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COMMENT | Singapore slide: can Lion City roar again?

Trainers are fighting hard and owners keep turning up but the future of Singapore racing hangs in the balance unless meaningful changes are made by the Singapore Turf Club (STC), writes Michael Cox.

It is 2012 and Singapore’s standout sprinter Rocket Man is about to embark on a second straight Horse of the Year campaign, one that includes a fourth straight victory in the Lion City Cup. For the past two years, Pat Shaw’s standout has put the Singapore Turf Club on the world map with his offshore exploits and attracted a massive following at the world class Kranji Racecourse. 

The racecourse is buzzing; a rising star named Joao Moreira has taken Singapore by storm, he has been a record-breaking, runaway winner of the last two jockeys’ premierships and is on his way to even greater feats. 

Turnover topped S$1 billion (US$750m) for the fourth consecutive season, an all-time high of 990 races were run in 2011 and the horse population is on an upward trajectory, sitting at 1400 and on its way to 1500-plus. 

Singapore’s international races are attracting big names – the Brazilian globetrotter Glória de Campeāo among the honour role – and as a jurisdiction, it is being talked about less as ‘little brother’ to Hong Kong and instead put forward as a potential rival to the wagering giants of the region. 

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Joao Moreira salutes aboard Masthead in Singapore, 2013. (Photo by Neville Hopwood)

A decade later, on the eve of a new season; the big names are gone and those key figures have plummeted. Many of the most important statistics – like betting turnover and horse population – are shrouded in secrecy. It is plain to see that Singapore racing is in decline; forget Hong Kong, comparisons with Macau could be more apt. 

Moving away from the numbers for a moment, perhaps the best way to illustrate Singapore’s slip from its once prominent place in public consciousness is a more human anecdote. 

In an interview with Asian Racing Report last year veteran jockey Danny Beasley described it best by what could be called a ‘local taxi test.’ 

“When I first started riding here in 2007, and then through those next few years, I would get into a taxi and ask to go to the racecourse,” Beasley recalled. “First of all, they would recognise me, and then they would take me to Kranji.” 

The cabbies most likely asked for tips too, as they would in Hong Kong, but in recent years, not only has the recognition of Singapore’s jockeys faded among the city’s rank-and-file, but even an awareness that the sport still exists.

“Now they don’t know who I am and are just as likely to start driving to the old racecourse at Bukit Timah,” Beasley concluded. 

Beasley, who departed Singapore at the end of last season and rode a winner on his first day back riding in Australia this week, isn’t alone in sharing his sadness at the state of racing in Singapore, but finding on-the-record criticism of the Singapore Turf Club is difficult. The city has limited press freedom and like other Asian jurisdictions, those who speak out strongly can be soon banished.

Jockey Danny Beasley after another feature race win in Singapore, in 2014. (Photo by Neville Hopwood)

The facts speak for themselves though. From that highpoint to when STC turnover figures were last published at the end of 2018, betting on Singapore racing had dropped by a drastic 36 percent to S$772 million (US$576m). 

When statistics stopped being published, the horse population had diminished by a quarter in the space of four years but worse was to come: in November 2018 the Singapore Turf Club announced massive prize money cuts. 

Then, at the start of 2019 the STC handed wagering operations to Singapore Pools – the city-state’s lottery and sports betting operator. 

Then came Covid. Meetings were reduced to one per week. Turnover plummeted. Racing then stopped completely for nearly three months for a “circuit breaker.” The sport lurched along, without crowds and Tote Board figures showed turnover dropped to less than S$500 million (US$373m) in the 12 months to March 2021.

By late 2020 trainers had become desperate enough to petition club management asking for answers and a meeting was finally granted with management in April 2022. But by midway through last year, as the horse population plunged to 660, trainers were still pleading for officials to reveal a post-Covid recovery plan. 

Key to some trainers’ concerns was the lack of initiative shown by officials. Neighbouring Malaysia, once considered a poor cousin to Singapore, is now looking more progressive through the introduction of new bet types, deals with overseas tote operators and has attracted horses from Kranji. 

