China Still A Guessing Game

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Racing Australia’s Frances Nelson at the Asian Racing Conference | ARC

By Chris McGrath

Seoul, SOUTH KOREA–The bounties presumed to lie beyond a door hitherto firmly bolted against a modern racing industry in China seemed tantalisingly within reach on the final day of the 37th Asian Racing Conference. In a revision to the schedule, Hong Kong Jockey Club Chief Executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges yesterday updated delegates on fresh hope that some form of wagering in tandem with racing might at last be permitted by the Beijing government.

Up until now sporadic attempts to bed down the breeding and racing of Thoroughbreds in China have foundered on the prohibition of betting. But a recent policy document, focused on the development of Hainan Island as a hub for tourism and commerce, mentions not only horse racing but also a willingness to explore “guessing type” lottery games on sports.

In view of so many previous false dawns, Engelbrecht-Bresges urged nobody to get carried away. Nonetheless, he felt there might be “not just smoke but fire.” In the past, racing has had to pin its hopes on “equestrianism” projects proving a euphemism. This policy document, published last month, explicitly encourages the development of “beach sports, water sport, horse racing etc”; as well as the possibility of some kind of predictive gaming.

Engelbrecht-Bresges stressed that these two straws in the wind had blown across separate areas of the policy document. “One has to be very mindful that it is two sentences, not one,” he said, adding that the same point had been emphasised by a Beijing government agency to cool down an immediate rush of proposals from five major speculators from the commercial sector.

But Engelbrecht-Bresges also remarked that Hainan, as an island, was an ideal medium for a controlled experiment in any sensitive new venture. Moreover, it had recently been earmarked as the site for a ground-breaking free trade port. “President Xi has shown a track record of getting things done and Hainan has now received his direct attention,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said.

Even if this did prove a turning point, he warned that a long road would still lie ahead and that developing and trialling a business model would take years. (At this point delegates were doubtless reminded how the Tianjin Horse City project, unveiled in 2010, tapered into oblivion.)

“It is a very interesting development and definitely worth monitoring,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said. “But at this stage I would say hold your horses.”

After all, servicing a 21st Century racing industry raises constant challenges even to the sport’s most mature jurisdictions. That was very much the theme of the morning session, devoted to the umbrella theme of Equine Welfare.

Peter Curl, executive manager of Veterinary Regulation at the HKJC, urged horsemen to educate themselves no less than the world beyond; so that all could stand up irreproachably to a confrontational lobby. “Enhancing the quality of life, welfare, safety and durability of racehorses, is critical to ensuring the popularity and sustainability of racing into the future,” he said.

“It is a fact that racehorses are provided with a very high standard of husbandry and veterinary care, as this is a fundamental requirement for optimal athletic performance. However, society is in the midst of a major revolution regarding how animals are viewed and how they should be treated in the course of human use. Rapidly changing societal values have resulted in horse welfare becoming a critical, even existential, issue for racing authorities; while social media and the internet has provided animal activism with an instantaneous, far-reaching and essentially cost-free platform.”

“What is good for the horse is good for racing. But it’s not just about sustainability. It’s because it’s the right thing to do.”

Frances Nelson, chair of Racing Australia, identified a mission to achieve in the wider public “an emotional attachment to the Thoroughbred-a big challenge in an increasingly urbanised society.”

Her home jurisdiction had since 2015 made Stud Book eligibility conditional on owner registration from foaling to retirement. “The data we have collected enables Racing Australia to tell the real story,” she said. “And a good story.”

There are few more edifying stories around right now than Earle Mack’s Man o’ War project for veterans suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center. This was reprised for delegates by Jim Gagliano, president of the U.S. Jockey Club, with the hope that academic corroboration for equine-assisted therapy opened “the possibility of unlocking millions of dollars of government and private grants” in a cause that simultaneously answered a special need among people and gave new purpose to retired Thoroughbreds.

Gagliano also amplified the good work being done by the International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses. “Over the next few years, IFAR plans to develop into a world leader on aftercare strategy,” he said. “We hope to have all racing jurisdictions sign a code of practice and develop traceability systems to track all racehorses.”

IFAR had convened on the eve of the conference to hear Lyndon Barends, chief executive of the National Horseracing Authority of South Africa. “Aftercare cannot be an afterthought,” he said. “It must be critical to the completeness of the industry. We have a collective responsibility because this is about a collective threat. Aftercare must be part of the cost of doing this business. For every person. It will be non-negotiable. We must move from the consciences of a few good people to a statutory responsibility of everyone in the industry.”

Stakes were also high for racing in a session on illegal betting and money laundering. Douglas Robinson, senior manager of due diligence and research at the Security and Integrity department of the HKJC, assessed the annual loss of profits to illegal betting in just five countries-Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and South Korea-at $2.6 billion per annum. (As a proportion of overall turnover, this ranged from 6% in Australia to 62% in South Korea.) Moreover, illegal gambling was growing twice as fast as the regulated market, while it was estimated that as much as $140 billion was being laundered through illegal wagering worldwide every year. “If left unchecked, illegal betting could subsume the legal market,” said Robinson.

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