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Who will eventually replace Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges as CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club?

Who will dance their way into the multi million dollar role of eventually succeeding the 68-year-old German known as Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges (WEB) as the next CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club?



Instead of addressing the elephant in the room, those who keep asking this question seem to tiptoe around this HK$24 million plus plus plus subject.


Then again, isn’t this how many of those associated with the Hong Kong Jockey Club function?


Like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, it’s where no one knows nothing, but everyone wants to know everything.



It’s where gossip grows on trees.



Before working on and creating what became the Happy Wednesday brand, WEB was a passing acquaintance I would see around the Grand Hyatt at lunchtime.


I was looking after the Regional offices of first Universal, and then, EMI Music.


After turning an empty beer garden at Happy Valley Racecourse, apparently created for an Oktoberfest and nothing else for the rest of the year into something far more entertainment driven than its original name- Sassy Wednesday- the German CEO and I got to know each other as much as two people can coming from very different backgrounds.



Over the next thirteen years, we had many long and fun conversations about a myriad of subjects- movies, music, marketing, wines, loyalty, trust etc during private dinners and at the HKJC club called Adrenaline after the last race had been run.




It was a friendship that worked and a solid bond was formed as we needed nothing from each other except to simply be there for each other, listen, advise, and be good sounding boards.


Of course, there were those within the Club who weren’t comfortable with this new friendship and tried to detonate it, but as WEB reminded me many times, “Jealousy must be earned”.



Over the many private dinners, I heard much, and had grown tired of listening to the overload of news about Hong Kong racing.


The stories started to sound almost Dickensian with a somewhat Oliver Twisted business strategy in place and Fagin in charge of some orphans.



In the midst of all this, someone from Denmark was in my life and she was making me look at many things in life in ways I had not seen nor thought about before.


Because of her, I started to see a very different Hong Kong to what came before and made me think back to the creative industries and those brilliant mentors in my life like advertising legend Keith Reinhard, and their proven leadership skills.



Where I now found myself was knee deep in something ignored in the past as being a pastime ignored by most of us in the advertising and music industries- horse racing in Hong Kong with its cast of often desperate characters and a racing club being okay having an inexperienced team of order takers working on its version of marketing.


Did those who created the organisation chart even understand the differences between marketing, promotions, sponsorship, public relations and trade and consumer advertising and PSAs?


Still, for me, it was about receiving a good pay cheque for not having to come into the somber Star Chamber offices at 1 Sports Road, and a gig that wasn’t exactly brain salad surgery.



Staying on for thirteen years happened organically despite telling myself that once getting what turned out to be the Happy Wednesday brand off the ground, making it a global success, and adding it to my portfolio, I would return to the creative and artist driven music industry.


During that time, I got sidetracked for a few months that weren’t unlike something from “The Hangover” movie franchise when my relationship with the Great Dane fell apart.


But one learns from these hiccups and moves on...


Though proud of what had morphed into Happy Wednesday, the social turmoil that crippled Hong Kong in 2019 undid pretty much everything that was created- and happy.


It was a very depressing time in Hong Kong, and for someone like myself who enjoys at least trying to come up with solutions to creative problems by working with talented people, that type of team was a long time gone.


Meanwhile, a smart and attractive new person in the legal profession walked into my life about five years ago purely by chance and saved me from myself.


She also wasn’t exactly naive about Hong Kong racing, the investment involved in owning horses, and always referred to the Hong Kong Jockey Club as the “evil empire”.


She also believed that I was wasting my time working at what she saw as some weird corporate altar of gambling, hypocrisy and greed and trying to market something like horse racing when having worked with international artists like David Bowie, Gorillaz, Radiohead, Coldplay and Norah Jones, below.



When with EMI and writing an online racing column called Racingbitch purely as a hobby, I’d learned quite a bit about the business model and politics behind the barriers.



Critics of the Club included my great barrister friend- the late Kevin Egan, below, who had an inside track into many things to do with horse racing- Citibet in the Philippines, the numbers game, the rebates, those who kept their jobs despite being completely useless, others asked to leave before whoever was after them caught them, and why some kept receiving Christmas presents even in July.



