Mainland China authorities are reportedly paving the way for the reintroduction of horse racing with legal betting, with the city of Wuhan to host a test run after the Beijing Olympics.
Xinhua news agency reported Thursday that the central government had approved the establishment of regular horse racing at the Orient Lucky City racecourse in the capital of Hubei province this past September, and was considering the introduction of gambling on the races next year.
Thursday’s Changjiang Times quoted Wuhan party secretary Miao Wei as saying State Sports General Administration (SSGA) had permitted the issuing of a "horse racing lottery" in Wuhan in September. However, a senior manager with the Orient Lucky Horse Group Corporation told Xinhua betting on the races would probably not be introduced on a trial basis until next year.
"Initially, about 250 horses from different jockey clubs around the country will participate in the races," the manager said. However, a China Sports Lottery Administration Centre spokeswoman was less clear, telling Xinhua: "The proposal of betting on horse racing is being reviewed and discussed, but there is no concrete information on when or whether it will begin."
The newspaper quoted Qin Zunwen, head of the Chinese Horse Racing Intelligence Competition Research Group - an SSG Authorized taskforce based in Wuhan - saying "it is going to be different from that in Hong Kong.”
The group's mission is to produce a betting format fit for the mainland betting consumer, which must currently do all betting through illegal bookmakers. Sports Lotteries, in which the player must try to guess the winners of a large number of events for one big prize, are currently the only legal form of gambling in China.
Betting in Hong Kong on horse racing and soccer, and in Macau for casino gambling horse and greyhound racing, is allowed as these are Special Administrative Regions (SAR) that have grown up independently under separate rule before returning to China late last century.
The word "lottery" and the phrase "intelligence competition" were used to neatly sidestep the Communist Party's long-standing prohibition of gambling on moral grounds.
The reintroduction of race betting would "boost state revenue, create new jobs, entertain the public, and crack down on illegal gambling,” said Qin, who spoke to the newspaper about the benefits of lifting the ban. It has been estimated that about 600 billion yuan (US$82.5 million) leaves the mainland each year for gambling in offshore casinos and racecourses.
Qin's research group estimated annual revenue of 100 billion yuan ($US13.8 billion) from the horse lottery, 40 per cent of which would go to state coffers. One staggering estimate published was the projected creation of 3 million jobs if betting were allowed nationwide.
Horse racing thrived in China until the communists took power in 1949 and was especially popular in wealthy cities such as Shanghai. Wuhan, a city of more than 8 million people built around the Yangtze River, had three large racing tracks in those days, boasting a reputation as "the Capital of Horse Racing.” The present track on the edge of the city is located in a 1 million square meter lakeside complex, which also houses equestrian clubs, the Chinese Academy of Horse Racing, and an exhibition centre. There are plans for a five-star hotel and a number of residential towers around the course.
The city has sponsored an annual international horse racing festival since 2003 and has been the frontrunner to reintroduce horse-race betting since it was last banned in 1999 following seven years of trials.
There was a promising racing industry growing in Beijing, funded by businessman Chung Yun Pun and managed by Irishman Kevin Connolly, which was unceremoniously shut down by authorities two years ago. Cheng, whose Domeland stable has raced many horses in Australia, including 1998 Cox Plate runner-up Northern Drake, had ploughed an estimated US$200million into the venture, which included a stud farm adjacent to a huge turf course outside Beijing.
Wuhan started to study the feasibility of introducing betting on horse racing in 2005 and had submitted several reports to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Xinhua reported. A survey conducted by the Hubei Academy of Social Sciences revealed that 83.3 per cent of Wuhan residents believed the introduction of betting would have a positive social impact, and 51 per cent said they were "interested" or "very interested" in gambling on the races.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club was cautiously optimistic over the move last night, with chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges describing it as "a positive development, if the report proves to be correct.”
He did say, however, that HKJC had given the Wuhan Jockey Club the rights to duplicate the HKJC's book of rules to give the new racing industry a proper legal and policy framework. Engelbrecht-Bresges also said the Jockey Club would consider helping the WJC and the central government set up racing, if it were asked, provided the club was convinced there was a commitment to creating something of real quality and value.
Engelbrecht-Bresges said the Hong Kong Jockey Club had an internationally recognized brand name that had to be protected, and that any potential association with racing on the mainland would have to be on the basis that the project would be of "the highest standard.”