By Christie DeBernardis
CASTRIES, St. Lucia–In November of 2016, the TDN reported on the groundbreaking of the island of St. Lucia's first ever racetrack, which is the centerpiece of a $2.6-billion project known as the Pearl of the Caribbean to be built in the southern part of the island called Vieux Fort. Designed and being created by China Horse Club Chairman Teo Ah Khing's development firm DSH Caribbean Star, the project includes boutique resorts, a marina, a casino, shopping and waterfront villas, in addition to a world class racetrack with turf and dirt courses, quarantine facilities, a polo field, state-of-the-art barns and a veterinary clinic.
The racetrack, which is already under construction, recently took the next steps towards becoming a reality when the Royal St. Lucia Turf Club was formed, which will manage and operate the new racing venue. Also in the pipeline is a high profile reclamation project which will be part of the Pearl of the Caribbean development.
“From a country developing, the racetrack creates new job opportunities for younger guys who don't want to be in suits and ties and are lovers of nature and animals,” Prime Minister Chastanet said. “We are giving them the opportunity to do something on a world class level that they have never done before. Being on that schedule of events at that level is just absolutely amazing. The other thing is the old saying that horse racing is for the rich and famous. It gives St. Lucia another opportunity to draw the wealthy people of the world to it. Certainly, this racetrack, in particular, is a catalyst for a much bigger project and is setting the stage for where we are going.”
There is an inherent love of horses among the St. Lucian people. In fact, it was a local horseman, Winston Trim, who brought the island nation to Teo's attention as the perfect spot for a racetrack. Trim had been diligently working alongside Teo and his team to bring the project to fruition until his untimely death in March.
“To me personally it was a major setback when we lost Winston,” Teo said. “He was the champion, of course, and came to China and spoke so well about the country. I think his enthusiasm is being felt and is a positive thing. Many people who met him, myself included, remember that racing must go on.”
Trim's passion for racing was picked up by other local horsemen, who are anxious to see their compatriot's dream become a reality.
“Ever since Winston's unfortunate death, there is a whole group of young people who have stepped up,” Prime Minister Chastanet said. “Obviously, they are not as articulate or as involved as Winston was, but they are just as passionate about seeing this happen. I think once we start the training, the excitement will be even more palatable. I really want to make sure that Winston's legacy of what he started here is completed.”
Royal St. Lucia Turf Club General Manager Paul Cunningham expressed similar sentiments, saying, “People want to see us bringing the track forward in Winston's memory. They say, 'Come on, do it for Winston. Make sure it works.' I never got to meet him, which is very sad for me. I see his influence and his memory, so I know he was a very great man. Hopefully we can do him justice with what his vision was and we can bring it to life. With Mr. Teo's brilliant vision it should all work and we will have the Winston Memorial Cup, which is marvelous.”
The Tools for Racing Success…
One of the most important aspects of the new racetrack facilities is the quarantine system. St. Lucia is centrally located between Miami, FL, South America and other Caribbean nations, such as Trinidad and Barbados. The Royal St. Lucia Turf Club is working to make the import and export of equines as seamless as possible in order to make it more attractive for those countries and others to compete there.
“We want to eventually start leagues among different islands and have involvement from the Caribbean,” Cunningham said. “The horses in quarantine would go out early and local horses would go after so they would only cross paths on race day. St. Lucia is working with the OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health, now, so we qualify and become a Category 6 member. There is also a tri-partide agreement between Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, so we are going to try and join that so we can race inter-island.”
“The goal with the quarantine is so horses can come in and leave after the race,” Teo added. “We don't need 800 to 1,000 horses to allow weekly races. They can come in batches. The quarantine part is a very important support of the race population.”
Teo also hopes the smooth quarantine process will attract interest from China to come to the island to buy horses.
“The horses can race here and the Chinese can come in to buy and export them to China,” Teo said. “For China, the Caribbean is one of the areas that is relatively untouched, so it is a new market, a new frontier for the tourism in China. We target the Chinese here and they come and learn about the racing. It is the new hidden bonus and will send us off to a new level.”
The racetrack is already in progress and when it is complete, the next step will be to bring in the horses and set up training and licensing programs. The Royal St. Lucia Turf Club will be accepting trainers, jockeys and grooms licensed by other nations until their programs are fully operational.
“Puerto Rico has a very good groom, jockey, farrier school and we want to model ours after them,” Cunningham said. “Hopefully trainers will come from abroad and have St. Lucians training under them. Same with veterinarians. We hope to raise the standard in St. Lucia. We will be doing classroom education, as well, and horse husbandry. Soon we will have St. Lucians training, riding races and exercising. We already have a St. Lucian boy in Barbados training to be a jockey.”
Initially, there will be enough barns to house 500-600 horses, but the track will have the ability to expand as the population and popularity increase.
