SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER //
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX
The end of racing at Kranji could present an opportunity for racing clubs in Malaysia, as well as Macau, but change will not be seamless and pitfalls must be seen and skirted.
If a book had been opened two weeks ago on which SouthEast or East Asian racing club might fold soonest, Singapore, despite its problems, would have still been longer odds in the market than Macau or a couple of its near-neighbours in Malaysia. But what a difference a fortnight makes.
On the very day the Singapore Turf Club surprisingly pulled the rug from under its participants with the announcement that the land at Kranji would be given back to the government for residential development, at least one report in Singapore’s racing media was already looking beyond the Lion City scene’s demise: it hailed a bright new dawn for racing in Malaysia, predicting a seamless transition from Singapore to the three ‘sister’ clubs to the north of the Johor Strait.
It is true that the revitalised Selangor is willing to take something of a pragmatic lead in that direction; Perak, working with optimism to get up off its knees, senses an opportunity that could ensure its survival and renewal; Penang, though, reduced to just four races at last weekend’s meet, has stayed ominously quiet; meanwhile, Macau, 1,500 miles to the northeast, low on horses and faced with a tough task to regain relevance, has its door open.
But the notion that shifting participants to the three Malaysian clubs or even Macau would be something as easy to execute as flicking over to the TV channel on which all Singaporean horse racing fans will have to enjoy the sport 16 months from now, is unrealistic. The reality is more complex.
“I think if we were not to handle this situation properly there would be another disaster here in Malaysia,” the Selangor Turf Club’s chief executive officer Mike Fong told Asian Racing Report. “The Singapore Turf Club coexists with us: we have a huge number of owners from Singapore and the turf club’s demise will impact us quite badly.”
Historically, the three clubs in Malaysia – all independent of government ownership – have benefited from taking in horses that did not make the grade in Singapore or had seen their form dip. That regular influx has always helped maintain the numbers of horses, particularly at Selangor, which currently has around 600 horses and is the healthiest and most progressive of the Malaysian clubs.
“The owners have a second option to race here,” Fong continued. “So every year we have on average 100 horses that will come into our system from Singapore; but when that stops after 2024, into 2025, we could find that we have one big influx of horses from Singapore at that time, but that could create more of a problem than a benefit because those regular 100 a year will not be coming in anymore after that point.”
Fong and his colleagues at Selangor Turf Club, located in the Kuala Lumpur suburbs, are looking at building around 200 extra boxes to accommodate any influx, but any such undertaking will be done with caution.
The CEO said the club needs the right business strategy and funding model if it is to absorb the extra numbers from Singapore and then make it work in the long run without having Singapore as an ongoing source of horses. Elements of that strategy are already in place.
“The news of the closure was shocking to us, we didn’t know they were going to close but we had a fear that something could happen,” Fong said. “Looking at the way Singapore racing handled things, from racing two days per week to one day per week, and then especially how they handled racing during Covid, we feared that horses coming into our system would keep reducing because they needed the horses to run there, so we had to look ahead and prepare another channel for horses.”
Fong said that Selangor has forged relationships with New Zealand Bloodstock and Magic Millions, and “even the Yulong group because they have a lot of broodmares and horses so we want to start a relationship with them, so we can buy horses from them.”
Perak Turf Club chairman Dato John Lim is close to Fong in his views and told Asian Racing Report that a new strategy must be formulated to ensure his club, which is in the city of Ipoh, can ride the challenges and emerge stronger. Club representatives have already had enquiries from some Singapore owners and trainers about relocating their horses and operations to Perak.
“We see this as an opportunity to welcome Singapore’s owners, trainers and horses to Perak, to Ipoh, because we are going through a stage of change as well, to make racing better overall,” he said on the phone from his London office, close to Tower Bridge.
“We are making facilities available for horses to come over. We are going to make our facilities good enough to house Singapore horses coming over, and we have room for horses here, we have the capacity.”
While Selangor must build new boxes for any increase in numbers, Perak must renovate its 1,000 boxes, which at present are at about 15 percent capacity but which once upon a time, in the club’s heyday, had more than 900 horses occupying them, more even than Singapore had.
Singapore jockey Harry Kasim, a Malaysian native and Singapore permanent resident can see positive signs, but he believes prize money at the Malaysian clubs, as it stands, could be an issue: “Singapore is going to close, so if some local trainers do move to Malaysia in time, it can pick up again, but only as long as you have the right people running racing there and as long as the prize money goes up.”
Prize money levels in Singapore are vastly higher than at the other three clubs in the Malayan Racing Association.
The Kranji fixture on 11 June carried prize money of S$610,000 (US$456,600) across 12 races at an average of S$50,800 (US$38,000); Selangor the same day had total prize money of RM283,500 (US$61,200) across 12 races at an average of RM23,625 ($US5,100) per race; Penang’s four-race card on June 10 carried a total purse of RM121,500 (US$26,260) at an average per race of RM30,300 (US$6,500); and Perak’s five races on June 3 were worth RM84,900 (US$18,350) total, for an average per race of RM16,980 (US$3,600).