Memorable was having lunch with Big Kev and him asking, or telling me, “You know why you’re being offered this job of mopping up an empty Beer Garden, don’t you?


“Racingbitch is criticising various sacred cows and you’re getting too close to the truth. It’s making some people look stupid. They don’t like this and those who they cannot control. You’re being bought off”.


Sure, I knew...


For years, with money buying my silence, I turned a deaf ear to those even within the Club nattering about the weaknesses of Hong Kong racing, and the “dictatorship” of its CEO.


WEB wasn’t a “dictator”. Au contraire.


I think he sees himself as something of a Renaissance man and perfectionist in an imperfect world.


It’s a world that he runs like Willy Wonka with a certain self effacing sense of humour that many will find hard to believe.


It’s also where Okay is good enough if done according to how he wants things done by his resident Oompah Loompahs.


There’s nothing really wrong with this, none of this affected me, and as Alfred E Neumann would say, “What? Me? Worry?”




Around 2018, the Happy Wednesday brand created to attract a younger and more international demographic to the races was looking out of sync in an increasingly unhappy, locked down and far more localised Hong Kong.


This followed quite an exodus of expats out of Hong Kong.


Though often embarrassed by the formulaic and kinda goofy ideas and strategies coming out of the “nerve centre” of the HKJC, I didn’t want anyone to think that the use of things like a disco version of The William Tell Overture in their commercials were ideas from me.


This type of work could affect my brand.


Moving along...


While offered new career opportunities including taking up a leadership role in an international entertainment driven streaming service, my mind was made up for me when the Happy Wednesday brand was surreptitiously taken away late last year and handed over to someone specifically hired by my old ally WEB.


But why the need for such secrecy from someone I regarded as a friend?


These types of knee jerk hires, especially in what passes itself off at the HKJC as “marketing”, have come and gone over the years.


What was odd about this time, however, was the way in which two new hires were introduced to me by WEB.


It was something that could have been handled with more honesty and respect, especially from a friend, but it wasn’t.



Being on the outside looking in, not part of the HKJC structure, and having learned about corporate politics from my decades in advertising and the music industries, nothing prepared me for the low blows of how the Club seems to treating people where everyone is discardable- and for sale.


Having been pre-warned that “The Last Supper” organised by the CEO in the super duper new Clubhouse at Happy Valley was to be served with a smiling Judas, a Delilah and Keyser Soze Jr in my midst, I had done my “due diligence” and was prepared for whatever was to be sent my way.



It was an uncomfortable lunch while waiting for the other shoe to drop.


This other shoe was delivered in a nonchalant “farewell speech” after dessert by “Keyser” Jr who announced that my services working on the Happy Wednesday brand would no longer be required.


This job was to go to “Delilah” who nervously rabbited on about everything and nothing about her previous work experience with nothing she said actually making any sense.


Caring “Judas” sat next to me, watched, listened and allowed things to unfold.



The mail received the next day from WEB apologising for the way the “farewell speech” was delivered and how he knew nothing about it- really?- followed by the tap dancing even after being confronted with the truth was tough to stomach.


That lunch detonated whatever was left of my friendship with the person known as Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges faster than the bridge over the River Kwai.


To me, he suddenly became not unlike how Friedo Corleone must have looked to his brother Michael after knowing about his betrayal in Vegas and Havana.



Nothing the “Evil Empire” does should surprise anyone who’s been privy to its modus operandi and its successes- real and perceived- and ongoing theatre of politics.


A friend succinctly describes the Club as “succeeding despite itself”, and a mini series waiting to be produced and streamed.


I have over ten years of material with which to work.


Understanding the inner workings of Hong Kong horse racing and the Club pretty well, it’s going to be Mission: Impossible to replace the man many know as E.B.



He’s made himself indispensable and has a proven track record over the years boasting massive profits in turnover.


