By T. D. Thornton
China Horse Club (CHC) is one of four partnership groups that own the undefeated Triple Crown aspirant Justify (Scat Daddy). Billing itself as “Asia’s premier lifestyle, business and Thoroughbred racing club,” the involvement of the 5-year-old CHC lends an accentuated international emphasis to the third leg of the American Classics on Saturday at Belmont Park. Over the weekend, TDN discussed some of these cultural implications with Eden Harrington, the vice president of CHC, who spoke via phone from the firm’s main headquarters in Singapore. An edited transcript follows.
TDN: At what point did Justify first appear on the radar of the Chinese sporting public?
EH: It’s really been a wave of support in a short space of time, because the awareness of him really only arose through the [GI] Kentucky Derby win. In China, Justify’s early races wouldn’t have attracted much attention. But certainly the Kentucky Derby generated a great deal of interest and curiosity, and the positive response was very, very strong. That’s continued through the [GI] Preakness S., and there’s no doubt that the response has continued to build. While America’s been watching Justify for an abridged 90-or-so day career so far, China’s only been watching for a shorter period of time. But what they’ve seen, they’ve appreciated. What’s been taken to heart by the Chinese is that this isn’t just a horse who’s winning great races, this is a horse that is owned in part by Chinese owners who are doing something wonderful on a world stage. To excel in America is a big deal.
TDN: Gambling is illegal in China and there is no year-round organized racing. From a practical standpoint, can you give us an idea of how the Triple Crown series is followed by residents of mainland China who are interested in it?
EH: There is not the ability to watch the races live at this point in time. But there is considerable coverage through a number of other different media forms, especially online. Certainly like the rest of the world, China lives and breathes social media. It’s very much the first choice for communication in this day and age, and people do talk about racing, especially when the Chinese attend these events. They share photos with friends that then get shared with other friends, and it snowballs.
TDN: If Justify wins the Triple Crown, what will it mean to people in China?
EH: The implications for China are huge. At the end of the day, this horse is going to be racing in the colors of Chinese ownership on the biggest stage of the world. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that even though we’re only halfway through the racing season, this event may well turn out to be the biggest racing event this year. It’s certainly a positive endorsement to the Chinese that even though they’re new to the sport, that they can dream big and aspire to do great things, and that they should come and participate and chase those dreams.
TDN: The United States is home to the world’s biggest Thoroughbred industry and China is the world’s biggest consumer marketplace. How do you see a potential partnership evolving with respect to forming a viable racing and breeding industry in China? Is it a goal for CHC to serve as a bridge between the two cultures?
EH: Certainly we want to help grow the domestic industry in China. That’s paramount. We have been building bridges between China and America for the last few years. [Big wins by top-class horses] show that anything is possible, and they open eyes to our domestic audience that you can go overseas and compete; that there are international goals to aspire to. At the same time, we also try and build bridges to educate [the rest of the world] about what is happening [with racing initiatives] in China, like our major event, the China Equine Cultural Festival. It’s been held since 2013, and it has emerged in terms of track audience and live-streaming audience as the biggest racing event in China. The mantra of that event is to bring the world to China, and China to the world. A horse like Justify only accentuates the importance of building those relations.
TDN: What is the import/export status for Thoroughbreds between the U.S. and China?
EH: At the back end of last year, both the U.S. and China reached agreement that will allow for horses to be exported from the U.S. to China. That had [subsequently] been put on pause. It’s reopened again, which is important so there is that capacity for a free flow of Thoroughbreds between the two countries. So you have all of the steps that have been put in place for the world’s biggest horse market to react more efficiently and more readily with the world’s largest consumer market.
TDN: Is CHC membership open to investors other than the Chinese?
EH: Very much so. There’s no issue in terms of where people are from with regard to membership. We very much welcome members from everywhere, and we do have members from outside of China. Our focus as a business when we started was very much to promote the sport in China, and that remains our core focus. But that doesn’t mean we’re blinded to welcoming members from other parts of the world. Likewise, we race all around the world. We race in nine countries actively and we have breeding interests in three or four. We’ve got very much an international footprint, and we very much want to share the story of what is happening in China. If we can do so through our club, that’s a positive way to do things.
TDN: Have members of CHC who are from mainland China been able to attend the Triple Crown races in person? How large of a contingent will be at Belmont Park on Saturday?
EH: We had guests at the Kentucky Derby. We had a very, very small contingent at the Preakness. The tight turnaround time between the Derby and the Preakness was challenging. But there has been a groundswell of interest for coming to the Belmont. We’ve still got inquiries coming. The reality is that we won’t be able to deal with all of the inquiries, but we’re going to have a very strong cheer squad for Justify in New York. It will probably be the biggest group of members and guests that we’ve ever had overseas. As a rule, we try not to bring big groups because we position ourselves as a premium club where we service people properly. We’re not a tour group. So whenever we bring people, we make sure that we can meet their needs appropriately.
TDN: For a club that’s only existed for five years, CHC occupies quite a lofty perch on the international racing stage. What do you envision the next five years will be like?
EH: When we first started five years ago, we never envisioned that we’d be campaigning a potential Triple Crown winner. That’s certainly been beyond our aspirations and expectations. As for the next five years, we hope that there are uplifting moments like this again, but we certainly can’t promise to our members that there will be.
What we can say is that we believe that there will be greater engagement with the industry in China. In the last month or so, the central government has come out and has spoken in positive tones about supporting horse racing domestically in China, and that’s certainly encouraging. I would think that there would be an increase in participation at all levels, with myriad different clubs across China, and that’s going to be very positive. We very much hope that we are able to inspire others to participate, whether that’s with our club or individually. It’s important that they do, and we believe in the importance of China being a contributor.
With the club in particular, we have aspirations to solidify our position, but also to help grow China’s domestic breeding industry, [because we are] taking into account that every major Thoroughbred industry around the word is supported by its own domestic [breeding infrastructure]. The breeding industry would be a positive industry for China at large. By that I mean it is an industry that is rurally focused, so it provides jobs in rural centers. It’s a green industry. It is not a pollutant industry. It’s not an industry that is going to be overtaken by robotics or artificial intelligence. So to that end, it’s a job creator.
Overall, it is a case of “Awakening the Giant,” as it has long been titled. China has more than 5,000 years of history in terms of equine culture, and this is a reawakening of that culture in recent years through modern horse racing. The Chinese appreciate the horse. It is very significant to them and to their culture. They’re very passionate people. They’ve been enormously successful in myriad different industries, and they want to be equally successful in horse racing too. We believe that will take place in the U.S. and in other countries as well, and would love to have the U.S. come and play a role to grow the industry and to help foster relations so these two countries can work off each other and both can benefit.