Horseracing in China?

A race meeting in Wuhan in February, under the rules of the China Jockey Association, happened behind closed doors – a trial run. The races will happen every Friday from September. Miao Wei, Party secretary of Wuhan, an industrial nondescript kind of place, has given his approval, no doubt encouraged by the kind of predictions of profits doing the round.

Horseracing – the term lottery is preferred over betting in the local press – will drum up US$14.25 billion and US$4 billino in taxes for the state, as well as 3 million jobs. Looking at the way Hong Kongers bet, that’s believable.

A third of the RMB363 million in lottery tickets money has been spent on public welfare – given the appaling collapse of free social services like hospitals in the post-Communist world its no wonder that Wuhan would green-light the horse racing industry.

Speaking about the Wuhan development on the excellent BERNARD ANG founder member and President of the Association of Racehorse Trainers Singapore (ARTS) says racing will work in China if there’s transparency. Rules must be clear.” He also cautions that punters (or gamblers) must be educated. “Unlike games on cards, there is this element of thrill or so-called personal satisfaction in picking the winning horse in a race through what we call the application of the personal touch. This is an art. It can be taught and trained through education by way of seminars and talks.” And of course, Bernard is “will be much obliged to assist in this field if the relevant authority is interested to pursue.

Showjumping Champ in China

Don’t Fence Me In is an article I wrote a couple of years ago about how jumper Taru Tuomela has lit up China’s equestrian circuit

BEIJING, SEPT 2005 The blonde European stood out on the victor’s platform, standing beside a half dozen Chinese men. She was the only westerner and the only woman at last year’s national horse jumping finals in Beijing. But Taru Tuomela edged out her male rivals to come first in the individual competition. The Finnish rider’s team came second, beaten to first place by a group of Tibetan show jumpers.

Tuomela is becoming a familiar face on China’s equestrian scene. Already at last year’s national championships in Beijing she came third in the individual class. “I was the only foreigner and only woman. Everyone was busy doing their own thing so after a while it wasn’t such a big deal… But I was really nervous that first time. I’d only ridden that horse three times before.”

Tireless preparations and training go into Tuomela’s jumping. In each competition she has to go through two rounds, with fifteen jumps in each. “When you get to a jumping competitions you need to tack and clean. Then there’s a warm up time – you have to be careful not to warm up too early. In the warm up area there’s a couple of small jumps. Five minutes before start up time you are allowed to enter the arena and walk around the entire perimeter. You measure the distances between jumps to figure out how many strides you take between jumps.

Formerly a Marketing and Communications manager for a software development company, Tuomela moved to China last year with her husband, who was transferred to Beijing by his company. Her husband doesn’t share her passion, but worries about the knocks and tumbles of Tuomela’s chosen sport. “He’s scared of it and worries about me!” Finding an equestrian club was a top priority however when the couple moved to China. “We came to Beijing a few months before moving here and I looked at several stables then. Once we moved I immediately joined the equestrian centre I’d chosen.”

Tuomela, who left Finland at 18 to study and worked in Germany and London, rides four times a week at Equuleus, an equestrian club on Beijing’s northeastern outskirts. “I’ve been riding more than 20 years. As a teen I rode a lot and I was jumping from a young age. I got serious about it again only after moving to Singapore and I took a break from my career.” An avid animal lover, Tuomela believes horse jumping is a unique combination of man and beast in sport. “…No other sport can offer the harmony that riding can. No matter how skilled you are dependent on another living being. You can only do what you want if you ask that other being nicely. It’s a harmony you achieve with another living being that’s big and powerful. You can’t impose your will on it.”

A fall while riding in Singapore left Tuomela with a broken arm and kept her from competing. Her ambition wasn’t dented however. She’s competed twice since coming to China. The country has an ancient horse tradition but equestrian sports are relatively new to the Chinese. The Chinese Equestrian Federation began selecting teams to compete internationally for the first time only a few years ago. “Most of the structures or infrastructure isn’t in place,” says Tuomela. “There’s very short notice for competitions, and then only in Chinese. I have to rely on word of mouth to find out what’s going on. The Federation doesn’t advertise. It’s a very small circle, mostly of professional riders and stable hands and there’s very few amateurs.”

