By Bob Kieckhefer
Even as they welcome the inner circle of racing to the Dec. 9 Longines Hong Kong International Races, local racing officials in that country are busily harnessing digital technology in search of new, young fans.
The effort includes using iPads and iPhones, site-specific apps and groundbreaking new electronic wagering tables at trendy new venues at the in-town Happy Valley Racecourse, where Wednesday night races draw a more casual crowd than the Sunday cards at Sha Tin in the more remote New Territories.
The emphasis is on blending social gathering with a gentle immersion into racing in hopes of creating a new generation of players. Basic racing information is presented in an easily understood way on television screens and betting stations designed to encourage players to interact with one another.
"It is a venue for the public, blending the thrill of the racetrack with digital innovation at their fingertips via iPhones or iPads," said Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges during a demonstration tour.
To house the experimental outreach effort, the Jockey Club has rebuilt parts of the Happy Valley with restaurants and club-type lounges that will be familiar settings for younger race-goers.
"The Gallery" is a restaurant overlooking the stretch turn and the straight, with the night skyline of Hong Kong in the background. A lounge dubbed "adrenaline" houses the centerpiece of the experiment—glass-topped information and betting tables shaped much like Las Vegas craps tables but offering touch-screen data about the runners in upcoming races and the opportunity to wager through preloaded "smart card" technology.
The data, including video clips, professional analysis of horses, jockeys and trainers and odds, are delivered in a simplified form that is easily understandable to racetrack novices. The format was designed specifically to move newcomers from total ignorance of racing to a basic understanding—the hardest part of the "learning curve," according to HKJC research.
The tables are known familiarly as IBU, or "Interactive Best for You." Each has eight information "stations" and early experience shows they stimulate fans to a feeling of group participation in the racing experience.
The site-specific apps reinforce that approach, offering virtual games, lessons in racing terminology, and simulations of racing competition. To encourage fan participation, the venues offer iPads on loan to patrons.
Engelbrecht-Bresges emphasized the approach is not designed for hard-core fans but as a bridge to expanding the fan base.
William Nader, executive director of racing for the HKJC, added, "This is not my area. But anything that is designed to add to the fan base is a good idea in my book."
For decades, racing was the only form of legalized gambling in Hong Kong and the HKJC has a long and distinguished history in the former British colony. It remains one of the largest employers and taxpayers in the new Chinese Special Administrative Region, as well as its No. 1 charitable contributor.
But, as is the case with many other racing authorities, the HKJC faces tough new competition, including off-shore wagering that lures big bettors, and glittering new mega-casinos in nearby Macao that attract younger players.
The digital response to that challenge is in its early stages but the Jockey Club reports The Gallery and "adrenaline" are operating at full capacity, indicating they may have hit an auspicious marketing spot.
At the other end of the spectrum, Jockey Club members, owners, and visiting dignitaries at Sunday's International Races will find Sha Tin has undergone a transformation. The clubhouse end of the imposing grandstand has been expanded, upgraded, and given new sight lines to the track—all designed to provide a more luxurious and seamless experience to high-end race-goers.