Mainland racing still far from an appealing wager

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2012, 12:00am


The siren song of doing business in China has claimed many a wrecked vessel in the business world, not just in the modern day but going back a century, and when it comes to horse racing the song seems so much sweeter and irresistible.

Yet is China any closer to having a thoroughbred racing industry, even a recognisable, modern thoroughbred racing sport, this week than it was last month?

What caught the eyes of the world last week was a breathless announcement that Irish breeding and racing behemoth Coolmore would be involved in the 'Meydan Horse City' project in Tianjin, now called the Tianjin Equine Culture City (TECC).

Well, it must be happening. Or just around the corner, surely.

It was announced by the Irish agriculture minister, no less, with US$50 million worth of revenue annually anticipated for Ireland's horse industry. Which, as one wag cruelly put it, would mean US$10 million worth of horses going to China each year.

The matter was described in reports we read as 'the first Chinese government involvement with an overseas joint venture in horse racing and breeding and the proposed Tianjin facility is only 30 minutes by train from Beijing.'

We aren't contesting the travel time, though we haven't done the journey so we're not backing it either, but that line regarding the joint venture rang a bell somewhere.

Ah yes. And we cast our minds back to the last time somebody became the first joint venture partner in the same project and that was just two years ago, after the conclusion of the first World Cup at Meydan racecourse in Dubai.

At that time, the project involved Meydan Corporation of Dubai, TAK Design Consultants (Malaysia) who had a major hand in Meydan racecourse, Zhouji Jiye (China) and Tianjin Farm Group (China). Worth ?2.6 billion (HK$32.5 billion) they said.

Like Meydan, the idea was for a racing centre surrounded by a functioning city, with housing for 20,000, two racetracks, five training tracks, an equine college. And a partridge in a pear tree. Think of a number.

Eight thousand professional equestrians to be trained and 1,000 high quality horses a year to be bred there, within five years. Sheikh Mohammed even sent a couple of stallions to China to stand during 2012, though not anything he might miss. And what those professionals were going to do with those stallions and the horses produced was anyone's guess once they were all trained up or standing, although of course the real estate development side of things looked a real possibility.

Racing anywhere, with the possible exception of Dubai, needs a commercial basis to exist and without betting, that simply can't happen. Heck, there are plenty of countries in the world where betting does take place where racing as a commercial business stands on a par with selling the holes out of doughnuts.

Try as we might, we can't see any mention of Tianjin Horse City, or Tianjin Equine Culture City, or anything else to do with it on the Meydan Corporation website now.

People, not necessarily people who would actually know but people with an opinion, have even told us that the Dubai team slipped quietly out of the whole thing while no-one was looking. And Meydan Corporation and TAK Design Consultants didn't get any sort of mention last week, though that might have been an oversight.

Anyway, what we are saying is that we have been here before and it still hasn't happened.

In the original plan, all sorts of facilities were already supposed to be opened at Tianjin by 2012 and we can't find anything further on them since the announcements two years ago. It doesn't take two years to build anything in this part of the world, where Rome would have been done and dusted by lunchtime, let alone in a day.

Yet last week's announcement didn't seem to dwell at all on where this project has been, only where it promises to go.

Of course, there was one real, live, actual attempt at a racing business in China recently and that was the Beijing Jockey Club set up by businessman Cheng Yun-pung.

This column recalls one of those involved in that project once telling us, a year or two prior, that China was a short head away from having a proper racing industry and that the Beijing operation would have all the inside runs it needed. That was 1999.

Beijing did get up and running. Racing on a weekly basis, on a lovely racecourse with proper facilities and imported managers and plenty of staff. It was actually happening.

The Beijing Jockey Club website - which looks unsurprisingly like a decent rip-off of the Hong Kong Jockey Club site and why not? - is still up, though the results haven't been updated for a few years. Not since the club - which was handling HK$500,000 to HK$600,000 in on-course bets per meeting - was closed in November 2005 for having betting at all and the whole thing went to pot, some US$100 million down the path towards becoming a reality but still that elusive short head from it.

Not long ago, one of the cable news channels ran a piece on how racing continues at the same track even to this day, but it looked like nobody had done much with the track, the grounds or grandstands since they last updated the results. And racing seemed to be for the sake of ribbons, or bragging rights.

There are reports of racing initiatives of various sizes and ambitions under way in Wuhan, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, even the racing lottery on Hainan island, and all of them being as careful as possible to get things rolling without upsetting anyone in Beijing. There are probably many others we haven't heard about, but they share one very obvious problem.

Until China approves gambling on horse racing on the mainland, which is not on any radar yet, there is no commercial imperative to make these things happen the right way - and there must be doubts about the backers of some of these projects even being capable of that.

And while the racing world gets its blood pumping a little quicker, we are continuing to regard each and every such announcement as a false dawn over vessels doomed to founder on the rocks of unlikely hope, drawn in by the siren's mendacious call, whether they hail from the Arabian Gulf, County Kildare or China itself.

That doesn't mean that there won't be overseas entities invited to contribute, to help fund various developments - and quite possibly withdrawing quietly once they see the state of play.

We'll be the first to say well done when somebody does get racing, with betting, across the line in China but, as any punter knows, a short head can sometimes be a very, very long way.