By Hans Ebert
Even the Marx Brothers would have thought that last Sunday’s Day At The Races at Shatin bordered on a surreal mix of weirdness, tinged with sadness, and a patch of flatness, where it just didn’t matter who won, who lost, and what the end results were.
Maybe it was just the mental strain of hearing about The Orange One in the White House and trying to make sense where all this “fake news” and political amateurism is taking us, while from a racing point of view, following the races at Caulfield the day before and the exhibition gallop by the mighty Winx at Rosehill, something seemed to be missing. Perhaps one can have too much of a good thing, or too much of the same thing. Maybe.
It felt it was going to be one of those days when, for the opening act, underrated young local rider Derek Leung won on a 100 to 1 shot, and a few races later made it a 4000 to 1 double.
Winners like this don’t happen too often, and neither does Joao Moreira leave a race meeting after shooting blanks, especially after his spectacular double the day before at Caulfield, winning first on Savanna Amour, and then grabbing his first Group 1 in Australia aboard the David Hayes-trained Sheidel in the Oakleigh Plate.
Moreira truly is the Magic Man who is single-handedly changing the face and pace and leather and lace of horse racing. One has to wonder how many in the racing industry are capable of keeping up with him when it comes to giving the current business model and marketing of the sport a much-needed facelift.
A makeover is what is needed if the sport is going to expand its current customer base by utilising all the relevant ways to attract new racing fans- “elitist” consumers in that they’re spoilt for choice when it comes to other leisure activities and with very short attention spans. Lose them once and you’ve probably lost them forever. They don’t need to know who survives the Game Of Thrones or wins any of those way too many awards shows that have been allowed to plod along for the Old Schoolers owning these organisations.
In many ways, consumers today are spoilt because of the free and easy access to technology, and how this gives them everything happening in that alternative universe called the online world whenever, wherever and how they want it, something which has impacted every industry in the world.
This includes the horse racing industry, where how social media is currently being used for this sport needs an infusion of creativity. Social media is much more than a message in 140 words or less with a hashtag and updating a Facebook page.
The ‘live’ streaming of races can also be much more than only, well, the ‘live’ streaming of races. It can offer added value to sponsors. Think about it. Then think about Go-Pro, the popularity of Selfies, Snapchat, WhatsApp etc etc.
As for Sunday at Shatin, those who even have a passing interest in horse racing willed Able Friend to win the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup. But this was not to be. Was the loss a surprise? Not really. Whoever tweeted what a close finish it was must have been watching a different race from us, because at no time did Able Friend look like winning. He tried his big heart out, but though the mind was willing, age slows everyone down. And no matter how much we might be in denial- and one doesn’t mean the river in Egypt- Able Friend is not the horse he was- The Beast From The East.
Let’s hope, unlike other champions who were patched up, and asked to turn back the hands of time, this one-time magnificent galloper doesn’t take too long before he joins all the other greats at that brilliant retirement home for equine heroes that is Living Legends in Melbourne.
Seeing Able Friend as a shadow of his former self, and Wilson Woo, part owner of Helene Paragon, the winner of the race, who left this world a few days earlier, no doubt added to the melancholia of the race- and the day.
There was also that poignant moment just after the winning post when Tommy Berry, who’s shared in the success story of Able Friend with Joao Moreira, looked around to see if his old partner was alright. Tommy Berry is not only a very nice guy. He’s a class act.
The rest of the races came and went- Werther edging out a brave Blazing Speed who always runs so well for Neil Callan, a possible new sprint champion in Magical Legend, formerly trained in Sydney by Gary Moore, and ridden to perfection by Douglas Whyte, below, whereas in the last race, billionaire owner and the polarising figure of Pan Sutong led in first starter Gold Mount.
This was the owner’s first winner to be trained by Tony Cruz following his decision to move all his horses from the stable of Richard Gibson, who’s having a truly crippling season with only four winners on the board.
As for Gold Mount, what was a nice touch was to see Gerald Mosse taking over the reins when Mr Goldfinger’s usual Go To jockey- Christophe Soumillon-had a previous engagement in Europe. Tony Cruz and Gerald Mosse go back a long way, and the champion jockey and trainer has always placed a great deal of emphasis on loyalty, something rare in this sport where there’s so much money at stake and petty, silly politics at play.
