China is showing a growing fondness for all things equestrian. Photo: AFP / Alex Ogle
China is showing a growing fondness for all things equestrian. Photo: AFP / Alex Ogle

China’s passion for all things equestrian seems unquenchable. Something like 400,000 amateur horse riders now enjoy a pastime that was, a decade ago, the preserve of foreigners or a tiny elite.

With this boom has come a network of equine associations, equipment and grain distribution companies and clubs. The Asian Racing Federation estimates there are now 1,600 horse and pony clubs across mainland China, and it’s a sector growing by 20% each year.

The segment that’s really catching the eye of the global industry, however, is professional racing.

The federation says there are now more than 1,000 thoroughbred race horses in China and a plethora of professional tracks are opening. This is what the regional industry body describes as the “third wave” of race track development since the Communist Party banned the sport after taking power in 1949.

Forms of horse racing have existed in China for millennia, and the modern style of “speed racing” arrived with the British in 1850 – at its height, Shanghai Race Club, located in what is now the People’s Park, was the largest race track in the world. However, horse racing was only reintroduced to modern China in the early 1990s, and it has been a decidedly stop-go affair.

The first phase came in 1990, when racing started in the city of Xian. Authorities closed the venue after only two events because of suspected gambling. In 1992, racing was seen again in Chengdu and in Guangzhou – but, again, both venues were quickly shut after an intervention by the central government following allegations of illegal betting and also race fixing and fraud.

The second phase was attempted in the Chengdu venue in 2002, this time with a “lottery” model. However, this too was shut down after five state ministries prohibited “all horse racing activities that had betting associated activities.”

The current round of progress is undeniably different. It is bigger in scale, now includes a global reach and has been careful to heed the state’s wishes and distrust of gambling. At least 14 professional race tracks have opened or are in development, and the operators adhere to a rapidly developing administrative structure that includes state-linked associations such as the China Horse Industry Association and the Chinese Equestrian Association, as well as non-profit organizations like the China Horse Owners Association, whose General Secretary is the Inner Mongolian horse owner Lang Lin.

The growth is undeniable but the question remains whether this vast and costly industry can pay for itself without introducing gambling.