tick this and that and the other boxes.
Most importantly, I really don’t think anyone has what it takes to match his people skills. The man has style and a very good pedigree.
Though knowing who he was and having a casually friendly and distant relationship with him when I was with Universal Music and then EMI Music, I didn’t really get to know Winfried until being invited to visit the Beer Garden at Happy Valley Racecourse.
Once there, it was to see if I might have any ideas on how to attract a younger customer group to the races.
Over the years, it’s been quite a, well, odd friendship that somehow works between two very different individuals who come from totally different backgrounds, but with both having a great love and respect for films and music and those who create this work.
What some might not know is Winfried’s great love for Black music and artists like James Brown, Lou Rawls, Barry White and the music of Motown.
It’s the music that draws him onto the dance floor and where he comes up with his own unique octopus moves with arms flaying everywhere. It’s quite something.
As for movies, well, other than our mutual respect for the work of Tarantino, Scorsese, and what might some might consider to be cult movies, he and I could discuss every scene in the Godfather trilogy, and find especially interesting the relationship between the complex Michael Corleone and the loyalty of consigliere Tom Hagen.
For myself, all this is not something I find in people every day.
From him, I have learned a helluva lot about horse racing, especially the ability to look at things from the outside where I can observe things very differently.
Hopefully, he’s learned from my often quite long and winding conversations about this and that, which eventually get to the point about how the creative process works and what effective and strategic marketing can achieve.
Sometimes, yes, he’s nodded off listening to me, which is not to say that I haven’t gone astral travelling when he unloads on how his day has been.
Importantly, we have each other’s backs. There’s an invisible bond that doesn’t have to be explained.
Often, silence speaks volumes.
That first visit to the Beer Garden resulted in bringing ‘live’ music into the mix along with themed nights and creating the game changer that became the Happy Wednesday brand.
The former Sassy Wednesday branding with its somewhat mature escort club imagery was quickly deleted.
Perhaps surprising to some is that there was no meddling from the CEO. He knew things were not only under control, but also that those Happy Wednesday nights were working, and how there was plenty of room for improvement.
The success of Happy Wednesday also enhanced the image of the HKJC. It tapped into a mainstream audience.
Despite not exactly having a team of creative marketing gurus with whom to work, we had succeeded where others in racing had failed and continue to fail.
As mentioned, it’s hard, no, it’s impossible to think of anyone else running the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Especially in today’s new abnormal where there might be much happening in the world of technology, extremely few out there are still to know where any of this will really fit.
The metaverse, NFTs etc are all very new, and it will be no surprise if completely new industries come on stream.
As for the old school world of horse racing built around wagering, turnover and the usual building blocks from Dad’s Army, it will, of course, continue in its current guise with a few cosmetic changes.
Not to be the harbinger of bad news and the obvious, but the odds are that many of us will not be around to see where everything might possibly lead and who will be in racing’s new Starship Enterprise and if there will be a Captain Kirk and Mr Spock onboard.
There will always be Klingons. They’re everywhere and nowhere even now.
From his office on the 16th floor that’s the size of an airplane hangar in the grey, cold and sterile building in 1 Sports Road that houses the HKJC, the CEO juggles all those very different coloured balls in the air and keeps everything moving at an even keel.
It’s always been quite an extraordinary one-man act with a few key well paid executives in tow and following orders.
Then again, there aren’t many who want to join the Club just for the love of racing.
Many are there because it helps pay the rent whereas the work isn’t exactly challenging or motivating.
It’s hardly the most inspiring place to work and where there has seldom been much pride placed on the creative product. Even Don Draper wouldn’t last long there.
When I joined, it was on the condition that I would be on the outside looking in and not having to work at 1 Sports Road. I would have lasted less than three minutes.
I had inherited whoever was there and would often think just how out of place I was in the middle of it all.
If not for Winfried, do you really think I would have stayed on working with the Club for as long as I have?
Money can’t buy everything. Some things are simply not for sale.
As for the Hong Kong Jockey Club building at 1 Sports Club, it’s equal parts Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory with its Oompah Loompahs, The Empire Strikes Back and The Twilight Zone.
Having said all this, there have been some terrific times being with the Club- meeting the world’s greatest jockeys along with Bjorn from ABBA, footballer Kevin Keegan etc, and enjoying those Happy Wednesday nights with always a very different cast of individuals.
One of my fondest and longest lasting memories will be of Winfried walking into Adrenaline for the last set of the night by the resident band.
He would be taking his tie off as he walked in while staff would bow and scrape and there would be a parting of the waves.
Winfried would look towards the band area. They knew he had arrived and would quickly be playing one of his favourites- probably “The Hustle”, “Love’s Theme” or “Valerie”. He would stand there and let the music take over.
The right leg would start to keep time to the beat and it wasn’t long before he was lost in the moment. The Octopus was about to break out.
It was a long way from where he had just been, which was usually sitting in on some Stewards Enquiry.
It had also been a long day and he needed to unwind.
He and I would sit together at my table and talk about everything and nothing- movies, songs, the racing game and things too weird to mention that was going on in my always dysfunctional love life.
It didn’t matter where these conversations started and the randomness of where they went. What was important and is key is that, more often than not, they ended with us having accomplished more than any of those long drawn out corporate goo goo ga ga meetings that took place in the airplane hangar and which seldom, if ever, took off.
Where to next for Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges?
There’s still work to be done like looking at the upcoming 2022-23 racing season, and with everything dependent on what’s next for Hong Kong.
For myself, it’s watching and observing and seeing where I can make a difference.
One thing is for sure. It’s never about walking through familiar terrain.
It’s always about breaking new ground.