Macau twists the tiger's tail
THE ailing Macau Jockey Club (MJC) have grasped a television lifeline and the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club are not amused. ATV, for two decades the forelock-tugging carrier of the Jockey Club's races, have had the temerity to do a deal with another racing authority.
It must have been a highly beneficial day's work for the traditionally weaker local broadcaster as they have unquestionably angered their primary benefactor. Growls, rumbles and the gnashing of teeth would probably best describe the immediate reaction from the Sports Road headquarters of the Jockey Club which has enjoyed a monopoly on legal gambling throughout the territory's history. The lion, as it were, faces the likelihood of a morsel or two of meat being snatched away and is roaring - in frustration rather than the prospect of encroaching hunger. The roars, to date, have been in vain and those interested can view Macau racing from mid-October.
The cynical among the racing and business fraternities in Hong Kong may well be having a snigger at the Jockey Club's discomfort and it would not be stretching the imagination to suggest there might be some sly smiles - hidden behind the hand - at 81 Broadcast Drive, either. ATV have had a generally excellent working relationship with the Jockey Club for a long time - but it was rather a case of being told what they could and could not do. Like a good and faithful servant, ATV were best advised to remember their place. To examine the approaching advent of MJC racing on a minority television channel in Hong Kong is to immediately state that the Jockey Club have been the supreme architects of their own dissatisfaction.
They spent weeks working out the latest two-year contract with ATV and patently failed to look after their own interests in one obvious area: possible competition. Complacency? Lack of business acumen? Call it what you will, but the pertinent question must be why did the Jockey Club negotiators not insist on a simple exclusion clause that would prevent ATV airing anything to the detriment of horse racing or its controlling body in Hong Kong? No multi-billion dollar business leaves its flanks exposed when they can be readily protected or loopholes open when they can be closed. A two-line clause inserted in the current contract would have prevented the present angst in Sports Road.
This would have been nothing more than simple business sense and would not have raised a whimper from ATV who know a thing or two about tying down their own artists to exclusive contracts which permit them to do little more than breathe - and then only on Home or World. Careers in the business world have ended or been permanently blighted for less than this unhappy oversight and, whatever happens from now on, the Stewards and senior management of the Club should remember that it was all preventable.
It is difficult to believe that by airing five races live on an English channel that the MJC's totalisator turnover is going to go through the ceiling - but it does raise the question of illegal bookmaking, a spectre invoked immediately by the Jockey Club here. There have been soothing noises from various Government departments and the police that close scrutiny will be kept - I am not exactly sure how that will work - on any increase in illegal betting activity.
Promises of action to be taken have been made. The MJC are responsible for making the programmes and they will be scrutinised, if not in the matter of quality control, presumably to see if they are anything more than an invitation for Hong Kong viewers to bet. But, then again, what do local television programmes involving Hong Kong racing do? As part of the current contract with ATV, the Jockey Club are responsible for English language programmes on the local station. They started with an excellent concept for an English language Wednesday night live programme - a game attempt to present more varied fare in a snappy format that may have owed something to similar programmes in England or Australia.
Within a week that particular experiment was shot down and it was back to the well known formula of plenty of horses and tote boards. So let's not be hypocritical, racing is about betting and the public want to be advised about what will win and what they'll get out of it. The MJC have done what they consider to be a good business deal and, to an extent, it may work. ATV have picked up a few million dollars for utilising some of the deadest time on television. The present contract with the RHKJC expires in June 1997, a pertinent date in the history of this community. In the interim ATV have decided to get what they can - like any number of other Hong Kong people - and it is hard to blame them.
There are obvious geographical parallels for what is now about to take place. Irish punters can bet on English races and British bookmaking firms have shops all over northern Europe. New Zealand punters bet on Australian racing helped by Sky racing coverage. Singapore punters bet on Malaysian racing and vice versa.
It is very easy to suggest that the Jockey Club are simply peeved that their betting bastion has been assaulted - bearing in mind that they are presenting weekly simulcast races to Canada, North America, Mexico and midweek racing to Malaysia. What's sauce for the goose . . . ? But they do have one irrefutable point: higher betting turnover in Hong Kong also means higher charitable payouts.
The list of projects undertaken, charities funded and good causes financially endorsed by the Jockey Club is endless. They have been munificent and that should not be readily forgotten. It is also a fact that the Hong Kong public does have very real confidence in the RHKJC. The confidence has been earned over many years and is something the racing body does everything in its power to preserve.
The same cannot be said of the MJC.
The MJC took a chance when they started racing at Taipa and their directors and investors are in it for the money. Like the Jockey Club here, they may be non profit-making - but certainly not by intent.
It hasn't worked at Taipa and their wooing of ATV could be construed as a final throw of the dice.
Meanwhile, the RHKJC are entitled to protect what they perceive to be their own preserve and will assuredly be keeping the relevant Government departments on their toes when it comes to assessing the spread, if any, of illegal betting.
Finally, will five races telecast live from Taipa on an English language channel in Hong Kong be the financial panacea for the MJC's ills? I doubt it, given the quality and availability of Hong Kong racing which is clearly superior to that on Taipa. In a couple of months a number of people may be echoing the words of the senior ATV executive who said: 'I'm not sure what the fuss is all about.'