The name is still the same - Race Course - but that is all. Tarmac and concrete long ago replaced the grass and all-weather tracks. Where the stands used to be are several restaurants serving local cuisine, dozens of vehicle showrooms and a couple of car-accessory shops. At the far end of the site is a driving range, where a handful of golfers smash balls into the distance. There is no sign of it now, but this 33-hectare site opposite Jinan University in Guangzhou used to come alive to the sound of thundering hooves and cheering crowds. Between 1993 and 1999, it was a place of excitement and glory as thousands of punters flooded in looking for that all-important winner. 'The way they ran horse racing in Guangzhou is pretty close to what we are used to in Hong Kong. But they had fewer varieties of bet,' said Ronnie Wong Man-chiu, who ran the racecourse in nearby Dongguan in the 1990s. 'In the first place, they didn't allow betting, stressing it was purely a sport and the audience were only allowed to guess which one would be the winning horse. People who guessed right would be awarded cash prizes.' The success of Guangzhou horse racing was thought, mistakenly, to signal the revival of a sport that was banned after the Communist Party swept to power in 1949. But the equine experiment came to an end after six years, proving that Beijing was not prepared to tolerate race wagering on the mainland. Indeed, the only legitimate way to gamble on the mainland is on the two state-run lotteries, proceeds from which go to promote sports development and social welfare, respectively. Mr Wong was one of those who thought the sport of kings, introduced by the British to Hong Kong and once seen as a pillar of the city's capitalism, would soon be legalised on the mainland. Seeing a chance to get in early, Mr Wong invested millions in building what was claimed to be the world's first combined racecourse and residential complex, in Dongguan. At its peak, the Dongguan club, where meetings were carefully timed to avoid clashing with race days in Hong Kong, had 200 horses and attracted tens of thousands of racegoers. As with Guangzhou's operation, its glory days were shortlived and it closed for good shortly after Guangzhou's did. 'Like in Guangzhou, our races also had the support of the local government and we thought that the central government would soon legalise gambling. But we were wrong,' Mr Wong said. When the Guangzhou Jockey Club suddenly closed, Mr Wong asked a senior official in Beijing for advice. 'I was told it would take at least 10 to 15 years for horse racing gambling to receive legal status. So we decided we did not want to play this game any more,' he said. Mr Wong, who is speaking at his office in an industrial building in Yau Tong, picks up a drawing of a racecourse surrounded by a golf course, one of his few mementos from those heady times. The former racecourse managing director now focuses on the public transport business he operates in several mainland cities, including Nanjing and Chongqing . As horse racing died an early death in Guangdong, a few illegal operations sprang up in other cities, Beijing included. All were shut down. A decade on, racing fans are wondering if the central government is finally ready to legalise betting. There were encouraging signs when the go-ahead was given for commercial horse racing in Wuhan , Hubei province, the first to be authorised since the Guangzhou racecourse was shut down. Xinhua reported in January that the central government had approved the staging of regular horse races and was considering introducing gambling on them next year. It followed a report in the Changjiang Times quoted Wuhan party secretary Miao Wei as saying the State General Administration of Sport had approved a horse racing lottery in Wuhan for September. But both reports were soon deleted from their respective websites and there followed heated debate about whether the province was trying to legalise betting. The provincial government played down the reports, saying it was just a proposal and Beijing had not yet approved it. A notice, however, was quietly uploaded at the Dong Xihu district government website on March 13, saying: 'The Oriental Lucky City International Race Course is preparing to host horse racing gambling in 2008.' It also said the city government was strongly behind it. The paragraphs with reference to gambling were deleted from the website after the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis newspaper quoted it as saying betting would soon be legalised. The first commercial race meeting in a decade took place on November 29 when 6,800 people turned up for the invitation-only event at Wuhan's 30-000 capacity Oriental Lucky City International Race Course. Racegoers were not allowed to place bets, but were invited to pick their favourite horse for any two of the four races. Those who guessed correctly were awarded 20 lottery scratch cards - giving them the chance to win 30,000 yuan (HK$34,100) in cash. The winning jockey and trainers shared 120,000 yuan in prize money. Although many mainland media were present, and the press could move around the venue freely, they were closely monitored and they could not get much insight from the people involved. No one from the club was prepared to comment on the prospect of gambling resuming. 'We have been stressing it is a purely sporting event and it is not about gambling. You have to stop asking questions on gambling,' one staff member said. The club has said it will start running meetings twice a week, but it has been tight-lipped about which days and how the public can obtain tickets. 'Although supported by Wuhan and Hubei governments, horse racing [gambling] has not received Beijing's approval,' one source said. 'Officials from the finance ministry attended the horse racing to collect information. Without their endorsement, it will be impossible to allow betting. 'The club's game plan now is to run the races as a form of sport first. It will perfect the operation of the contests so it can convince Beijing to allow it to run betting. The goal is March next year.' Expectations are high in Wuhan that Beijing's approval will be forthcoming, and experts predict that it will be a big source of revenue. Qin Yingwei, who heads a research institute, has been an advocate of legalising gambling since 2005. 'We will see the rise of central China if we have horse racing gambling in Wuhan,' he told Southern Metropolis. Fellow advocate Qin Zunwen has said the situation with betting is similar to that with stock markets, which were banned and subsequently revived. He predicts that betting will eventually be run by the state as part of the existing sports lottery set-up. Mr Wong said there was only a slim chance of the private sector running horse racing if and when it was legalised. 'It will be highly regulated to avoid any forms of manipulation. Because the game will involve many people, manipulation will be easy. Beijing may allow the private sector to have a role in the whole operation, but it will only be a tiny part,' he said. Organising racing was first introduced to China by British traders in the 18th century. Its popularity steadily increased, and stood at the centre of social life in certain places. And Wuhan, with its three courses, was considered the capital of the sport in the early 20th century. Mr Wong said he would not revive his Dongguan operation even if horse racing gambling was eventually legalised. 'It is a very difficult business. You will not be able to make a profit if betting is not allowed but allowing betting does not mean you can make a profit. The gamblers on the mainland are very different from their counterparts in the rest of the world. They aim for big money so they calculate and only bet when they are sure the prizes are very big,' he said.