By Hans Ebert
Saturday was the first day of The Championships in Sydney. The highlight for everyone? The incredible win of Chautauqua, the whoops of genuine joy from jockey Tommy Berry, and the great training efforts of Team Hawkes. And if John Hawkes preferred to watch the races from the comfort of his sofa, that was his prerogative. He had nothing to prove to anyone.
The rest of the meeting? Very enjoyable for everyone, and a great success despite winning being tough for the rank and file punter until, perhaps, somewhat later in the day when one knew that unless on the rails, those stuck on the outside did not have a hope in hell. This meant all that homework done earlier amounted to nought, and why there were some very long priced winners with winners for Hong Kong based Australian riders Sam Clipperton and Zac Purton. The Zac Attack won his second Doncaster Mile aboard It’s Somewhat at over 40 to 1, which was dismissed by someone associated with the stable, as their worst runner of the day. Maybe, but not to Zac. That’s racing- the unpredictability of it all.
Despite all the rain, the track looked brilliant, the sun shone on it all day, everyone seemed to have a great time, and it must have put a smile on the face of John Messara, who came up with the idea of The Championships.
Nothing wrong with having a good day at the races. But as the days passed and listening to those casual racing fans who attend the races once or twice a year mention that the highlight to them last Saturday was watching singer Ronan Keating perform at the Theatre of the Horse after the races- Ronan Keating???!?!- made everything come to a screeching halt.
There is something definitely missing when trying to win over this customer segment. Thinking this can be achieved by relying on what’s currently made available to them- tipping programmes usually featuring some pudding faced older guys, form analysts, and various racing apps that still require some knowledge of a horse’s past form etc etc, think again. They can probably learn more about horse racing playing that old board game produced by Waddington’s in 1938 called Totopoly.
It was certainly how I learned about the rudiments of horse racing- though not in 1938- back in what was then Ceylon. Racing clubs could do worse than to revisit the simplicity of Totopoly. It’s the KISS Theory: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Often, The Big Bang Theory with its bells and whistles and where the technology becomes the idea can fizzle out very quickly.
For racing clubs, the challenge is how to cater to this new and very much DIY customer segment when it comes to guiding them as to how it all works. Not everyone can be Andrew Hawkins. Plus, there’s always the danger that the different tipping initiatives available today just might steer these customers in the wrong direction. Do this too often, and they’ll soon decide that losing is not their calling in life. There’s a buffet of other choices available to them. Losing is a downer, a bummer and just not fun.
In Hong Kong, there’s the HKJC-produced multi media programme Racing To Win comprising a panel of three professional racing experts- good guys who do their best to guide viewers towards that winning counter. That’s the objective, anyway. This format, however, has not changed since the Seventies. And it shows. It’s tough to watch.
It’s drab and largely irrelevant programming that has needed an injection of Botox and liposuction for over three decades. Understanding the customer? Really? More like preferring to navigate through today’s consumer-driven world on auto drive.
Every racing jurisdiction in the world has its own version of Racing To Win, some slightly better than others, some LOUDER than others, and there to guide the rank and file punter looking for tips to help them actually share in the joys of winning. Remember winning?
In Hong Kong, each of the three panelist offers four selections for each of the eight races on Wednesdays and the ten races on weekends. Take into consideration the duplication of their on top selections, do the math, and, whew, that’s a helluva lot of information for ANY viewer in this world of immediate everything to absorb along with having to put up with the problems often incurred watching any of this- the buffering, slow wifi, slow network systems, and eventually, the pointlessness of it all.
That’s almost two hours of one’s life gonski with no guarantee that any of this will make grinners out of winners.
Same when looking at selections for races online or in newspapers on race days. These add another layer of complexities to the marketing of wagering, especially to that customer segment looking at the sport, and still wanting to be convinced that this is where they belong.
The only reason this customer group will keep returning to the races is if they enjoy the total experience- and which must include winning. Of course, before even the winning, the question is how to even get them to the races. And then, on a regular basis.
Of course, no one can guarantee anyone winning, but we all love to hear about a $20,000 purchase that becomes a champion galloper, the taxi driver who becomes a successful owner, the first female rider to win the Melbourne Cup etc.
Now bring all these Feel Good stories down by around 30-40 years because too many in racing are “thinking old”. They are often clueless about the potential new racing fan-what they want, think and do. And then what? Over-think something simple to death by throwing everything against the wall and see what sticks?
Do they expect everyone to fall in line, because that’s how it’s always been? Nothing today is anything like it’s ever been, because there’s so much of everything out there. And somewhere amongst it all is this thing called horse racing.