“People will see the joy of racing down here,” Cunningham said. “We will start the program very soon and will build on that. The Caribbean needs an influx of new ideas, so this is the perfect time for us. You can get away with having 400 horses run twice a month, every month. That is what they are doing in Trinidad, but it would be nice to have more. We are planning on eventually having enough stables for 800 to 1,000 horses. We plan to organically grow and have it grow with us.”
“Once it is built and managed properly, I think St. Lucia will be right on the lips of everybody,” Teo said. “I think the season is more important to sustain and build up. You need to have consistency throughout, rather than one big race. The big race is good for marketing and branding, but it doesn't help betting, etc.”
An International Affair…
Teo is pointing for December 2018 for the track's grand opening, which he hopes will be attended by an international who's who of racing both human and equine.
“My dream is that next year in December, guys like Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, our trainers in the U.S., and other trainers from America and around the world could come down to support us,” Teo said. “That would be very nice. I think we can also assemble a good caliber of horses at a Classic distance on the dirt.”
He continued, “It is a day for Australians, Asians, Americans and Europeans to come and celebrate racing. The racing next year will be a great conference.”
“It is very, very exciting for us,” Prime Minister Chastanet added. “It gives us one whole year to properly promote it and we will have several projects that will have officially started. When you are trying to promote a project to investors, there is a big difference between the words potential and reality. I think doing that event and coinciding with a major investment forum will continue to promote what we are doing with Site C [the site of the new reclamation project].”
The Prime Minister continued, “In a year's time, Site C will hopefully be started and we can do a major ground breaking. When people can see the pictures of what we proposed for the horse racing track and what we delivered is exactly that picture, it gains confidence. One of Teo's strengths is what they are drawing up is exactly what it looks like. It is not an approximation, it is an accurate depiction of what is going to be delivered on the ground.”
South Beach Meets the South of France…
Site C that the Prime Minister referred to is a currently unnamed reclamation project that Teo's firm is designing and developing on behalf of the St. Lucian government. The project will mirror South Beach Miami or the South of France as a high profile destination for the wealthy with waterfront villas that offer docking for yachts, a large marina with the ability for home porting for the largest cruise ships in the world, as well as hotels, casinos and a commodities trading and storage center for high end art, gold, etc.
“It is a game changer,” Prime Minister Chastanet said of Site C. “Even before the elections, we had been indicating that St Lucia should not expand its cruise ship facilities in the north, but should take advantage of the international airport in the south and build facilities for the genesis boats and home porting. We have been in discussions with Carnival [Cruise Lines], which is amazing. They have a home porting facility in Barbados which they have outgrown. The timing of Site C is phenomenal.”
Teo added, “The marina in Castries [capital of St. Lucia] has reached its capacity. The water here [in the south] is deep. It is 22 meters, which is ideal, with no waves. The channel will be dredged for the cruise ships to come in and out using the material from the sea or the land to fill the area. We would like to see it all done by 2020.”
The centerpiece of the new project will be the expansion of Vieux Fort's international airport. The runway will be extended and the existing terminal will be transformed into an FBO for private jets. In addition, a new state-of-the-art terminal will be built to attract commercial planes from around the world and allow more to enter the island at one time.
“What we are going to be careful with is not to build the airport to today's standards, but to anticipate where travel is going,” Prime Minister Chastanet said. “How you are processed is going to be completely different. For too long we have seen the airports not differentiate airline clientele, meaning once your first class and business class passengers step off the plane, their differentiation stops. So, the goal here is really to create a two tier system where we treat our high end passengers very different. The idea is you'd be arriving into a lounge and to use technology where you are being checked into your hotel right there.”
The goal of the Pearl of the Caribbean project is to raise the status of the island of St. Lucia to an elite level.
“It will become like a South Beach, but instead of art deco, we will develop our own unique architectural theme,” Prime Minister Chastanet said. “I am extremely excited. It gives you the ability to put between 1,500 and 2,000 rooms in one space which augments your home porting because 50% of the business will come on flights.”
The Pearl of the Caribbean will also help lower the high unemployment rate, which is especially prominent in the 25-45 age range. The myriad of components that make up the project's three sites will not only provide jobs in various industries, but will also supply training for the St. Lucian people that will give them new or improved skills.
“The local living standard will be raised,” Teo said. “[The projects] will be sustainable and the locals will benefit. That is the Prime Minister's vision. We want to hear that the government is continuing its enterprising spirit to get international people to come help, so the locals benefit. Everybody has to buy in and not be scared. St. Lucia can host something like this. It is capable of doing that.”
Cunningham added, “I call it the St. Lucian Solution. All of the stakeholders are working together to empower the beautiful island of St. Lucia and create a viable future for its people and visitors, while also introducing racing as a focal point.”