When arriving in Hong Kong all those years ago from Germany with his first wife to be Executive Director Of Racing, and having the considerable backing of the late Alan Li, below, at the time the Chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, WEB helped turn Hong Kong racing into the most successful international racing jurisdiction in the world.



Over the decades in the gambling-driven world of Hong Kong horse racing, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges has played a smart political game of getting rid of his enemies, replacing CEO Lawrence Wong, and ensuring that he surrounded himself with well paid foot soldiers and loyalists.



A few names have been mentioned as potential successors, only for them to almost magically disappear.


Those left have been the usual sycophants.


Perhaps this is what it takes to survive at 1 Sports Road: Play the game, learn to shine the right shoes, and do not ever disagree with the Big Poohbah.



“The Evil Empire” is an ongoing horse opera.


It’s a cash cow that gives the government a healthy percentage in betting taxes, and is a circus comprising clowns, jugglers, and a corporate culture built on a divide and conquer strategy mixed with smoke and mirrors.


The truth is often muted by a compliant racing media that follows a set narrative.


Criticising the Club and its leader is almost tantamount to treason.


In the past 2-3 years, there have been some glaring mistakes made by the Club with goalposts constantly being moved, but, as always, these quietly swept under the carpet.


As for the quality of the racing product, despite the old practice of throwing more and more money to try and attract international jockeys and trainers- and owners- this isn’t working anymore.


Hong Kong racing is looking like the city that is its home- dated, low income local and with no international brand personality nor recognition.


Like most things in Hong Kong, standards have fallen to an all-time low, and a “sunset industry” like horse racing plods along knowing that as long as turnover of HK$1.2 billion in a city of now less than seven million can continue after every race meeting, this could buy time.


For Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, it’s never been easy to hear criticism, especially from within the Club, where he certainly has his detractors despite their hypocritical outpourings of “love”.


When news of me coming on board to turn what was known as “Sassy Wednesday” into Happy Wednesday and create a new website for a younger customer demographic, I was on the receiving end of late night drunk text messages from some in the Club saying that I had joined “the enemy” and “could no longer be trusted”.


I still have these on my trusty old Nokia.


These were people working for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, being paid well, and who despite this, wanted to see it fail.


What does this tell you?


The friendship with WEB is something I came to realise was something that could only last for as long as it did.


To those who pretended to enjoy working alongside me, and with whom I broke bread regularly, it was something they accepted out of Hong Kong Jockey Club induced fear about remaining employed.


Happy Wednesday today, and under the new leadership of “Delilah”, has a different audience.


Some have described it as something resembling a tourist destination for low income tour groups from China and something of a night market for village elders.


Over the past couple of months, there’s been a decline of around 12 percent in turnover and an increase of around 180 percent in attendance.


Something doesn’t add up, Einstein.



Whatever these race meetings are called, they could be so much more and welcomed by all of Hong Kong if looking at a strategy that involves its unique Charities Trust.


Though it might sound odd when connected to the results of horse racing and who will win what, there’s so much more that these race meetings could do to help raise awareness of the less fortunate and the help needed in areas like treating depression.


As for Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, he marches to the beat of his own drum and is still able to navigate his way through the maze of politics that comes with managing the biggest organisation in Hong Kong that employs almost 28,000 people.


Apart from being Chief Executive Officer of the HKJC, the man is also Chairman of the International Federation Of Horse Racing and the Chairman Of The Asian Racing Federation and other titles that would need several pages to list.


What does it all mean?


Here is someone with a well-rehearsed charm offensive and surrounded by those who feed his ego- trainers, jockeys, the handsomely paid senior executives plucked out of obscurity who learn how to play the game, and those so desperate to keep their jobs that they make loud sucking noises when around him.


Nothing, however, lasts forever.


Just as there’s been a changing of the guard taking place throughout the world, not even the once mighty Hong Kong Jockey Club is immune to change.


Though there’s the usual mantra heard for decades about how there will soon be legalised horse racing (of sorts) in China, this has become empty mooing sounds from la la land.


