Sport of kings still behind the times
Under an impossibly blue sky over the ultramarine Bosphorous water that joins Asia and Europe, Istanbul's Asian Racing Conference was trying to bridge the sport's many worlds this past week.
Much was discussed positively and just as much negatively, while attempts were made to put a shine on the odd piece of fecal matter, but only when security at the hall was breached after a regular morning siege. The door police had strict instructions to refuse entry before 9.30am and carried them out with grim efficiency, so delegates crammed into the foyer space, juggled coffees and swapped stories of the previous night's revelries until the doors flew open like sluice gates.
Day one involved self congratulation - justified and otherwise - and some of the smart messages might have been lost. It was clear new media need to be embraced by racing. It was not as clear how, and every ARC has a clearer message that racing struggles with multiple layers of bureaucracy, often including government, and a consequent paralysis of action, even policy, in promoting itself.
Figures were presented with alarm. Racing's share of world e-wagering is only 5 per cent, against sports with 40 per cent. Yet, playing devil's - perhaps angel's - advocate, it was easy to put a more positive spin on this: since 2007, online sports betting was up by US$3.71 billion or 46 per cent in a pie that doubled in size. Online bets on racing had more than doubled. Was the sky really falling in? Some other aspects of horse welfare were underplayed while the debate over the use of whips punched above its weight, strewn as it was with misinformation, misconception and aesthetic preference in place of argument. It remains, in some places, a dangerous red herring when there are bigger fish to fry.
In Malaysia and India, and surely the host country, Turkey, illegal betting operators are a major obstacle to whatever the future might hold. A figure of 100 per cent of legal turnover was bandied about as the illegal market for Hong Kong, but that paled against Malaysia's illegal market of 10 times its legal market.
More was to come. Despite its huge population, India turns over only US$20-30 million a year legally but that became only the second most surprising revelation when the Indian delegate stated that illegal betting accounts for US$20-30 billion, or 1,000 times the legitimate figure. A lack of government willingness to assist seemed to underpin the problem, and so too Singapore, where turnover has plummeted 20 per cent since casinos arrived.
Even the S$100 (HK$618) levy on locals every time they enter a casino has worked against racing, with the delegate suggesting Singaporeans would stay in the casinos for days to avoid paying another levy for re-entry. If that isn't a false economy, what is? Ironically, the government does want to help for fear of being seen to encourage gambling. (Note to Singapore: when citizens prefer to live in casinos, you may already have an issue).
Every ARC has its buzzword. Some by weight of discourse, or fashion or the natural conclusion that dawns on you later.
At past conferences, buzzwords centred on topics like betting exchanges - the pirates who would devour the world in 2003 but now not even a mention - or harmonisation of rules or commingling of bets.
This time, we had to wait until late for commingling and the reason is simple - it is already underway. World racing chief Louis Romanet reported France is commingling with 14 different countries.
The chief of Australia's TABCorp was in agreement with Romanet on the dream of a global pari-mutuel organisation with common pools. It wasn't the hot-button topic of past conferences for anyone except Hong Kong, still locked out by government door police, no matter that officials are reporting, again, progress towards a commingling start in 2013. Yet, just as clear was that commingling remains a stunted infant without the likes of Hong Kong and Japan.
Get the message out is a poor buzzword, or phrase, but it was a contender regarding new audiences and changing demographics, though a more germane buzzword was irony.
For all the talk of embracing technology and social media, the ARC itself had no Twitter feed and its Facebook page no friends. Digitial technology is an enabler they said, but even web-posting of files was in the too-hard basket, a Brazilian rainforest laid waste for kilograms of photocopied presentations.
The best new idea presented all week, single-pool wagering - a simple concept with some very complex algorithms underneath it - is under a media embargo while its originator, Longitude, finalises sensitive negotiations.
Most racing fans might find it dry but it has a revolutionary capacity to change the processes behind pari-mutuel betting - even more important in a commingling age.
Macau CEO Thomas Li was last to address the ARC and yet drew from a thinning audience one of the better laughs of the week. It didn't involve the precarious state of things at Taipa but a Macau members' trip to South Korea, where locals kept their distance from Li due to his separated-at-birth resemblance to Kim Jong-un. Photo evidence suggested the view had some basis.
In the back rooms, Japan reported its move towards joining others on interference rules was imminent, or as imminent as can be when it needs a government stamp, while stewards' meetings talked about reciprocity of penalties, drugs and the frequency of race starts for horses.
They hovered, as ever, over harmonising rules, but whose rules change first is still undecided and a night out at Veliefendi racecourse provided a hint it won't be Turkey. In the final race, a horse, which suffered minor interference when in contention and checked, finishing lengths away in third, was promoted to first. The crowd booed though the horse was odds-on favourite. Or at least it was one of them.
Yes, with a 50 per cent takeout rate, Turkish racing frequently features two odds-on shots in a race, yet still turns over enough to put it among the top 10 betting nations. Still, the assistant government undersecretary delivered a comforting, not to mention highly original, response to questions about fixed races. He had never seen one in 20 years, and the reason was simple: the horses wouldn't do it. Horses went and ran however they wanted to run, he said, and no amount of coercion would alter their intent. Turkish racing was in principled hands. Or hooves.
More public was the return of Hong Kong's Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges to a vice-chairman position with the Asian regional body, the moving of the organisation's base to Hong Kong with the arrival of Andrew Harding next month and mutterings that the IFHA itself may head the same way one day.
Finally, officials braved Ramadan and the wind off one of the world's most beautiful city harbours to wave the bauhinia flag at the closing ceremony. Hong Kong will host the next Asian Racing Conference in 2014.
Racing's share of worlde-wagering