After one of my fairly recent Escapes From The Darkness Of Hong Kong, and arriving at the fabulous Changi Airport in Singapore, what didn’t go unnoticed was that though there were huge posters advertising the city’s two casinos, there were absolutely no signs of horse racing in the city. Zilch. Nada.
This didn’t surprise me as during my many visits to Singapore, especially over the past 4-5 years, all and any information about horse racing in the city- even a form guide- just wasn’t available. Ask any hotel concierge about horse racing and they became Manuel from Fawlty Towers.
At least for me, it was about spending quality time with my partner and happy to be in Sentosa, visit the nearby aviary, meet up with good friends and visit our favourite restaurants in Singapore, especially Samy’s for its brilliant banana leaf lunches.
Horse racing? With it being completely out of sight, it was out of mind- totally different from those days when my friends and I looked forward to going racing at Kranji after attending the major races during the Melbourne Spring Carnival. The racing at Kranji might not have been great, but it was fun. People make anything fun.
There was always enormous potential for the Singapore Turf Club to be more than what it was. There were some very good jockeys and trainers we knew based there and regulars at the races included many from the music and advertising agencies including the legendary adman Ian Batey, below.
It was Ian Batey who created the Singapore Girl concept, helped bring Singapore Airlines as the major sponsor of the city’s horse racing, and the first person to talk to me about the potential of racing in Singapore and how it should be marketed.
Though those were exciting Field Of Dreams type days, over the past few years, despite various stops and starts and maybes and more false starts, racing in Singapore had seemingly disappeared. It wasn’t an eerie type of Houdini disappearing act. After quite a few years of two step tangos, horse racing and Singapore- and horse racing in Singapore- somehow didn’t connect. The racing was kinda there, but it was also kinda not there. It was something like the Scarlet Pimpernel of horse racing. Either no one cared enough about horse racing to keep it going, or were clueless about marketing this product known as horse racing. Far more importantly, at least in Singapore, the question was whether the pastime simply couldn’t attract and engage a large enough local audience? Did horse racing also not fit the image of the city that the government wanted to project to the rest of the world? As told by many in recent times who are living and working in Singapore, the Regional hub for the global news media, horse racing is seen as being for “old and low class” people- at least in Singapore. Casinos, meanwhile, are perceived as being “up market and aspirational” and about “martinis, style, beautiful women and James Bond”. As a former journalist, advertising executive and marketing person, these were important “research findings” when looking at where exactly horse racing belonged- and where and who were its next generation of fans, supporters and leaders.
Are there any? Everyone should know by now that the extremely competitive Singapore is an efficient and well organised city. It has everything going for it including one of the best airports in the world, wonderful parks, recreational areas, an exciting and young high tech sector, excellent medical staff, a brilliant variety of restaurants and six star hotels.
Singaporeans are extremely proud of the city’s accomplishments- and well they should be- with the government happy to follow the blueprint for the future created by the late visionary and Prime Minister and Father of Singapore in Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Once seen as the poor cousin of Hong Kong, roles have changed, and today, the tail is wagging the dog. While there’s been an exodus out of Hong Kong and a serious brain drain, especially over the past 3-4 years, Singapore is attracting more and more new businesses- many from Hong Kong- and different pockets of truly international tourism. It’s no surprise that government officials from Hong Kong have been regularly visiting the Lion City in recent months to understand how and why everything seems to be working so much better than most other cities and is up and running and has shaken off the malaise of those post pandemic years. The city is no longer “Swingabore”, and there’s a Welcome mat laid out for new businesses and young entrepreneurs.
Listening recently to a couple of those hosts who guffaw uncontrollably at their own jokes on one of those archaic sports and racing radio stations in Australia prattle on about how chewing gum was once banned in Singapore, and more stories about the city from the distant past, it made one realise how geographically challenged and one dimensional some people are. Jockey Dan Beasley, below, who spent decades in Singapore and is now back riding in Australia, knew what he was talking about when asked earlier this week how, and perhaps why, things have come undone.
This is perhaps because he was actually there long enough to see where the big picture of Singapore racing went wrong.
He would also know just how beholden the Singapore Turf Club is to the government, especially for the land that houses the Club and which is now needed for its priority- new public housing expansion plans. Was the 180 years of horse racing in the city bushwhacked, and were those from Singapore, who, one presumes, attended the recent Asian Racing Conference in Melbourne, in the dark about what was going on- and not going on? One doubts that they didn’t see what was coming down the satay pike when most of us who know the ins and outs of Singapore saw the writing on the walls of even Brix for horse racing years ago. There had been massive cost cutting measures and standards had been allowed to drop with a thud.
Maybe those in charge of the Singapore Turf Club were playing with smoke and mirrors and hoping for the best? Maybe the ball had been dropped so many times that the government saw a losing proposition with no fairy godmother in sight?
Reading some of the quotes attributed to Irene Lim, below, the Chief Executive of the Singapore Turf Club, about “affected people” and other corporate lah lahs, one very much doubts that she understands how the closure of the 180 year old racing club has already impacted those who were loyal to it and who are now left out in the cold.
Yes, there will be talk about half baked “contingency plans”, the usual corporate game of deflection and with Malaysia no doubt taking on an even bigger role in the makeup of what’s left of Singapore racing. And then what? Possibly privatisation, something mentioned over dinner last night by a very interesting group of business people from the region with very diverse portfolios. Perhaps this “newness” led by a multi media business strategy and New Thinking is what horse racing that’s more than horse racing needs in 2023? For those executives still at the STC, their immediate priority will be answering to the wants and needs of the Singapore government and falling in line with its long term expansion programmes to benefit its people. Singapore is not some banana republic government that’s going to do a “backflip” and change its mind about the future of the Singapore Turf Club.
The word “backflip” was something again mentioned on one of those parochial dead people’s radio stations in Australia.
It made me recoil in horror and embarrassment. “Backflip”? Seriously, mate?
Personally speaking, and also looking at how the world of golf has gone off the rails with all this talk about “Saudi money”, here is a timely and very loud wake up call for those still seen as leaders in horse racing.
What’s happened in Singapore screams out just how important are those relationships with governments- and the ability to offer well thought through deliverables that meet THEIR business strategies. It also re-enforces the ability of those presently in seats of power to know how to read the tea leaves.
There’s a need for them to have real answers to questions about sustainability, “economics of scale”, and understanding the mood of the city.
It’s not about buzz words about “Gen Z”, but recognising how and where new technology works- and for what.
It’s also having the vision to see where exactly horse racing might have a role to play in 2023 and beyond that’s more than only gambling and taxes paid on betting turnover.
Governments could be looking for those who can make them look good.
This is by providing them with exciting new missing links and stabilising their positions with the public in what is the new abnormal.