Once banned by the Communist Party as a decadent capitalist pursuit, horse racing could soon become a moneymaker for China’s Hawaii.
‘China’s Hawaii’ bets on horse racing for tourism boom
The Chinese government has just announced that it will encourage horse racing and explore various sports lotteries in the southern island of Hainan.
The goal is to boost domestic tourism spending in the beach resort, which will be built into a free-trade zone by 2025, according to an official development plan released on Friday.
Horse racing has a long history in China: from a pastime of Chinese elites to a popular diversion for the colonial occupants of Hong Kong.
After coming to power in 1949, the Communist Party banned horse racing as part of a crackdown on anything it considered luxurious or decadent.
Although races have been allowed again in the past two decades as the government tries to grow the economy, betting on horses is still prohibited.
Race lovers can only travel to the former British colony of Hong Kong to lay their wagers, where on average $153 million is bet on a single 10-race meeting.
Many super-rich have also flooded to Macau, a former Portuguese colony and the only place on Chinese soil where casinos are legal.
Rising income levels in China has seen horse-riding become a popular sport again among the country’s affluent.
In 2017, more than 100 horse races and exhibitions were held across China, while various horse-riding clubs recorded a total membership of over 970,000, according to the Beijing Turf & Equestrian Association.
Analysts say the industry will further expand if the public is allowed to bet on horses.
In Hong Kong, horses with names like Very Rich Man and Joyful Forever helped its Jockey Club achieve a racing revenue of $15 billion in the past financial year.
Its chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges said the club is willing to share its knowledge on developing the business if invited by the Chinese government.
But it will still take a long time for the tropical island of Hainan to develop its own racing industry with a professional group of jockeys, farriers and horse grooms, he told the South China Morning Post.
“Speculating that racing with betting [will be allowed] on Hainan is a little bit early,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said.
“And before you start thinking about betting on horse-racing you have to be clear that the key factor is ensuring there is integrity.”
The ambitious plan for Hainan’s future development did not specifically mention horse racing as one of the sports lotteries for authorities to investigate.
The Communist Party has not traditionally been friendly to gaming or more lavish sports.
Only two types of state-run lottery exist in China, including one in which players predict the outcomes of international soccer matches.
And the party’s clampdown on corruption and extravagance has in the past years shut down golf courses and caused Macau’s gambling revenues to plunge.