China champs at the bit

Updated: 2013-09-26 00:05

By Wang Kaihao (China Daily)

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The race is on to build a nursery for thoroughbred racehorses. However, it's likely to be a canter rather than a gallop.

Horseracing is common on grasslands inhabited by Mongolians, but something has suddenly made such scenes look more exotic. When eight thoroughbred horseracing competitions began on the turf at Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, on Sept 21, the stakeholders of this event unanimously believed it a milestone for an almost non-existent industry on the Chinese mainland.

More than 30 thoroughbred horses from Australia, Ireland, and France joined their Chinese counterparts to gallop for the finale of the first China Equestrian Cultural Festival, which is claimed by organizers to be the highest-level international horseracing event ever held on the mainland.

China champs at the bit

Thoroughbred racehorses and their jockeys race at the first China Equestrian Cultural Festival.Photos by Bai Menghechaolu / For China Daily

"I am an ethnic Chinese," says Teo Ah Khing, a Malaysian architect, who is also the chairman of Hong Kong-based Desert Star Holdings Ltd and the initiator of CECF.

"When I travel around the world participating in racing, I always wonder when the Chinese mainland can have this kind of event with a global influence. Finally, we've started,"

Spectators cheer for the winning jockeys, but they will not win a penny. While horseracing betting is known worldwide as Hong Kong's business card, it is still not permitted on the mainland. When Hubei's provincial capital Wuhan began the mainland's first thoroughbred racing in 2008, it ignited huge controversy and public concern for what was considered a threat to the nation's legal stance against gambling.

"High-level racing does not necessarily rely on betting," Teo Ah Khing explains. "If the purse is high enough, the competition can also be very attractive."

According to him, the lack of profitable races is an obstacle for Chinese thoroughbred owners in covering the huge cost of raising expensive horses. The races in Hohhot have broken the bonus records in the mainland. The highest bonus for a single race is 1 million yuan ($163,300) and the lowest is 200,000 yuan. The previous record was merely 100,000 yuan.

Teo cites the successful example of the annual Dubai World Cup, which does not allow wagering. The $10 million-plus bonus for a single race makes it probably one of the most luxurious sports events in the world.

"We cannot compare with Dubai right now, but as China has a great potential horse-breeding market, the bonus will increase little by little," says the Malaysian, who confirms the event will be held annually.

Still, Dugarjavin Manglai, vice-president of Hohhot-based Inner Mongolia Agricultural University and secretary-general of the China Horse Industry Association, worries these fine horse breeds would be too removed from people's daily life and thus lack a solid foundation of fans if they were limited to high-level competitions.

He expects a big market for these horses, accompanied by the public's full participation, and reveals that China is second only to the United States in raising the largest number of horses.

"I don't believe betting on horseracing will surely lead to gambling," he says. "It can copy the model of a sports lottery, but relevant rigid regulation is a must. Before policies are ready, it would be premature to promulgate a horseracing lottery."

Nevertheless, Teo Ah Khing adds that a promising scenario, whatever its form, will only be nurtured by a sound thoroughbred nursery industry in China.

"Grasslands in Inner Mongolia are home to a large number of ranches and horses, it should be where the industry begins in China," he says. "A self-sustainable system will also become a driver of jobs. The example here can be a guideline for the whole nation."

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