Event wins global hearts and minds
The Jockey Club has been educating its clients worldwide and this has paid off with four US horses at this year's race, writes Murray Bell
Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges didn't make it to the chief executive's desk at the Jockey Club without thinking big, and he is certainly not limited by the boundaries of the racing industry as he plans the future for one of the great race meetings on the planet.
The International Races are now 20 years old, with the Cup celebrating its 21st edition this year. And now, according to Engelbrecht-Bresges, the Jockey Club presides over an event that has grown to become something far bigger than the original vision.
'The Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races have come a long way, but they've been shaped by a genuine desire to make this an event that Hong Kong can truly be proud of,' Engelbrecht-Bresges said.
'It has already well and truly become one of the great racing events in the world each year, but now I can proudly say we have been able to capitalise on that success and develop it into the single biggest sporting event in Hong Kong as well.'
It has been a matter of winning hearts and minds. It began with the local racing professionals and progressively spread across the invisible borders to the mainstream racing fans.
Originally, the fans avoided betting on the international horses in droves, in stark contrast to the Japan Cup where about 50 per cent of the day's total turnover will involve the feature race.
But through improved visibility and access to printed and video promotions, the Jockey Club has come through a process of educating its customers, with the anticipated bottom-line benefits. The simulcasting of international races has been a subtle part of this process, giving the fans a window through which to look at and bet on racing in other parts of the world, while at the same time seeing the horses which may soon be descending on Hong Kong for international day.
Those who work under the livewire German CEO will tell of his fondness for benchmarking exercises, where a superior performance from a staff member is not allowed to become enshrined as a historical high point but rather the 'benchmark' for his or her future performance.
Engelbrecht-Bresges also looks outside of himself, and outside of the Jockey Club, when he does benchmarking exercises for the future benefit of the club he leads. In this regard, he holds the Melbourne Cup carnival in the highest esteem.
'I admire the Melbourne Cup carnival for a number of reasons, but particularly for its ability to take a race meeting and market it way beyond the normal base of racing fans,' Engelbrecht-Bresges said.
'Everyone in Victoria gets involved in some way in the Melbourne Cup. The government, tourism authorities, the arts and retail communities all get together and work cohesively to make the spring racing carnival a huge event, not just for the race club but for the state of Victoria. That gives us a benchmark on what can be done. We can no longer just concentrate on the racing and sporting side. We must seek to broaden our base and market to a much wider audience.'
Engelbrecht-Bresges is delighted with the results achieved by his executive director of racing Bill Nader, a former New York racing boss who has broken down some ancient barriers in getting top US trainers interested in bringing their top horses to Hong Kong.
'This year will be an added highlight with four top American horses deciding to come to our races. I think that also shows the benefit of our having created these links with the Breeders' Cup,' Engelbrecht-Bresges said. 'But it's a symptom of a broader phenomenon - more trainers are targeting our races.'
As the boss of one of the world's best racing clubs, Engelbrecht-Bresges knows the importance in striking a balance between inspiring the visitors with an opportunity and having a domestic team strong enough to compete with them.
'I think our Hong Kong team is well placed this year,' he said. 'Our Horse of the Year, Good Ba Ba, looks to be on course for the Hong Kong Mile again, and I'm very optimistic that Viva Pataca can make amends for his narrow defeat in the Cup last year, mainly because he's been specifically targeted towards the race and I don't think he has ever been in better form.'
Engelbrecht-Bresges is hopeful the HKIR of 2009 will see punters from foreign jurisdictions betting in Hong Kong's pools.
That concept, referred to in the industry as 'commingling' of bets, is seen as the great hope for racing around the world as it attempts to stabilise its market share against other forms of gaming and entertainment.
It simply requires the co-operation of an understanding government to agree to tax-sharing arrangements with foreign jurisdictions - and therein lies another story.
For the moment, he said, we should be thrilled by 'the greatest racing carnival' in the world and a sporting event of which all Hongkongers should be immensely proud.
The place is Sha Tin racecourse, the date Sunday, December14.