Being the world class rider that he still is, Gerald Mosse repaid this trust and delivered. Here’s hoping that he’s paid for his transgression that saw him banished from here for quite some time. Let’s hope that we see the great French rider back in Hong Kong on a permanent basis. He belongs here. He’s way too good to be wasting his time riding “zee goats” in Singapore.
But what about this particular day at the races? It brought to mind the time when in advertising and in charge of the creative product for McDonald’s. The late Chairman and Founder of McDonald’s here- Daniel Ng, a mentor and friend- was this rare breed of human being who was academically brilliant- he was an aeronautical engineer who worked for NASA and was the first person to fly his own plane from Hong Kong to China- and very street smart. He was also mad as a hatter, but that’s what made him special and such a great success story.
It was his total belief in what he knew to be right that made him dismiss all the advice given by business moguls against purchasing the McDonald’s franchise for Greater China. Chinese only eat rice, they said. Well, I’m going to make them eat burgers, said Daniel. He thought out of the Big Mac box even when some of his ideas were completely daft. Often, it was to catch us out and make people challenge him. It was his way of separating the Yes People from the Can Do people. He didn’t care how he dressed, he spoke with his mouth full, he cut off pseudo intellectuals during meetings with a loud yawn, he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he enjoyed clever conversation and proving the critics wrong. And Daniel was his own worst critic because he wanted and demanded constant change.
At a time when McDonald’s business in Hong Kong was booming, see below, he coerced me into selling those from McDonald’s Headquarters in Chicago that one of the main reasons Burger King failed in Hong Kong was because of the Chinese consumers aversion to onions.
Burger King’s flagship product was The Whopper which was topped with raw onion rings. According to Daniel, onions caused flatulence and bad breath- taboos to local consumers.
This was sold to the Americans as the first step to keep the very filling and expensive to produce Quarter Pounder off the menu. The Quarter Pounder beef patty included plenty of chopped onions. With its slow sales in Hong Kong, Daniel wanted more marketing dollars spent on the popular Filet O’Fish and ease out the Quarter Pounder. Backed by the “onion story”, he got his way. What was very memorable was him laughing and telling me, “Those Americans will believe any crap! Onions!!! Hahaha!” To celebrate our win, Daniel asked if we could have dinner. This was always a sign that he needed to download, or had some new idea. At dinner, and before I could say anything, he blurted out, “Excitement Marketing! That’s what we need! Our marketing and advertising have become too expected. Customers want to be surprised.”
To cut straight to the Big Mac, what Daniel asked- but already knew it’s what he wanted- was whether we should produce two television commercials for around HK$3m every year, or produce two simple, but effective commercials, every month. He knew what the answer would be as I had always preached to him that “The Execution Is Not The Idea”- that consumers don’t care about big production budgets. Big was not always better. Size didn’t matter, but offering them monthly premium promotions “for free” with a McHappy Meal brought all those return visits. Collectibles “for free” when the extra costs had been factored in was smart marketing.
The new marketing, creative and media strategy was launched, McDonald’s received a massive facelift, and Small Is Effective became a worldwide strategy. It was about constant change because the consumer was changing.
With all the technology around us today, and knowing how his inquisitive mind worked, I often find myself asking, What would Daniel do? One thing that’s certain is that it would never be boring. He was a remarkable man- not a creative marketing person, but very much one, because he didn’t see himself as the Founder and Chairman of McDonald’s Restaurants in Hong Kong and China. He was always a consumer, very loyal to his product and who embraced so many things. He even taught himself to conduct the Boston Symphony.
Mentioning Daniel Ng, McDonald’s and “Excitement Marketing” is part of some personal internalising. Being someone who’s always been in marketing in one way or another, it’s to do with looking at horse racing- its present, its future, and ways to improve the product and, more importantly, how to keep it fresh and relevant. And inter-active and exciting.
In Hong Kong, the HKJC made a brave move around five years ago when it had the courage of its convictions to start at Happy Valley Racecourse what was for some reason launched as “Sassy Wednesday” before sanity prevailed and the Happy Wednesday brand came into being- a younger looking international racing product comprising style, ‘live’ music, a variety of venues, the opportunity to see the sport up close and personal, and supported in its marketing efforts by the racing fraternity. Happy Wednesday gives every racing fan in Hong Kong a choice. Every. It’s like Sly and the Family Stone singing, “Everyday People”.
