China’s experiment with horse racing is strangely familiar
If the China Daily says it, it’s probably got official blessing.
“The Testing Event of China Speed Horse Race Open in Wuhan on Saturday was a step toward legalizing horse race betting, even though technically speaking nobody placed a bet on the horses,” stated the newspaper in a report published soon after the race meeting in the last weekend of November.
Spectators were allowed to place free bets on two of the four races at the Orient Lucky City Racecourse, and those who won were given 20 instant scratch-off tickets by the local sports lottery administration.
Giving out lottery ticket prizes is a long way from operating a trackside Tote. But if China does legalise horse racing and allows it to be extended across the country, it could be another step in the roll back of six decades of stern prohibition of gambling.
Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei, used to be the country’s horse racing centre in the early 1900s. But racing was banned in the country after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
“This is China’s first experiment with commercial horse racing,” Wang Shenshun, deputy head of Wuhan sports administration, was quoted as saying in China Daily.
“First time organizers will offer prizes for every race, and individuals or groups can buy horses and share the prizes.”
Betting rates have not been fixed, added the newspaper.
And there, with Mr Wang’s comments, comes the essential problem.
If you were to speak to associates of Hong Kong businessman Cheng Yun Pung, they would tell you he thought he had been awarded an official licence to run horse races in Beijing back in the autumn of 2005.
Toy manufacturer Mr Cheng invested the best part of US$100 million setting up the Beijing Jockey Club in 2001 and establishing an ambitious breeding, training and racing programme.
He installed Irishman Kevin Connolly, a former trainer, as his racing director, and the two oversaw considerable growth in the first four years as hundreds of horses were flown in, mostly from Australia, but also Britain and Ireland, and cared for by a staff of over 700. The club covered 1,200 hectares, and comprised three race tracks, 900 stables, a blood-typing laboratory, two swimming pools, four walkers, sand yards and a series of hospitality suites.
Then in 2005 the authorities shut it down. More than 600 thoroughbred horses, representing some of the finest blood lines that world racing had to offer, were destroyed by lethal injection.
So where does that leave Wuhan’s little experiment? The answer is probably ‘It depends’. It depends for a large part, on who is actually behind it. If it’s a Mainland businessman, or even better, the local branch of Communist Party of China, or China’s State General State Administration of Sport itself (the same body that brought you the Beijing Olympics and which oversees one of China’s two state lotteries) then it may stand a better chance of entering the winners’ enclosure than Mr Cheng’s venture.
Another possibility is that the Wuhan experiment is following a tried and tested format within China. In this scenario, China, a huge and complex country hard even for a modern state to govern effectively from the centre, is allowed a degree of regional autonomy—until such time as one of those local semi-autonomous administrations rubs up Beijing the wrong way.
Officials at the Macau Jockey Club and the Hong Kong Jockey Club will no doubt watch developments with interest.