International Agonistes: How Horse Racing is Coming Back to Mainland China

Horse racing in China continues to evolve following an unceremonious history with the region.

Updated: March 21, 2019 • 1:00 PM ET

Horse racing in Hong Kong continues to be a niche sport in the region.

In the United States, horse racing has had a series of inner struggles during what many consider a tumultuous winter — agonistes proliferate. Members of the press burned up the keys, repeatedly typing a four-letter acronym, and rhetorical turns of phrase were excavated and tested as much as the soil at Santa Anita. Some supported the Stronach ship, while others fled like…well, you get the metaphor.

Amid the controversy, which isn’t finished by any means, supposed truths surfaced and blame was widely cast. Regardless, what we learned was that horse racing must change. Simply put, that’s difficult, especially without a centralized authority. Most agree, though, that it’s necessary.

Healthy debate, rigorous discussion, overt hand-wringing, spotlight shining and the like are obligatory these days. It’s about the process. No one said thoroughbreds were easy; whether it’s breeding, training, or getting them to pose for photos in the winner’s circle.

You railbirds think American horse racing has its challenges, you haven’t seen anything. Turn your gaze and put your ear to the ground to listen to what’s been going on in China when it comes to horse racing.

One would think that if this East Asian powerhouse could put the first probe in human history on the dark side of the moon, they could readily bring back thoroughbred horse racing to the mainland.

Baltimore’s troubles with the Preakness has nothing on this place.

Racing’s return has been underway for some time, ever since China banned it in the 1940s. Founder of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong and the Communist Party proceeded to rewrite the history books, and it didn’t include what could be perceived as draconian Western imperialistic systems. Starvation, terror and a police state leapt the country backward — in short, more suffering.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, the post-Mao period, that China began developing a hybrid political economy under the auspices of Deng Xiaoping and his proteges. The axis began to shift, though not on issues like human rights. In the 21st century, mobility and connectivity have remained major topics concerning control. Certainly, loopholes pervade, and the leadership has learned to allow a measure of flexibility.

Of course, Hong Kong, a former British colony turned protectorate, was surrendered to the Chinese in 1997. Since that time, it has continued to be a leader in East Asia horse racing at racetracks like Sha Tin and Happy Valley. To this day, the Hong Kong Jockey Club continues to be a powerful entity, so much so that they are perceived by the Chinese government as an important ally.

China’s shadow could easily shroud Hong Kong, but they understand that it serves as the nation’s proto-ATM, second only to Shanghai in economic power. Tinkering has its price, and it’s understood that commerce and a complex nexus of banking pump through its veins 24/7. Historically, the region has relied upon its geography as a strategic location, reminding of the bustling days when the Qing-controlled Hongs of nearby Guangzhou in the 17th century successfully restricted Westerners from trading outside its warehouse zones. Today, Hong Kong operates on a global scale by serving as a hub for mainland activities. Think Las Vegas meets Dubai during Mardi Gras with the London Financial scene mixed in.

As a teeming metropole, Hong Kong’s space has been at a premium, whether it’s for humans or horses. With little room at the inn, the Jockey Club has sought to develop satellite facilities on the mainland that could support their efforts and possibly someday, help to grow the industry in one of the most powerful nations on the planet. It’s not an easy prospect.

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Despite challenges, barricades are no matter; they have forged ahead. Changing the cultural attitudes towards horse racing takes time, but the Jockey Club and the Party have found some common ground by developing the Conghua Racecourse in Guangdong Province.

The $3.7 billion training center not only impersonates Sha Tin (sans the massive grandstand), its facilities include four racetracks with an 1100-meter uphill gallop, 20 paddocks, a world-class veterinary hospital equipped with an X-ray unit, an exam room, operating suites, a rehabilitation wing that includes salt-water spas and an aqua treadmill to treat injured horses. A special expedited route links the course back to Hong Kong to make transit easier and more efficient.

They’re not stopping there with just training. Conghua is marked for expansion into the realm of live racing. Next week, right before the Dubai World Cup, the racecourse will mark a significant step in that direction when a series of non-televised exhibition races will take place at this signature facility.

It doesn’t matter that the footage will be served up on a time delay in Hong Kong — It means something larger. China and its multi-faceted cultures, coupled with a sense of business and entertainment development, is once again moving part of itself from a monolith into a new phase that equates to something different. Olympics are returning to them in the form of the Winter Games, and they continue to elevate, although controversially, to higher athletic standards.

The call to the post is: Take notice American agonistes! Watch and learn National Thoroughbred Racing Association committee members and you folks at the Jockey Club of America; embrace change. Rough winter? How about 75 years of revolution, turmoil and waiting?

Remember, all good things take time and effort, while also being rife with failure. Hong Kong racing and their efforts on the mainland remind us here in the states that we would do well to exercise patience.

Coda: Look to the future, while having the ken to remember the past.

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