Offering consumers a choice- choice being a keyword that sometimes many industries tend to forget in the pursuit of making the bottom line. Choice is not only about retaining the current loyal market segment, it’s also about broadening the sport’s customer base, which is surely Business 101.
Those promoting horse racing often lose sight of this when, if they do, revisiting the other products needed to enhance the experience of enjoying the actual sport. It’s this everything else that leads to and connects with consumers. It’s what sustains their interest to ensure there will be return visits. In many ways, it’s what Daniel Ng believed was needed to not revive the brand, but retain interest in McDonald’s: Excitement Marketing. This was his vision to adapt to change, and keep building that consumer base.
The Melbourne Cup is a brilliant racing product that can take the sport globally. Yes, this might be what’s happening now, but is it? Really? Can the marketing efforts be improved? When Michelle Payne became the first female to win the Cup, was this historic moment marketed effectively to the rest of the world- and looked at from a long term point of view and not a quick moment in time? Speaking of which, Michelle Payne should have been on the cover of Time and has her own song. No, something different to Lennon and McCartney’s “Michelle”.
Same with the Melbourne Cup wins of Hong Kong based riders Brett Prebble and Gerald Mosse. Couldn’t The Race That Stops A Nation on the first Tuesday in November somehow dovetail and play a cameo role with the HKJC’s extremely successful Longines-sponsored Hong Kong International Races?
We hear the word co-mingling from a betting and turnover point of view, but what about “commingling” with marketing in mind?Shouldn’t this be part of the overall strategy of expanding that consumer base? Through solid global marketing partnerships, where everyone wins, wouldn’t this also benefit co-mingling?
Perhaps it’s Polyanna-type thinking, but shouldn’t partnerships be formed to benefit areas other than turnover? You know, all for one and one for all, D’Artagnan? Wouldn’t this help a communications strategy make the sport more global and a truly international sport as opposed to unveiling half-cocked events that only make horse racing look as divisive as what The Orange One in the White House is hellbent on achieving?
On a more positive note, the team in Western Australia should be congratulated for the totally revamped Tabtouch brand, their online sports radio channel.
The end result is crackling with creativity- the quality of its advertising, the content, the introduction of the Giddy-Up app, which is hugely helpful for those following the odds, and, always, the intelligent conversation.
Now, if only the same amount of importance can be placed on marketing and promoting racing in WA. When some in Hong Kong know more about the extremely good WA racing product than many in Sydney and Melbourne, something is off, and the business model is relegated to Division Two. Still, the revamped Tabtouch is good for racing, there’s room to take things further, and it’s one small step for racingkind without thinking big, talking big, and, in the end, having to eat slots and slices of cold humble pie with the sherpas.
It also begs the question why all those tipping programmes with their panels comprising vapid talking heads are allowed to carry on regardless. Is there an audience for these in 2017? Are they relevant? If, as some say, they’re produced only for the “hardcore” market, isn’t all the information they need available on the websites of racing clubs? If this is the only reason for producing these programmes at a time when when people don’t even watch television and the media landscape has changed forever, it makes absolutely no sense. It makes one want to sing the Teletubbies Song together.
Why go through all the dramas of confusing hiring processes, and the millions spent on state of the art technology only to produce programming formats that haven’t changed since when Methuselah was a kid- talking wobble heads, interviews with jockeys talking in riddles, which confuse rather than help, plus selections by supposed racing experts that often only succeed in making audiences go broke. And how long before those new to racing get tired of backing losing propositions when all the other choices available at their buffet table look far more appetising investments?
Last Sunday at Shatin was something that at least I needed. It provided the Think Time needed to offer up a new perspective and see how horse racing compared with other sports when it came to winning the hearts and minds and spending power of consumers. It made me wonder if horse racing has a personality, will it be young and exciting or old and slow, or a bit of both? If a celebrity is horse racing George Clooney, Rihanna, Adele, Beyoncé, Jimmy Fallon, or Faye Dunaway, and Warren Beatty fumbling to open an envelope?
Horse racing has a glorious past with legendary riders and horses and a sense of history. Today, the sport has some great moments, and all the building blocks to be bigger and better than it is. What it now needs are more leaders with the vision to see where else it can go with better marketing, a constantly changing creative product- on and off the race track- and attracting new business partners who, in turn, bring their teams, media partners, databases and customers with them.