Still, enough confidence has been given to Singapore’s owners and trainers that they were back as a force at Australian and New Zealand sales late last year and a “glimmer of hope” story could come from this.

But buying and racing horses is what stables need to do to survive as a business, whether a jurisdiction is falling around them or not, and it should not be left to Kranji’s owners and trainers to lift the sport from the mire.

Kranji racecourse. (Photo by Getty Images).

That responsibility falls to those in charge – from the STC board and its administration, the Tote Board which governs Singapore Pools and ultimately the Singapore government. Does the government want a thriving racing industry and the lucrative returns that can follow? It only has to look at Hong Kong and the way that its Jockey Club continues to maintain its status as the city’s biggest tax payer and benefactor during a difficult time. 

For that to happen, those in charge at the STC will need to advocate to the government for loosening of regulation, whether that be tax relief, new betting options or allowing the sport to be marketed. Sure, the STC suffers under overregulation – particularly when it comes to advertising – but It is something of a fallacy that the Hong Kong Jockey Club is gifted many of its advantages: HKJC club officials are persistent in pressing the Hong Kong Government’s Home Affairs for growth opportunities. 

Only so much of Singapore racing’s problems can be blamed on the establishment of a casino in the city in 2010 – eating into racing’s market share  – and further to that, the problems of illegal gambling. 

Use of the betting exchange Citibet is widespread, even in legal betting shops, making the already depleted betting pools prone to odds manipulation, which can be seen in massive price fluctuations on the official prices in the seconds before a race. 

As one former club employee said “at some stage you need to stop blaming the illegal bookmakers, take a look in the mirror and ask why people are betting illegally and not with you. Why are you not competitive? What are the exchanges offering that you are not?”

Illegal gambling is eating into tote pools. (Photo by Mark Dadswell)

Part of the STC pitch to the Singapore government needs to be an explainer on how nothing drives a black market more than overregulation of the legal alternative. 

Meanwhile the other legal gambling options, particularly lotteries and sports betting – also under the Tote Board – surged by 40 per cent year-on-year to SG$9.2 billion ($6.80 billion) for the 12 months to March 2022. Going by the Tote Board figures, the totalisator hold on racing is way behind, even if it made a similar jump out of the darkest times of Covid and climbed back to S$880m. 

There is at least some encouragement in that upward turn. The opportunity for Singapore is perhaps in Hong Kong’s shaky status as Asia’s ‘world city’ and corporate capital. Many businesses have transitioned away from the former British colony as China’s influence has grown, and Singapore racing could be the beneficiary. Hong Kong-owned horse Hong Kong Great was transferred from Sha Tin last year and won the G1 Singapore Gold Cup in November. 

A new season starts on Saturday and a host of stakes races have been brought back for 2023. The feature races schedule provides a structure that had been lacking, and some credibility. Cynics suggest the move is papering over the cracks and racing is still only once per week rather than the old Friday/Sunday format of the peak years.

Fundamental questions remain surrounding the direction of the STC and foundational issues like integrity, direction and government support.

There is hope that the Kranji crowd – once one of the pound-for-pound loudest and most passionate in world racing – could roar again one day. The foundation pieces remain there for Singapore to reclaim its glory. Prizemoney is high by world standards and it is far more open to foreign ownership than the other major jurisdictions in the region. 

In September last year, the STC announced the appointment of new chief racing officer, Australian Dayle Brown – an experienced integrity officer coming via time spent as Harness Racing Victoria CEO. He has been given a broad role, but how much backing will he be given to make the meaningful change required? Others with a racing-focus have come and left, arriving with the best intentions, but became bogged down in bureaucracy. 

There is still belief in Singapore, as one trainer told Asian Racing Report, “My greatest hope is Singapore itself, the government usually gets things right, it can take a while, but they usually get there in the end.” 

For the hard-working horsemen and women at Kranji, and the punters that still care about racing in Singapore, that day needs to come sooner than later. The pieces are there, it is up to the STC officials and the Singapore government to make them fit.

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