Hurdles ahead for China horse racing

If China ever does allow legalized betting on horse racing, the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) is likely to play a vital role. First, however, it will need to help the industry navigate major hurdles.

In late September, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, together with the General Administration of Sports (GAD) revealed a five-year blueprint that would aim to expand and promote the country’s already mammoth horse-racing industry – which already boasts the second-highest number of riders in the world, right after the U.S. 

Much of this five-year plan is focused on positioning its horse racing industry in line with international standards. It mandates the welfare of animals, stricter racing integrity controls, and the formulation of nationwide standards in the development of the sport. 

One of the key measures is also the integration of its sports lottery system into horse racing – which would be a massive opportunity for anyone that can get a slice of the action. 

And it is no secret that the Hong Kong Jockey Club has been positioning itself at the center of these efforts, having initially floated the idea of legalized wagering on horse races years ago. 

The HKJC has been operating a world-class horse training facility in Conghua (Northern Guangdong) since August 2018. The HK$3.7 billion facility and its race events have served as an eye-opener for Chinese officials to understand what horse racing across the country could be, with enough investment. 

“The HKJC has positioned itself well as a reliable group that can run the sport by building the Conghua Racecourse near Guangzhou,” comments journalist Michael Cox from Asian Racing Hub and Apple Daily.

“Perhaps the next step for the HKJC would be applying to have betting on races from Hong Kong on the races at Conghua as a way to not only boost turnover but prove it can run racing fixtures without incident and with a high degree of integrity.”

But Hong Kong Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges in an interview last month said that we should not be getting our hopes up about horse racing with betting any time soon. 

“At the moment we are a cooperation partner of the China Sports Lottery… But one should not expect there will be horse racing with betting [in China] in the next two or three years. It is a general direction and everyone has to work to the plan,” said Engelbrecht-Bresges to the South China Morning Post in October. 

Engelbrecht-Bresges had previously stressed that the Jockey Club’s endeavors at Conghua are about the sport of horse racing, not gambling.

“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 to local media in 2019. 

Besides, the development of racing to the point in which betting can occur is still far off, added Cox. 

“Away from the HKJC exhibitions at Conghua, racing in mainland China is not anywhere near the standard required for any type of betting to occur,” said the journalist. 

“Officials need to be trained to ensure racing fixtures are run with a high degree of integrity, rules formalized across different tracks for consistency, drug testing brought up to international standards and if China wants to be part of the world scene and compete against global visitors, horses registered with the studbook – which is like an international register for competing horses.”

There’s also the matter of animal welfare and quarantine issues with exotic diseases that could make horse transport challenging, he added. 

This has not been the first time the media has got into a frenzy about the “imminent” legalization of horse race betting.

In 2018, racing media picked up on the central government’s official nod to develop horse racing and sports lottery in the southernmost island of Hainan, which it said would help promote tourism in the province. 

Some media outlets saw this as a sign that the central government was beginning to put the pieces in place that would eventually allow for legalized gambling on the races. This fervor eventually died down – and it was confirmed in April 2020 that betting would not be part of the equation in Hainan. 

Cox is skeptical of the timeframes as described in the five-year plan.

“Despite the recent release of the five-year plan, developing racing on the mainland to a point where it would resemble anything like the world-class racing in Hong Kong will be difficult to achieve in that timeframe,” said Cox. 

“The good news for the HKJC is that it has played the long game well and positioned itself perfectly as far as politics are concerned. The HKJC is in partnership with a sports lottery already, so the infrastructure exists, which helps.”

“In the end though, who knows? Things can change quickly in China – even when you think you have a deal done – as we saw recently when the Ant Group IPO – largest IPO in history – was suspended by regulators just days before it was due to be listed on the Hong Kong Exchange.”  

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