The customer service lessons American racing can learn from Hong Kong

About 80,000 people attend Happy Wednesday nights at Happy Valley racecourse in Hong Kong, and about half of them are aged under 35. Photo: Hong Kong Jockey Club

At the first Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing since the April death of Ogden “Dinny” Phipps, the legacy of the the long-time chairman of The Jockey Club was invoked in chairman Stuart Janney’s opening remarks.

Re-branding: The Jockey Club's new logo“[Dinny] wanted [The Jockey Club] to help the industry more than it had in the past, whether it was in the area of integrity, technology, or marketing of the sport,” said Janney on Sunday as he welcomed the audience in the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, and those watching The Jockey Club’s online broadcast of the event.

Those three topics were the focus of this year’s Round Table, as presenters both domestic and international, from within horse racing and without, offered perspectives familiar to those that had previously attended the annual conference, building on the findings and recommendations in the 2011 McKinsey reported commissioned by The Jockey Club.

Frustrated by what it sees as the lack of progress in medication reform in the United States, two years ago The Jockey Club announced it would actively seek to pass legislation enabling federal, independent oversight of U.S. medication policy, testing, and penalties. As it stands, the 38 racing jurisdictions in the U.S. set their own rules regarding medication and penalties, and while industry organizations have over the last several years made progress on implementing the National Uniform Medication Program, that progress has neither been quick nor thorough enough to satisfy The Jockey Club.

Real risk of decline

Last summer, Congressional Representatives Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY), introduced the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, and on Sunday morning, they appeared at the Round Table to reiterate their support for the proposed legislation.

“Without new growth strategies,” said Barr, “there is a real risk that nationwide handle, the number of racetracks, racetrack attendance, foal crops, bloodstock sales, and Thoroughbred ownership will continue to decline over the long term. And that means fewer jobs and opportunities for the men and women who earn their livelihood in an industry that generates over $3 billion annually in my home state of Kentucky alone.”

As McKinsey did, Barr tied growth to customers’ confidence in the cleanliness of the sport, saying that “medication-related issues have undermined public confidence and the integrity of racing and adversely impacted fans perception of the sport.”

Should the legislation be passed, it would require any racetracks that offer simulcast wagering — which is virtually all of them — to operate under the oversight of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority, an organization that would be created through the bill. The entity would be modeled on the United State Anti-Doping Authority and would make and enforce medication rules and conduct testing.  

Marketing and hospitality experiences

Speaking before the conference, James Gagliano, president and COO of The Jockey Club, said: “Dinny in 2007 talked about medication and integrity as two of the important issues for the industry to keep putting on the Round Table agenda until they’re solved.”

In that same conversation, Gagliano stressed the importance of getting perspectives from outside of the United States, and this year, that perspective was offered by Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, who in a lengthy presentation attributed the success of the Hong Kong model to a focus on customer service that includes “lifestyle events”, enhanced facilities, and technology.


Jockeys based in Japan

1 - Mirco Demuro10376 - Yuichi Fukunaga970
2 - Keita Tosaki9937 - Yasunari Iwata964
3 - Yutaka Take9878 - Hironobe Tanabe945
4 - Christophe Lemaire9859 - Christophe Lemaire939
5 - Yuga Kawada98410 - Kenichi Ikezoe938

According to TRC Global Rankings algorithm. Includes runs in all Group or Graded races worldwide over the last three years

Like The Jockey Club in the U.S., the Hong Kong Jockey Club conducted a survey that revealed that its racing experience didn’t appeal to young people, nor was the Club reaching the middle class. In response, said Engelbrecht-Bresges, the HKJC identified nine different customer segments and developed marketing and hospitality experiences catering to their tastes, spending $800 million to do so.

For owners, an upscale hospitality and concierge experience was created, and prize money was increased by 30 percent. For young people and the technologically inclined, the HKJC created a race simulator that was downloaded 350,000 times in its first month, with, Engelbrecht-Bresges said, nearly 40,000 using the app at each racing meeting. It also created a mobile interactive betting unit that offered graphics, live videos, and data.

A destination for young people

At the Happy Valley racecourse, the HKJC established Happy Wednesday, offering live music and other entertainment in addition to racing to make the course a destination for young people. Engelbrecht-Bresges estimated that 80,000 people attend on Wednesday nights, with 50 percent of the crowd under age 35.

Acknowledging the fundamental differences between the highly regulated Hong Kong racing environment and that in the U.S., Gagliano nonetheless believes that Engelbrecht-Bresges’ comments have application in America.

“We both rely on customers, and they’ve taken an aggressive approach on how to develop and maintain customers,” he said. “That can be replicated here. The racing business cannot be duplicated here, but there are a lot of parallels about customer relations.”

Other speakers included Kip Levin, the CEO of Betfair U.S. and TVG, talking about exchange wagering; Jeff Novitzky, vice president, athlete health and performance, for UFC (Ultimate Fighting Challenge), on that organization’s partnership with USADA on a drug-testing program; Julie Broadway, president of the American Horse Council; and Chris Kay, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association.

In his remarks on the activities of The Jockey Club, Gagliano announced the organization’s support for two new safety initiatives, one regarding limiting the use of the crop during racing and one advocating a national veterinarians’ list.

Gagliano also announced a “re-branding” of The Jockey Club and its affiliate companies, including a new logo, but despite the new look, the organization’s priorities remain the same.

Said Janney in his closing remarks: “We’re invariably compared to other professional sports. It’s just a fact of life. If we're going to compete with them for the entertainment dollar, we need to measure up in all those areas - integrity, marketing, customer centricity, and product innovation.”

Transcripts and a video archive of this year’s Round Table are available at The Jockey Club.

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