10 August 2003

Brough Scott on the attempt to establish a track in China and overcome the authorities’ distaste for betting

Forty minutes east of Tiananmen Square and you are already off the impossibly long, Champs Elysees-wide Chang An Avenue with its huge skyscrapers rising by the minute. Down a slip road and off through a new development, down a broken road with people in fields with hoes and conical hats interrupted by what looks like a new school complex to the left. Ahead is a score of old bikes leaning against an arched gateway. You would not guess it but you are about to see the biggest gamble in racing history.

This is the Beijing Jockey Club, a four-year-old, 4,000-acre, racing and equestrian joint venture between the government and the Beijing-based businessman T P Cheng. It has 2,500 thoroughbreds, including 25 stallions, 450 foals and 600 mares in foal, in support of 800 racehorses for 30 meetings which run every Saturday from March until November despite there being no grandstand or official betting, virtually no income, and costs of almost £1 million a month.

A thousand miles south, Hong Kong has finished 78 days’ racing for an annual turnover of £5.6 billion of which £870 million has been collected in tax. You don’t need to be Einstein to guess what the gamble is about.

Eight mornings ago in central Beijing, the car took us east to look up old friends. “You won’t believe it until you see it,” they said. The car bumped through the gateway. To the left were a series of huge white sheds. To the right were three or four covered sand rings, ahead was a small tower with four more lesser sheds beyond it. Then on to the left you saw it. A huge, sweeping green oval. Welcome to the jewel in the crown of the Hua Jun Horse Breeding Company. The racecourse on the edge of 12 million potential customers, the joint with the biggest potential on the globe.

But hang on a minute, haven’t there been plenty of stories of a would-be racing bonanza in mainland China? Four years ago I spent an afternoon at Guangzhou’s modern racetrack complete with grandstand, full crowd and betting windows. But that plant and another at Shunyei, near Beijing, as well as operations in Donguan and Tsing Tao, were forced to close for unspecified corruption. Official word was that “racing with betting” was an experiment which was over. Why should this be any different?

“We want to build from the bottom up, to make sure we look after the horses,” says Kevin Connolly, the director of racing revealing the first of the huge sheds to be a surprisingly cool barn full of apparently well-conditioned thoroughbreds. “We have plans for a 40,000-seat grandstand which will be started the moment we get agreement on the betting. We believe it will happen very soon.”

Kevin, from a distinguished Irish racing tribe, met T P Cheng when he set up training in Macau some 15 years ago. Cheng first set up amedium-sized racing and breeding operation in New South Wales but the target was always mainland China. And as Kevin conducts the tour, the claim to concentrate on grass roots seems justified.

The track is magnificent, a beautifully well grassed, right-handed, mile-and-a-quarter circuit on which any Classic winner would be happy to race. A major Australian veterinary clinic is in charge of horse care, medication and racing rules are on international lines and overseas officials and trainers have been brought in.

One of them is waiting to greet us. John Gorton became a darling of British punters when he came up from South Africa to ride top fillies like Jacinth and Oaks winner Sleeping Partner. “I was asked up here for a weekend a year ago,” he said. “I was sceptical until I saw the track, it is as good as Longchamp, and then the school. That new school just outside the gates was a gift from Mr Cheng to the community.”

Gorton, who is joined by three Australian trainers, half a dozen locals and Phillip Barbe and Claude Piccioli from France, now handles some 60 horses at Tongshu. Two of them are in the first event. “This grey filly of mine is a bit green but can run a bit. Worth a bet,” John says.

Which means buying a cash voucher and exchanging it for something remarkably like a Tote ticket on which you mark the selection. On the Beijing Jockey Club website, they entitle this process `Guessing Activities’. No change there, then.

The grey filly is just a bit too green to handle the blinkered Australian-trained leader. It is part of an afternoon which has a strange mixture of competence and an innocence which one suspects has an inscrutable logic about it. The link up with the 2008 Beijing Olympics seems the key to its future. “New Beijing Great Olympics” is inscribed on the racecard, three-day-event jumps are laid out in the centre of the track as part of a future hosting of the training for the equestrian part of the Games, the suggestion is that betting will be licensed on the Hong Kong model with the proceeds supporting the Olympic goal.

Next day, the golden horse statue at the now dilapidated Shunyei Racecourse stood as tribute to the folly of guessing that the authorities will bend other than in their own time. But a week in Beijing left an impression of a city and a nation on the march, and ones who are using the 2008 Olympics as a driving dynamic as well as spiritual justification to pull them into the modern world. If racing can link itself to similar high-principled rather than just bet-grubbing ideals, this greatest of gambles could yet come off.

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