Founded in 1993, the Guangzhou Jockey Club had 5,000 members at its peak, with more than 1,200 horses. Monies bet topped Rmb10 million ($1.48 million) a race and in less than seven years it had contributed more than Rmb300 million to charity.
The club still exists today but its core operations have been reduced to the Race Course Auto Mall, a huge but semi-vacant car park in Guangzhou’s urban centre. (The much coveted plot has tremendous redevelopment value and China Evergrande once proposed to turn the venue into its football team’s home stadium.) With betting on sport banned since 1999, the sole reminder of the racecourse’s short history is the car park’s name.
Last weekend horseracing made a comeback of sorts in the southern Chinese city, however. But leading the charge was the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), which held its inaugural meeting at its HK$3.7 billion ($471.3 million) Conghua Racecourse last Saturday.
Fifteen jockeys and 46 horses took part in five races, marking the first time that Hong Kong horses had been allowed to race competitively in mainland China, the HKJC said. But there was no punting on race outcomes because betting is still outlawed on the mainland (though it is legal in the special territories of Hong Kong and Macau).
The “Exhibition Raceday” was held to showcase the high standards of Hong Kong racing and highlight the Conghua Racecourse’s contribution to the local tourism industry, the event’s promoters said.
More than 1,700 people turned up to watch, including senior officials from the Guangdong and Hong Kong governments. The VIPs included Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top official, who hailed the track as the perfect blueprint for cooperation in the Greater Bay Area (GBA). “Today’s event is significant because it is not only jointly organised by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the Conghua District Government, but also a laudable example of high-level cooperation between Hong Kong and Guangdong,” she said.
A number of Chinese cities have tried to test the limits of the restrictions on horseracing in recent years including Wuhan (see WiC353) and Hainan (see WiC405). Across the Taiwan Strait, Han Kuo-yu, the newly-elected mayor of Kaohsiung, also sounded keen to bring racing to his city this month, during a visit to Macau’s Jockey Club.
The HKJC has typically tried to distance itself from the equestrian ambitions of its prospective rivals, focusing on the potential of further cooperation in the GBA as the key to unlocking a bigger prize.
For instance, the club issued a statement last month clarifying that it was not part of any discussions with Kaohsiung and its chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges has played down any notion of involvement in Hainan’s horseracing ambitions too.
“We don’t want to become part of speculation where people buy certain pieces of land, then say we have a cooperation with the Hong Kong Jockey Club and start a listed company etc,” he told reporters at an event to unveil the racetrack at Conghua last year.
Guangzhou and the Greater Bay Area theme may offer a longer term route to legalised gambling and the prestigious HKJC – one of the most powerful entities in international horseracing – will hope the track at Conghua puts it in better position to host any pilot betting schemes.
Indeed, the planning document for the GBA that was published last month (see WiC441) stipulated that “the development of horse sport and related industries should be pushed forward”.
The Racing Post said that everything about the HKJC’s approach showed a desire to move at a pace the Chinese authorities are comfortable with – the UK-based paper noted that there isn’t even a grandstand at Conghua.
The plan is that racedays like Saturday’s start to be more integrated into the Hong Kong calendar in future, although Engelbrecht-Bresges has confirmed that the Conghua project wasn’t – in racing terminology – going to be a sprint.
“You have to work with a lot of stakeholders and for us I think it was very important that senior people from Guangdong, Guangzhou and from Beijing showed us that this event was fully supported,” he explained. “That will help us to develop further. We now have the confidence to recommend we do another race meeting, definitely. We can share the experience and that should enable us to plan an even bigger event in the next year.”
Conghua is also a training facility for Hong Kong-owned horses and the HKJC boss was happy to note that two of the five winners at last weekend’s landmark meeting were trained there, which he described as a vindication of the model (the two principal tracks in Hong Kong are in Happy Valley and Shatin).
As for the gambling ban being lifted, Engelbrecht-Bresges took a carefully non-committal line at the press conference accompanying the race meeting. “It is not for us to change the [gambling] law, that is something which is even above what the Jockey Club can do because it is really fundamental policy,” he said. “I’m not somebody who can predict the future so we have to see if there will be policy changes or not but that is not for us to lobby or to push the envelope.”
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