There are other things to take into consideration when trying to answer the question of who might succeed WEB as the next CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.


Two of his one-time favourites are no longer with the Club.


Richard Cheung, below, the impulsive, explosive, combative, racing brainiac, and one-time head of Wagering is gone.



He was also in charge of “marketing” though admitting to me more than once that this wasn’t something he knew anything about. I liked his honesty.


Also gone is Cheung’s arch enemy Scarlet Leung who is still known by some for those billion dollar IBU tables at Adrenaline that quickly disappeared.


The dear lady was given job responsibilities by her main supporter which many thought were way beyond her capabilities.


She was also tipped by some to be the next CEO.



Whereas Richard Cheung was apparently forced to move to new pastures, the relatively young Scarlet Leung, rather surprisingly- but not really- retired quietly a couple of years ago while still in her early fifties.



With the new Hong Kong being asked to embrace patriotism, and everything, at one time or another, having to be rubber stamped by those in Beijing, the odds of a 68-year-old Westerner continuing to be the HK$24 million per annum CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club doesn’t quite add up.


Or does it?


There’s also a new, improved Macau to consider that’s going to have a telling impact on turnover when its casinos- forget there being a future there for horse racing- really get up and running and rolling down the river.


Ringing in some watchful ears is the rallying cry of senior and powerful Hong Kong politician and Convenor of the Executive Council Regina Ip and Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan insisting that betting taxes paid to the government be raised considerably and how “they”, meaning the Club, “can afford it”.


How this will all play out is an interesting horse opera and another series in an ongoing game of thrones...


Let’s just pause and reflect about what recently happened to the Singapore Turf Club when the Singapore government said that enough was enough and that the land for horse racing was needed for the development of housing for the public.


Closer to home, the government is looking at at least part of the land for the Hong Kong Golf Club being used for new housing developments.


There are other examples of where the future of horse racing is not exactly looking that bright because of the downturn in the global economy, and the pastime offering nothing of interest to attract a new and younger generation of racing fans- and owners.


Horse racing is what it was and with most of those in leadership roles today having no idea about what might be needed to move things forward so that the gambling driven pastime will be more likeable and even be seen as sponsorship friendly.


As for Winfried Engelbrecht-Breages, one guesses that he will want to hold on to his many titles for as long as possible.



Important for the CEO, the Board Of Management and others with the power to make decisions at the highest levels of the Hong Kong Jockey Club is to be honest enough to ask themselves just how important gambling on horse racing is to the Hong Kong government in going forward- and what the timelines set down are.


What needs to be seen is where horse racing fits into the brand image of a city still questioning itself and with far more important answers needed before being able to say “Hello Hong Kong” and “Happy Hong Kong”.

.............


The last time I saw Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges was around two weeks ago.


I was at the Champagne Bar of the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong with a friend when the CEO walked in by himself at around 10pm. He had just returned after meetings in the States.


I invited him to join our table and he and I had a pleasant enough conversation about the challenges facing the present and future of horse racing and where it fits into today’s world of constant change.



After almost two hours of conversation, we gave each other a “Bro” handshake of solidarity and he left.


Other than me asking who in his team came up with the oddity of marketing the cultural and heritage building known as Tai Kwun by featuring Australian jockey Hugh Bowman- it was met with silence- there was no awkwardness.



There might have even been a mutual sense of relief.


We each have new challenges and opportunities ahead and it’s rising to these without ankle biters and any unnecessary baggage that matter most.


Unfortunately...


The footnote to all this was receiving a rather unnecessary email from “Delilah” less than a week after that enjoyable meeting at the Champagne Bar.


It showed that she doesn’t appear to know her job very well, didn’t do her homework and seems to be out of her depth.


Reading the email, my lawyer girlfriend smiled and remarked, “Someone else wrote this and asked her to forward it to you. The thumbprints are all over it”.


I replied to “Delilah” pointing out a glaring mistake and copied the Big Poohbah.


As we all should know by now, no response is often the best response because it says everything and more.



From the upcoming book “A Unchained Melody: A Journography”.



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