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Bringing the Ascot experience to S'pore
TEO Ah Khing is a Malaysian-born tycoon. A former architect, he founded China Horse Club (CHC) - primarily targeted at bridging wealthy Chinese racehorse owners with their counterparts around the world. He counts Arab sheikhs as friends, while Queen Elizabeth II's personal racehorse adviser is his pal and member of CHC's high-flying panel of advisors.
He and his team travel the world to seek out the best thoroughbreds and riders, while raising the standards of the bloodstock industry, especially in China. And somewhere in this intricate international web of luxury horseplay lies Singapore, which will be the host venue for CHC's first international racing event, bringing a taste of London's famed Royal Ascot - Chinese-style - to the Singapore Turf Club over the Lunar New Year period.
While the China Equine Cultural Festival (CECF) may not quite have the same ring as the Royal Ascot - with its proliferation of eye-popping hats and the traditional royal horse and carriage procession with the Queen as the main attraction - it will be a main event on the local racing calendar with a prize money of S$3.05 million, just a whisker above the S$3 million pot offered at the Singapore Airlines International Cup (SIAC) this May.
While the SIAC is classified as an international event, "The CECF Singapore Cup is a domestic G1 event, so it has the same standing as the G1 Emirates Derby or the G1 Longines Gold Cup," explains Eden Harrington, CHC's general manager. The Singapore event follows CECF's first event in Shanghai last year. "It's a fitting introduction for an event such as this. The prize money means that this is the richest race ever held in Singapore and that is attracting a great deal of interest and excitement. We're expecting horses from Europe, the United States, Australia and, of course, Singapore."
But the CECF is about a lot more than horses in the same way that Formula One is about more than just racing cars, with its spotlight on parties and entertainment. It's a "lifestyle, cultural and sporting event" that's designed to bring together "people of different backgrounds to create a platform for cultural exchange and the creation of new friendships and relationships," explains Mr Harrington. With China being a land of voracious travellers, Singapore's close proximity, similar culture and international outlook makes it the ideal spot outside the mainland for both CHC members and regular folk to convene and mingle with locals and international visitors. For those wanting to make business connections, CECF is the ultimate networking session.
"Singapore is the perfect gateway to connect the Chinese to the world and the world to China," says Mr Teo, who envisioned CHC as an elite club for high net worth members to socialise over a common interest in horse racing and ownership, but at the same time maximising China's potential as a thoroughbred breeding centre. It's an industry that is worth billions in other countries, says Mr Teo, "with £3.5 billion (S$7.1 billion) in direct and indirect expenditure in the UK; 200,000 jobs and A$5 billion (S$5.2 billion) in Australia; 1.1 billion euros (S$1.68 billion) in Ireland with 14,000 jobs; and New Zealand, where 17,000 work in the industry worth NZ$1.7 billion (S$1.67 billion) a year."
It's why he has people such as John Warren, the Queen's adviser, offering his services for free to CHC to help China get on the fast track to building up the industry. Compared to the saturation in other countries, "China is the only country which hasn't yet got down to developing this industry," says Lord Warren in an interview at last year's Royal Ascot. "It has all the assets and no barriers. It has the right climate, very conducive to breeding the best horses in the world. The fundamental development of a thoroughbred is grass. (Unlike in countries with extreme temperatures) our horses can graze from January onwards."
While China has all the right qualities for horsebreeding - and CHC owns stud farms and other related businesses to build up the industry - Singapore is obviously too small to be a breeding ground.
Lord Warren adds, "While we're trying to build the industry in China, in Singapore it is about the riding experience for the Chinese." Horseracing is not condoned in China and betting is not allowed, hence Singapore offers the perfect combination of tourist attraction and race venue, so they can enjoy the sport in a way that's tailored specially for their needs.
"The benefit in partnering Singapore is that you have a world -class infrastructure, a world-class nation and we can bring people to Singapore where there are cultural similarities. Singapore is the place to showcase (horse racing). We're parking this event during one of the two golden weeks, when the Chinese are travelling domestically and internationally. We want to give some of those people, a niche crowd - a reason to come to Singapore."
While the event is open to all, CHC itself is an elitist club of some 200 members who pay US$1 million to join, says Mr Teo, whose first foray into horse racing was in 2006 when his architecture firm was appointed to design the Meydan Racecourse and Grandstand in Dubai. His client-turned-friend was Dubai's then-ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
"Like a tailor who wants to design a beautiful dress, you must understand the contours, colour, lighting. You must understand everything that a horse requires so we travelled around the world to learn what makes a race track tick. We've since designed quite a few race tracks, including China, where we have two."
While the club is Chinese-centric, it has foreign members who want a non-business environment to meet high-net-worth Chinese, while the club offers all the necessary lifestyle trappings such as its own ski resort in Switzerland and a spa that overlooks Davos. "CHC is not just China, it's international," says Mr Teo. "Our advisory panel members, including John Warren, are all passionate about the welfare of horses and the future of horse racing. China is the last frontier and they want to contribute what knowledge they have gained to help our cause. We don't pay them. It's voluntary. And they advise the Chinese government on building breeding grounds and so on.
"The ultimate aim is to have a club where all these people can network and at the same time bring up the level of horseracing and breeding in China. That includes investing in talent, and there is no lack of it in China, only exposure."
Singapore will play a pivotal role in CHC's activities, says Mr Teo, and it will go beyond the three years the CECF is committed to being held here at the Kranji Racecourse. As horse auctions go increasingly virtual where a potential buyer no longer needs to physically inspect a horse, Singapore's wired infrastructure, the same time zone as China and connectivity to Europe make it the perfect place for horse trading in the same vein as commodities.
In fact, he half-jests that the club member he really wants is Jack Ma of Alibaba. "His surname means 'horse' and he was born in the year of the horse. I told him that all he lacks is a real horse. On Alibaba, you can buy everything from a watch to a rocket. Think about it. With world thoroughbred auctions going virtual, what's to stop him from putting it on Alibaba? Immediately all the thoroughbred owners of the world can benefit from a new catchment of buyers who have the resources to bid for them."
But first things first and on Feb 21 and 22, the CECF will be able to gauge how well Singapore performs as a magnet for horseracing fans. There'll also be a ritzy charity cocktail party at Marina Bay Sands where Chinese artists Li Xiao Ling and Mao Wen Biao will headline an evening of art, entertainment and networking. Maybe Jack Ma will show up.