Jockey Club Opens Conghua Racecourse, a First in Mainland China
The Jockey Club held a five-race card at Conghua Racecourse on Saturday, which chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges characterized as a big success. The horse races were the Jockey Club’s first official meeting in mainland China.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club is one of the oldest institutions in modern China. It was founded in 1884 during the British Empire’s rule of Hong Kong. Named the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club at the time, it was founded to promote racing.
The races took place in the Conghua District, the northernmost district of Guangzhou (population: 14.9 million). The racecourse was developed by the Jockey Club for a HK$3.7 billion (US$470 million) last year to serve as a third racing venue and second training base in China.
Roughly 3,500 people attended the races, which were broadcast to Hong Kong on a 15-minute delay. Club members estimated 95% of the visitors had never seen a horse race before. The club’s CEO said no gambling took place at the races. Despite the lack of sanctioned gambling, the topic was at the top of the issues being discussed on Saturday.
No Horse Betting in the Near-Future
Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges admitted the Chinese mainland would not have pari-mutuel gambling in the near-future. In fact, he suggested Chinese horse betting would not be legalized anytime in the foreseeable future.
Yet horse racing has the green light to become an approved sport on the Chinese mainland. Engelbrecht-Bresges said of the Conghua races, “We are really delighted with the outcome today. It was a great success.”
Horse Racing Expands in China
He added that the success of Saturday’s event opens the door for an expansion of the race next year, and the year after that. The Jockey Club’s leader said, “We now have the confidence to recommend we do another race meeting, definitely. We can now share the experience and that should enable us to plan an even bigger event in the next year.”
When asked about the Jockey Club’s goals and whether they included legalized horse race gambling on the mainland, Engelbrecht-Bresges was coy. He said, “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.”
Will Racing Lead to Horse Betting?
Those who know how the world works understand that expanded horse racing in China’s mainland has several implications. One, it should lead to the popularization of a sport that long has been reserved for China’s elite. If horse racing becomes widespread, it will become popular.
Two, the spread of horse racing will create a new surge in unlicensed racebook betting around the races. Yes, the races on Saturday were delayed 15 minutes to assure match-fixers could not meddle in the affair. It is a good precaution which should continue in the coming years.
That does not matter. Match-fixing is only a tiny part of the overall fervor for betting. For most Chinese race bettors, a short delay in the results is a momentary inconvenience. Betting on horse races is a popular pasttime around the world and, if the bettor has to go through an illegal bookmaker, they will do it.
The Future of Horse Racing in China
In the long term, the small affair at Conghua Racecourse on Saturday could lead to expanded gambling in China. While that might be a long time coming, the activity will lead to an uptick in illegal gambling. That will lead to a crackdown on the operators, who will get punitive sentences if and when they’re caught.
At that point, the government will have to decide whether to ban horse racing altogether or tap into the potential revenue source. If one were betting today, the strict ban would be the likelier option, but the matter is not likely to ripen for several years — possibly 5 or 10 years or even longer.
In any case, that is why Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges and the Jockey Club are cautious about moving forward. The Jockey Club is an old, austere, and respectable Hong Kong organization. They understand the implications of the Conghua Racecourse, as do the officials who approved Saturdays’ races. Neither wants to cause trouble that could harm the sport, so they will try their best to keep horse racing in mainland China respectable.
As Englebrecht-Bresges said when asked pointed questions, “I’m not somebody who can predict the future so we have to see if there will be policy changes or not but that is not for us to lobby or to push the envelope.”
The Jockey Club cultivated leaders at the local, provincial, and national level, as the CEO noted: “You have to work with a lot of stakeholders and for us I think it was very important that senior people from Guangdong, Guangzhou and from Beijing showed us that this event was fully supported. That will help us to develop further.”
Jockey Club Wants to Demonstrate Integrity
“Integrity” is a watchword in the sports betting industry these days. Much has been made of sports integrity in the US sports gambling debate. The Jockey Club stressed the same watchword Saturday, as its leader said, “We have stakeholders who see that we as an organisation can demonstrate what is necessary to do horse racing as a sport with a certain integrity.”
Whatever happens, the Jockey Club said it plans to be a contributing member of society in the Guangzhou region. Engelbrecht-Bruges said, “One of our value propositions is to support the community here because we have quite a significant piece of land. In Hong Kong we make a lot of community contributions so it is important that we have stakeholders who we engage with when it comes to Conghua [and] add value to them.”