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Horse shipments to Macau have been stopped, no meeting has been scheduled for the start of next season and staff cuts are expected as fears grow for the future of the sport in the gambling enclave.
Anxiety is building among Macau’s embattled participants, owners and officials that the immediate future of racing in the gambling hub is under threat.
As one trainer told Asian Racing Report shortly before saddling up a runner before a race on Friday night, “the signs are not good.”
The race the trainer was preparing for was one of just five races scheduled for the night. Racing has also been reduced to one meeting per week and the horse population in the jurisdiction has dropped to as low as 220. Now recent events point to an uncertain future beyond next week’s season finale on August 26.
When a shipment of 30 horses from Australia was sent away from a quarantine facility in Sydney last month, citing an order from Macau’s authorities, it raised concerns that the Macau government was getting ready to withdraw the Macau Jockey Club’s right to run racing in the semi-autonomous region.
“We still haven’t heard when the first meeting of next season will be and we would normally know by now,” another trainer said, “And we are hearing that staff cuts could be coming soon. We do not know what is happening. Is the club cutting costs in an effort to keep going? Or is it a sign that the end is near? Even the officials don’t seem to know. We just want clarity.”
A meeting between club officials and trainers is expected to be held on Tuesday.
When contacted by Asian Racing Report, MJC officials have refused to publicly comment on the future of the sport in Macau, some expressing on the condition of anonymity that they “have not been kept in the loop.”
Multiple sources believe that the club’s acting chairman Angela Leong has been asked to ‘show cause’ to the Macau government after failing to fulfil promises made when the club’s lease was extended by 24 years in 2018.
That lease extension was contingent on investment by the MJC, including much-needed renovations to grandstands and stables, part of a complete overhaul of the complex that included plans for two hotels and a horse theme park.
A plan was presented to Macau government officials to invest a total of 3.5 billion patacas (MOP) (US$186m) – MOP1.5 billion per year in the project over three phases – with a focus on “leisure, entertainment & sports”.
Leong’s late husband Stanley Ho took over the MJC in 1991, but after the legendary casino magnate’s health declined following a stroke in 2009, the fortunes of the club began to fade.
In 2003 there were 1200 horses in training in Macau and more than 1200 races per year, both more than neighbouring Hong Kong. Turnover reached a peak of more than MOP9 billion in the 2003-04 season and in August of that year the Hong Kong Jockey Club even discussed a takeover bid for the neighbouring jurisdiction. But the two decades since have seen racing in the gambling enclave take a precipitous slide.
The MJC has slumped to staggering losses in recent years and the racecourse itself has fallen into disrepair.
Total revenue for the club last year was just MOP47 million (US$5.8 million) as its accumulated losses reached more than MOP2.1 billion (US$261.4 million).
Those losses are despite the club reportedly being exempted from paying the full MOP15 million land concession rent since 2008, with officials citing financial problems.
There were hopes earlier this year that a major owner with mainland interests would take over the lease but it is believed the asking price from the MJC was too high.
Macau is part of the Chinese government’s “Greater Bay Area” initiative, which includes a series of infrastructure and development projects across the southern part of Guangdong to create a megalopolis linked by high speed rail between Hong Kong and Macau.
A plan was also in place to allow retired horses from Hong Kong to be transferred directly to Macau to continue their careers in a less competitive environment, and for horses to be able to be imported from Mainland China, both moves aimed at boosting the ailing horse population.
Then when it was announced in June that Singapore racing would cease in late October, it was also hoped that horses could be moved to Macau. Now, concerns are that the sport itself could be facing the same fate as in Singapore.
In August 2022 Australian trainer Gary Moore announced a move back to Macau – where he has won nine championships – and his brother John, a five-time champion in Hong Kong and now retired, had even been rumoured to be eyeing off a spot in the Taipa trainers’ stand.
Now trainers are nervously awaiting more communication on Monday, hearing rumours that staff cuts are coming.
“We are hoping for a miracle,” one trainer said. “The first blow was those horses being stopped in Australia. If the horse population can’t be supported, racing just won’t survive, but the latest signs are worse.”
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