Sounds of silence: HKIR trainers doing a disservice to racing by avoiding media
Racing’s biggest stars can’t speak, sadly, so as much as we would love A Shin Hikari to tell us what goes on in that nutty little hooded head of his, and how he felt after breaking the hearts of all his rivals with four consecutive 23-second sectionals in the Hong Kong Cup, he can’t.
It’s left to the people who love and care about the animals – specifically those who train, ride and own them – to speak and, unfortunately, after an electrifying day of racing at Sha Tin, the people responsible for carrying racing’s message to the masses let the true stars of the show down.
Racing, I hate to have to tell you this, again, but it’s time to grow up and enter the 21st century.
When Ryan Moore becomes de-facto spokesperson for an event, simply because no-one else is there or wants to speak, it’s a sign you’ve got a problem.
That’s not meant as a knock on Moore – he is thoughtful and straightforward, and above all, a horseman of the highest quality.
He actually speaks well, and in fact he was a veritable motor mouth by his usual standards after his two wins, but in the showman stakes, he is no Frankie Dettori.
We don’t expect him to be either – in the theatre of sports, everyone has a role and Moore’s is to be the straight man, the quiet hero.
The Englishman is a star, but as far as putting words to the action he didn’t receive any help from the trainers of his two winners on Sunday.
There was no representative from Coolmore available to speak after Highland Reel won the Vase and then, not surprisingly, the intensely private Noriyuki Hori, when given an option by the Jockey Club, chose not to engage with the press after Maurice won the Mile.
At trackwork during the week, Dermot Weld made it halfway down the Sha Tin straight, at the top of which were a group of eager reporters waiting to speak about Hong Kong Cup favourite Free Eagle, the equal-highest rated horse at the meeting.
But the Irishman didn’t quite make it, and wandered back to quarantine to read some Banjo Patterson poems.
There are plenty in racing who want a “mention” or favour from racing reporters – a kind word here or there to help push their product or agenda – but it’s stunning to see how many major stakeholders in the sport don’t care to help themselves or the sport when given the chance.
How is it possible that Coolmore, one of the biggest breeding and racing operations in the world, did not have a stable representative available to speak on Sunday?
That can’t be good – either for their business or racing’s – and racing is a sport that can’t afford to ignore its fans, new or old.
Globalisation of racing and the interconnectedness of social media can give the appearance that the sport is growing – but, sorry folks, it ain’t.
Let’s not ignore the fact the sport is haemorrhaging everywhere in terms of popularity outside of the monopolised bubbles of Japan and Hong Kong.
There are plenty of other sports that make an effort that are easier to understand, so racing isn’t in a privileged enough position to alienate anyone.
Racing could easily slip into becoming a plaything for billionaires and royalty – like show-jumping or polo, but with no actual fans – for racing is not a mainstream sport outside Asia.
The Jockey Club’s social media team was a great initiative, but its impact needs to be kept in perspective, for as much as a group of enthusiastic 20-somethings telling us how #awesome Hong Kong racing is might get the event “trending”, in Twitter speak, it won’t amount to much if the actual personalities of the sport don’t want to engage with the audience through traditional media.
Generation Y may well ask, in a moment of rare introspection – if racing’s human stars don’t care enough to want to connect with us, why should we bother, either?
For the most part, racing’s human participants are engaging and approachable. Many, like Victor Espinoza, champion Hong Kong trainer John Moore or Japan’s Yasutoshi Ikee, who granted the Post an insightful interview last Friday, seem to intuitively embrace the role as ambassadors of their sport, even if it is purely out of self-interest.
Espinoza was a revelation this week, but he is a natural and like many from the American industry, he seems to get it.
We don’t expect someone like John Size to suddenly deliver freestyle poems Muhammad Ali-style before a race, or start talking smack about John Moore a la UFC fighter Conor McGregor. Just be yourself.
Size fulfills his obligations dutifully, just as Hori – a character not dissimilar to Hong Kong’s seven-time champion – does at home. The problem was that Hori wasn’t obliged to speak on Sunday.
Hori is a perfectionist. To watch him walk every step of the way with a runner, from the mounting yard to the track, his hand on the horse’s neck to help keep it calm, a picture of concentration, is a study of a man who is a master of his craft.
Speak to people who have ridden trackwork for the 48-year-old and they will tell you of instructions so detailed they include everything but his weekly grocery list.
Like Size, Hori’s horses come first – and second and third for that matter – and if given a choice whether or not to speak to the press, like he was on Sunday, he won’t.
Back home, when Hori wins a Group One, he speaks – begrudgingly perhaps, but he does – because those are the rules.
And so they should be at the Sha Tin showpiece as well.
Here’s how it works. When you sign up to compete at the international races, there are a few things you have to do. Firstly, you or someone from the stable must speak to media – at least once – just like other sports.
And when I say other sports, I mean those that are prosperous and growing. The American monsters that are the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) are examples of how media policies can encourage athletes to promote the sport. And by encouraging, the athletes and coaches are fined if they don’t.
It doesn’t always work, and in most cases it isn’t necessary – watching NBA coach Gregg Popovich fulfilling his obligations with an in-game interview is as awkward viewing as you can find – but that’s an intrusion on a man doing his job, so the balance has to be right. (For that matter, I’m pretty sure he is doing a John Size impersonation during his sideline interviews as he puts these poor reporters through the wringer live on air.)
This isn’t a criticism of the HKIR – in fact the often-overused phrase “best ever” was completely appropriate for a meeting that featured everything that is great about racing; rivalries, daring rides and an amazing atmosphere provided by an enormous crowd hanging on every moment.
Hong Kong’s big day hit a high point on Sunday – now is the time to capitalise on it, as it is an event that deserves all of the coverage it can get.