There are signs of professionalism however. “Already since last year the local level has improved. But the scene is missing qualified instructors and horses. Almost everyone is using former racehorses but they’re not suited for jumping or dressage events. By breeding they’re hot blooded and nervous at competition. European equestrian horses They’re usually a mix between thoroughbreds and other breeds that aren’t so hot blooded. If they’re experienced they can carry a nervous rider through.”

Breeding has to be improved in China to produce good jumping horses. “All the horses in Chinese clubs are from Australia and New Zealand and raced in Hong Kong or Macao. Local horses are heavy for jumping or dressage. If they’re crossed with Arab thoroughbreds you get a nice small horse. But local breeds like the Mongolian horse are very small and have short necks. Dressage horses need to have a lot of elevation. Arab horses have this elevation.”

Riding four times a week, Tuomela takes lessons for jumping and dressage from instructors at Equuleus. “I need someone to give me good exercises. I know when my position is wrong. The rest of the time I take the horse out and do my own thing… I take lessons for jumping but unfortunately finding a dressage teacher is harder.” For her first competition in China, last July, only one horse was suitable for dressage.

China could yet develop an equestrian scene to be proud of, predicts Tuomela. “In Finland it’s also relatively new. In the 1970s equestrian sports began to take off.” The world equestrian body, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), last year for the first time brought its jumping and dressage exam system to China. “It’s a useful ranking, a way of finding your standard. It motivates you to go up a level.”

Even in winter Tuomela is looking to the summer season and more jumps. “There’s not a lot happening on the Chinese scene between November and May, because the ground is too hard.” But she’ll be back in the ring come summer. “The ideal is to have your own horse and develop with it.” Tuomela left her horse behind in Singapore when she moved. “Taking it to Beijing would have been too expensive. Right now I ride four different horses and I gain experience of different temperaments.”

Luxury Equestrianism in Qingdao

“Dramatic horsemanship and high speed made Tang Dynasty prosperity. Horsemanship has been inherited to become a fashion sport.”

That’s a line used on a brochure by Qingdao Deray Horsemanship Club, a flashy new club in in Jimo City, an industrial hinterland of the prosperous seaside city six hours by train southeast of Beijing. The club, which looks unremarkably different from all the other boxy industrial units surrounding it at East 57 at Culture Road , was set up in December, 2006 and claims to the biggest in surrounding Shandong province.

The property is 30,000 metres squared in total with 2,000 metres of that in an indoors arena. A comfortable reception and tea house overlooking the main arena is hung with photos of Wang Yang, the portly, smiling tycoon who built Deray with RMB20 million of a fortune made off his Qingdao Deray Construction and Decoration Co. Ltd.

Non-members have to pay RMB320 for an hour on a foreign horse. I got to ride the best horse in the house, I was assured by the uber-friendly staff. That’s perhaps because the club was empty aside from a lone teenage member stabling her horse after an hour-long session.

Deray is the only club in Shandong province with an international standard arena. The 40 horses are imported from Germany and New Zealand (some of the latter via agents selling on worn out Hong Kong racers). “Health”, “fashion” and “relaxation” appear to be company credo, as promised on various banners hung around the stables and arena. “Deray is the right place for holiday,” proclaims one.

The club aims to make Qingdao a centre for horsemanship – and an international base for horse competition. Making the city a horsemanship center and international match base is their goal.

“As a club member, you will feel nobly and valued as well as wealthy,” reads the brochure prepared for prospective members. Ten lessons on a student card costs RMB2,400 (50 lessons cost RMB9,500 and RMB16,000 for 100 one-hour sessions with horse and trainer). The card is transferrable and guarantees you the right to take part in competitions and parties and a 10% discount for hotels, restaurant, entertainment and horse tools.

Horse owners can stable their steeds for RMB30000 for one year, including feeding fee RMB24,000 and training fee of RMB6000. VIP cards at RMB48,000 and platinum cards for RMB68,000give you “no limit of time for horsing through the whole year” as well as discounts on rooms and meals at an on-site hotel planned for the club. Platinum card members also get first refusals to buy club horses. A “horse leading” course costs RMB200 per hour – you learn how to walk with your horse, says the club receptionist.