Other participants in Singapore with strong connections to Malaysia expressed to Asian Racing Report doubts as to whether many of Singapore’s owners, having bought horses at a cost expected for the Singapore market, would want to race in Malaysia for those poorer returns, and feared that a significant number of owners might withdraw from the sport. Fong and Lim each said they are aware of the potential pitfalls.
“If we just increase the prize money at Selangor, we are committing suicide,” said Fong. “We need to do more than we have ever done before, because we need to make sure that these owners are going to race their horses here to be sustainable, because we know we are running with quite low prize money. We can still do that for now because owners run their horses here as a second option, after Singapore, so some of them don’t really mind the lower prize money.
“But if we continue that, we will be down the drain very soon, so we have to up the game a bit and we have a first round of meetings with our sister clubs and they are quite agreeable that the whole system has to be restructured, that this group of owners that come in and enjoy the sport here in Malaysia, that they can at least break even with the prize money we offer.”
Lim and his board members at Perak have already resolved to up their purse money.
“There will be a significant increase,” the chairman revealed. “I’m looking at a more than 50 percent increase in stake money here. But our strategy is that we have to work along with Selangor, and Penang as well – as our sister clubs – and we will increase it at a level that is harmonious with the other two clubs.”
But increased stake money does not just happen. Selangor has expanded its portfolio of international simulcast partners in recent times to include Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, Macau, the US and Turkey, and launched on the Sky Racing World channel last September.
“We have to work forward with our simulcast partners on how we can make our pool bigger from commingling, and look at some companies that want to take our product to offer fixed odds, all these we are looking into, to see what options we have,” Fong said.
“If we can improve on our wagering business, this is our main source of income, if we can improve that then we can sustain the business by improving prize money. That’s very important.”
And Perak is slipstreaming as closely as it can, with a view to emulating Selangor’s approach.
“We are talking about the simulcast route,” Lim said. “Selangor has been testing that out and if there’s no problem, Perak would have no problem in joining that sort of arrangement.”
But both Lim and Fong are also conscious that the issues racing struggles with the world over must be addressed if the Malaysian clubs are to succeed, especially with Singapore racing set to end: the need to attract and maintain owners and engage new racing fans as well as the hardcore punters is essential if interest and turnover are to be healthy and the pools not beholden to grey market operators. Investment in the way of sponsorship from outside businesses and corporate entities is also required.
“In Perak we will try to change the image of horse racing, to make it a lifestyle thing rather than it is now,” Lim said. “There has to be the involvement of the people in the township, and the corporations and the companies that we hope to entice to get involved in sponsoring horse racing.
“It is not just for punters, we want it to be that horse racing is not just about gambling, that is important, of course, but we want it to be about lifestyle, so we have set up task forces to deal with various aspects of improving horse racing in Perak.”
While Selangor and Perak are activating plans they hope will ensure the industry survives and grows in Malaysia after Singapore’s fall, little is known of the third ‘sister’s’ plans. Several sources in Singapore and Malaysia fear Penang is close to going the way of Singapore.
The racecourse is on Penang Island, on a high-value piece of land that would be coveted for development. Asian Racing Report attempted to contact the Penang Turf Club to clarify its position but received no response to phone calls or messages.
Meanwhile, to the north and China’s Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong’s strength means that the likelihood of it taking any horses, trainers or jockeys would be fairly low, although it is often looking out for good track riders for its Conghua outpost in Guangdong Province.
But, a short hop across the water, sources at the Macau Jockey Club (MJC) told Asian Racing Report that the club there would be open to accepting horses, as well as trainers and jockeys.
Macau, like Singapore, has seen its number of race days reduced, along with field sizes, and struggled through Covid with hopes diminishing and fears growing. Plenty of concerns remain, particularly given the Macau government’s apparent coolness towards the sport. But, with an agreement being worked through with the Hong Kong Jockey Club around a quarantine protocol that is in process between the two governments to enable retired Hong Kong horses to move directly to Macau, there is hope that horse numbers and owner involvement at least might increase.
One MJC source confirmed that a horse quarantine protocol is in place already between Singapore and Macau, and said that the club would be open to taking jockeys and trainers as well, as long as they would be beneficial to the racing there and met the government criteria to receive a work permit.
But balanced most precariously in all of this is the Singapore industry itself: for it to continue to the end date of October 5, 2024, it needs horses, it needs staff, and owners, trainers and jockeys.
In its favour is the significant prize money still on offer, but should enough participants opt to move on before the end, to Malaysia, Macau, Hong Kong, or any other destination that provides an opportunity, the ripples would start to roll back and risk sinking Singapore racing before its stated end date.
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX