'The Horse Is Everything In Our World'

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The Thursday morning session of the Asian Racing Conference was about a single thing - how can this sport use popular culture to press itself onto new audiences? How can the sport of kings attract new people, young people? How can the game become bigger? It was a mammoth subject matter, a topic with so many tentacles it could have gone on for days. It began with the morning session - the racing authors (myself included) - and it concluded at lunchtime with the officials’ comments - the Turkish and Hong Kong Jockey Clubs, and the charismatic Englishman and sports media consultant Henry Birtles.

The session was well attended. Here was a topic, after all, that was glutted with interesting things - Secretariat, Black Caviar, Frankel, the movie The Cup, the book The Cup, Peter Pan, Phar Lap. You can talk until twilight about racing strategies and the way of the future, about technology and punting and sustainable marketing, but it is the blood and guts of horse racing that excites people. And that was what this session was filled with - the champions, the horses.

Les Carlyon was epic in his opening speech, nailing things as only Les can.  ‘The horse is everything in our world,’ he said, ‘and we should never forget it. Take away the horse, take away those who look after him, and you’ve just got gambling, and no one makes heroes of those who hang around casino tables or betting shops.’ Les spoke about the enormity of the Melbourne Cup, and I was transfixed. He said, ‘The Melbourne Cup was an institution, and it still is. It was also a reference point. A farmer would be telling you about a terrible drought. He’d say he couldn’t remember the date, but it was the year The Trump won the Cup’.

I’ve spent these past few days with Les Carlyon, and I now know how much the man adores horses. To him, racing is all about the grand animal, the magnificent beast, and his speech shoved home that without celebration of the thoroughbred, without adulation of the animal, racing will wither. ‘For the public, sport is an emotional experience,’ he said. ‘All sport works around the idea of heroes. We should never forget that the hero of our sport, the thing that distinguishes it [the sport] from mere commerce, is the horse.’

Carlyon had created a refreshing distinction, that racing ‘the industry’ was different from racing ‘the sport’. The industry, he said, was a term he disliked. ‘Every time the word ‘industry’ is used, racing is dehumanised’, he said. ‘Steel making, food processing, these are not spectator sports.’ He proposed that the answer, to engaging new people and sustaining the romance of the sport, was creativity, not bureaucracy.

I was left wondering, in front of hundreds of people, how someone like Les Carlyon is not running the sport in Australia. Fanciful, I know, because Carlyon is a writer, a beautiful one, but his logic is so sharp and needle-like accurate. He folds common sense around passion like so few can, and he can express it, with words yes, but also with oration.

With Carlyon’s introduction complete, Andrew Harding guided his panel through some of the tougher facets of horse racing. Eric O’Keefe, author and screenwriter of The Cup, Patrick Bartley, author of On The Punt and turf reporter for the Age, myself and Carlyon, crossed all sorts of terrain. There were the challenges in finding new audiences, and keeping them, there was the Black Caviar factor, and the query as to whether racing associations did enough to ‘exploit’ her. I suggested, probably going against the grain of my colleagues, that Australia had done enough when it came to utilising the mare. Take the case of Frankel, I said, who hardly made it out of the sports pages, if he even did.

Embroiled in this discussion was the matter of public perception, and Bartley and Carlyon agreed that racing, overall, was in good shape. When Harding asked me, I had to reveal that I disagreed with my colleagues. In the case of Luck, for example, the HBO series that was disbanded amid a furore of animal welfare cries, the overwhelming news item was not that a mini-series had magnificently represented the horse racing game; it was that the series had been cancelled because horses had died. It was a little too true to school for my liking.

‘I’ve been around horses all my life,’ I told the conference, ‘and I understand that accidents happen. I am an animal lover, and I adore horse racing, but I understand the sport, I know how it ticks. I know it’s not cruel, but non-followers don’t know that. They are being fed a stream of negative headlines. I watch the argument on social media between anti-racing protestors and pro-racing supporters, I see the rising tide of discontent about racing because horses are hurt, horses are drugged.’ Why, I proposed, would a young person, with no previous interest in racing and, for example, a recent reader of the New York Times front-page exposes, be enticed into the sport? Racing, I said, is not an ugly sport to your educated eye, or to mine. But to the unschooled eye, it is ugly, and it can involve death and carnage.

This, more than anything else I said during the morning’s session, generated feedback. I had some interesting folk approach me immediately after proceedings to tell me how important it was to them that this issue had been highlighted. In particular, American Douglas Reed of the Race Track Industry Program in Arizona, who said it is just such a subject that his group is addressing in encouraging new people into racing. I realised, though of course I already knew it, that perception in this sport is everything, because we are dealing with livestock, and an upcoming generation where animals are equal.

Eric O’Keefe’s US viewpoints were eloquent and interesting, observations made on a North American industry clugged with controversy, drugs and bad press. Pat Bartley was a newspaperman, had sharp, witty insight into the Australian game that the audience absolutely loved. We were an interesting lot, representing four different facets of the sport, and as we handed the floor over to the second panel, I hoped we had served up food for thought.

In the second part of the session, Richard Cheung, Executive Director of the HKJC, stepped up with a few cool, hard facts from Happy Valley. The Chinese, seemingly, are doing it right. Food and beverage revenue was up 23%, cash betting in the Beer Garden was up 9%, both floated by an inarguable line graph that showed attendance to Happy Valley’s Happy Wednesday concept was sky high these days, and this wasn’t an annual carnival or a major race fixture. This was a midweek meeting run by a few marketing geniuses.

However, as much as this was fascinating, I had to check my excitement, because to me the Asian energy swivels around the technological innovations in racing, the gambling and the draw of the modern. It isn’t about making heroes of the horses, and that was where the Hong Kong Jockey Club presentation differed from that of Les Carlyon. Did that make it wrong? Of course not. It just made it different.

Following this, Henry Birtles stepped into the spotlight with an engaging, energetic critique of all that was wrong with horse racing, and how he proposed it could be fixed. ‘How do we hook the young?’ he asked, apologising for the analogy. ‘Television, television, television.’ Birtles spirited the conference through an insightful, positively bursting tirade on genuine global coverage. The industry, he said, was on the upgrade, while the sport was on the downgrade. ‘How do we capitalise on sporting moments’, he asked, ‘sporting moments, not racing moments?’ What he meant was that some moments in racing are greater than just the sport... Secretariat appearing on the cover of Time magazine, Black Caviar’s arousing UK campaign.

As proceedings wrapped up, much had been said and proposed, so much so that ideas and concepts buzzed in the space over my head. But applicable to all this talk of champions, and our use of and reliance on them in the modern game of horse racing, was the comment from Yasin Kadri Ekinci, of the Turkish ministry. It is dangerous, he said, to leave our sport in the hands of the next Secretariat. By that he meant in the hands of chance, for these champions are not guaranteed. I thought it was a resonating conclusion to the session, for while Black Caviar and Frankel are kicking around, racing is on easy street. What happens when such heroes are not around to save our necks?

(The incredible speeches from the Asian Racing Conference sessions will be posted on the Asian Racing Federation website. Well worth a read).

Asian Racing Conference, Istanbul

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Kuala Lumpur. It is 10.30pm local time at the airport, though my mind ticks still on the Sydney clock. I’ve had a Panadol, a very big Coca-Cola, and I’m waiting for a plane to Istanbul. Outside the glass confines of the airport, it looks still and stifling, tropical Asia at its greatest. Inside, however, the temperature varies from shockingly hot to shockingly cold, or maybe it’s just me. Three hours sleep will do that.

It is the week of the Asian Racing Conference, hosted by the city where east meets west. Istanbul. I’ve heard so much about it, its colours, age and markets. It’s sunsets. It’s not a city I would ever have had on my itinerary, for no reason other than a lack of reason to go there. But I’m halfway there, and I’m curious now, about the colours and the markets. And horse racing? Well, it’s a valid excuse to go anywhere.

I am attending the Conference as a delegate, a panelist on Thursday’s session ‘Secretariat is a movie star: Using popular culture to build bridges to a broader audience’. My expertise arrives in the shape of Peter Pan, the bulging biography I wrote on a famous racehorse. How did my book elevate horse racing to new audiences? What do I feel is the role of books in this sport of kings? I’m not sure the Asian Racing Federation, when I was invited, realised that I could motor on about this subject until the cows come home.

The Istanbul conference is the 34th for the Asian Racing Federation, inaugurated in 1960 and currently patronised by 22 nations from Australia and New Zealand to Bahrain, Japan and Mongolia. The concept is immense, and not one I fully understand just yet. But from my first experience so far, modernity is high on its agenda. The fact that ‘popular culture’ is a plenary session on the program at all demonstrates not just the support for racing books and films, but the Federation’s intentions to recognise their importance in moving horse racing. That’s good, especially good since I have another book on the way.

Conference proceedings begin on Wednesday, three solid days of racing folk talking racing. The sessions, outside of mine, include ‘Racing and wagering in the 3.0 era’, ‘Rewriting the rule books: reform and the rules of racing in the 21st Century’, and ‘Expanding racing’s global footprint’. There seems to be a futuristic theme going on, an effort to discuss the expansion and improvement of the game. There is also a session called ‘Leaders in the field of racing, wagering and breeding (I’m quite curious about this one).

Istanbul is an exotic and exciting venue for this event, not least because of its creeping importance in European/Asian racing. The Turkish Jockey Club seems to be trying very hard to propel itself, and Valiefendi Racecourse, onto the stage of big hitters. The 2012 Asian Racing Conference will be its sole opportunity to dazzle.