The first thing racing clubs need to admit to themselves is that horse racing is not a mainstream sport. Secondly, they’re kidding themselves if they think that those who show up once a year are “new racing fans”. Perhaps only then can they start with a clean slate, and, in advertising parlance, “speak to this consumer group in a voice and tone they understand.”
This leads me to that old hit by Hot Chocolate “Everybody Loves A Winner”, and how this line should be the advertising promise in every marketing strategy without being created by committee in an effort to seem young. This will be sniffed out by the end consumer and the door slammed shut before one can say, Ric Astley.
A friend of mine definitely falls into the customer segment of being a new racing fan. But winning her over has taken a few years. Last week, I met up with her, someone with that gypsy in her soul, and who lives for the moment. Let’s call her Lene, a fascinating animal, who would scare most men with her unpredictability and refreshing candour. She calls a spade a shovel, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and accepts those she describes as “horsey people” with a certain impatience, polite boredom and a cheeky sense of self deprecating humour.
Thinking back, Lene hasn’t met the greatest ambassadors for the sport. Most have been one dimensional individuals who have grown up with racing- and stayed there. She, meanwhile, comes from European stock, has travelled extensively, and, like a U2 song, still hasn’t found what she’s looking for. Sometimes, one has to wonder if this is how she wants it to be: committed, but free, and always going somewhere, but never arriving at any destination that would make her want to stay. She could have been the inspiration behind Kill Bill and danced with Travolta in Pulp Fiction.
A few years ago at dinner, she interrupted a successful trainer who was recalling a story most of us had heard many times before with a curt, “I know how this ends. See you guys another time. Going home to read a good book”.
In three years, however, the Educating Rita period has worked. She no longer thinks the same horses run in every race, doesn’t question why there has to be “so much time between races”, and no longer thinks that jockeys also own the horses they ride.
After winning a $2.8m Six Up earlier this season for an outlay of around $720 by standing out a 78 to 1 pop in her selections, she parlayed part of her winnings into another sizeable win the next race meeting.
Last Saturday, she decided to “play” The Championships. No, she had never heard of the race meeting or Chautauqua, but liked the horse’s colour, and backed it to win before letting her profits ride onto Sam Clipperton’s only ride of the day because “he has a nice smile”. It won and paid over 20 to 1.
The point in explaining all this is that there are a number of those new to racing who think like Lene. If they meet, especially a jockey, or a young trainer, or the CEO of the racing club, there’s a sense of belonging and the feeling that, even if it’s a little, some knowledge about the sport has been gained – and on their terms.
At Happy Valley Racecourse, Happy Wednesday has a loyal army of regulars. They’re there for the total experience of being at Hong Kong’s most popular outdoor nightclub with the added attraction of horse racing. Happy Wednesday has come a very long way since someone at the HKJC named it Sassy Wednesday and approved advertising like this.
Thankfully, times change, and today’s Happy Wednesday brand is more than four horses racing to an empty grandstand and attracting ladies from a hostess club in Macau.
Today, Happy Wednesday is a wonderful international melting pot of nationalities, ‘live’ music, different venues for different tastes and age groups, and regulars who attend the races to support their favourite riders.
There’s an entire contingent of young South Americans who are there for the Latino sounds of Carnivale at the Beer Garden, but mainly to cheer on their main man in Brazilian Magic Man Joao Moreira.
Zac Purton, South African Douglas Whyte, Mauritian Karis Teetan, young Aussie guns Sam Clipperton and Chad Schofield, Nash Rawiller, local riding heroes Kei Chiong, Derek Leung and Matthew Chadwick, they all have their followers. Likes and followers, and all this engagement, of course spills over onto social media- Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, SnapChat, Twitter- but in the non “horsey” ways. It’s about “belonging”, but being different. For the HKJC, it’s a street marketing team that’s theirs for free who bring something new to horse racing in their own ways- including how they believe they can win.
Speaking recently to a group of young Happy Wednesday regulars, they have their own ideas about how they wish to engage with their friends and others when at the races. It’s all about consumer generated content and the immediacy of it all through the ‘live’ streaming of whatever they have created. It’s not about trying “to go viral”. That’s just corporate speak and corporate tweets to the usual fifty people.
It’s incredible what happens when consumers today are given a free hand to create, especially on the mobile platform. What’s exciting for horse racing is where this Indie spirit might take the sport. It’s all about breaking the pattern and attracting The New- new sponsors, new content, more immediacy, more creativity, more New and more More.
Sometimes, there’s a need for the tail to wag the dog, especially when that dog cannot- and refuses- to learn new tricks.