The politics that could decide Macau racing’s fate

New horse shipments are desperately needed for the Macau Jockey Club to survive but there is no word from officials, while China’s policies loom as the key to the sport’s future in the ailing jurisdiction.

Politics and power struggles could yet decide the fate of horse racing in gambling enclave Macau. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Macau trainers Joe Lau and M C Tam were active at last week’s Inglis Ready2Race Sale at Riverside Stables in Sydney, but any thought that their presence and activity might signal some positive movement in the worrying saga of Macau racing should be abandoned.

The purchase of those horses offers no glimmer of hope on that front: the two-year-olds were not bought to bolster Taipa Racecourse’s diminishing horse population, they were purchased for Macau racing’s big brother and near-neighbour, Hong Kong. 

Sources in Macau have told Asian Racing Report the likelihood is that there will not be any shipment of new horses to uplift the slumped jurisdiction this side of Christmas, and probably not until late spring of 2024 at the earliest.


In June this year the Macau government put a block on any horse imports to the Macau Jockey Club (MJC), a measure taken in response to the Club being deemed to have not met certain obligations connected to its contract to operate at Taipa on a lease that in 2018 was extended until August 31, 2042.

Five years in, the Macau government took the view that the Macau Horseracing Company Ltd, which operates MJC, was behind schedule in delivering its promised MOP1.5 billion (US$186 million) investment to enhance the site – incorporating non-gaming facilities, including two hotels – all of which has a completion date of no later than 2026.

Macau currently has only 222 horses to work with, if the names listed as in-training on the Macau Jockey Club’s website are accurate. That is too few. Officials and trainers, speaking under anonymity, said that without a shipment of imports, the natural depletion in the horse population due to the usual retirements and injuries would mean there would not be enough horses to complete the season.

If no horse shipment flights are inbound – even if the government backed down, there is barely time now to get horses to the city before the year’s end – several well-placed sources estimate February or March at the latest as the date by which the population would be too low to continue racing.

Macau racing's dwindling horse population is in desperate need of invogoration. (Photo by Macau Jockey Club)

One year on from the MJC’s shock decision to axe some of its Friday night fixtures – Macau would traditionally race Friday and Saturday – Taipa is currently hosting only one meeting per week, of just five races. Given the fears leading into the short summer break that the current season might not even start, and follow-up rumours that it would be closed by Christmas, the fact that it is operating at all is testament to the efforts of those involved at the sport’s ‘coalface’ to keep the show going.

There have been staff cuts, the number of trainers is down to 12, and the club is not able to simulcast its product outward for extra betting revenue; its pre-races trackwork show has been axed, and training footage is no longer available on the club’s website, no doubt affecting punter participation and weekly turnover.

Those who still have jobs are working day-to-day “in the dark,” as several participants described the situation. There has been no word from the MJC’s most senior figures, including the club’s chairman Angela Leong and her son, Arnaldo Ho. The latter represented MJC at the Asian Racing Conference in Melbourne last February, in his capacity as vice managing director, but sources have said that he has still not communicated any direction to trainers or owners: no word that Macau racing is going to end, nor any assurances that the industry has a future there. 

On the face of it, the picture looks grim for Macau racing. Time is ticking and without horses scheduled to arrive, its current condition does look terminal. Yet there is still scope for a degree of positivity, however miniscule, albeit engulfed deep within a sea of uncertainties.

A fact that cannot be ignored is that the Macau government – for all that it is deemed by some observers to have no love for horse racing – did give a significant lease extension to enable the sport to continue, despite the MJC’s ongoing massive losses, debt owed to the government, and dipping turnover. But that was granted with a view to Taipa’s potential as a tourist draw, and as a site that could offer non-gaming activities alongside horserace betting.

Racing at Taipa. (Photo by Macau Jockey Club)

Since Covid dealt Macau – and the MJC in particular – a hammer blow, the Chinese government’s strategy for the gambling Mecca has been one of diversification away from reliance on gaming: last December it was announced that the six casino operators had been granted new licences, contingent upon them spending a combined MOP100-120 billion (US$12.4-14.8 billion) on non-gaming initiatives over the next 10 years.

SJM Resorts Ltd, a subsidiary of SJM Holdings Ltd, the late Dr. Stanley Ho’s company of which his widow, Leong, is co-chairman and an executive director, is one of those six casino operators granted a licence.

Leong herself is a longtime member of the Macau Legislative Council, but sources suggest the billionaire businesswoman is not overly popular with those holding the reins in the political sphere, and it is the former MJC managing director and Macau gaming powerbroker Li Chi Keung who had been the prime political influencer for the Club in the past decade.

Li has not been a visible figure around the MJC for a year or more though and sources said he is known to have been in Hong Kong for several months recovering from ill health. His son, Thomas Li, resigned as the MJC’s chief executive officer in July 2021.

The late Stanley Ho, circa 1990. (Photo by Viviane Moos)

What might save racing in Macau is the government’s will, and more especially, what Beijing wants to have happen. If China’s Central Government wants horse racing to continue, the sport will survive. If it does not, it will die. And, given the sports precarious position, the same oblivion is likely if Beijing is apathetic towards its existence.

But the Chinese central government has shown that it is supportive of horse racing in neighbouring Hong Kong, and is even exhibiting a degree of favour to the sport’s development in Mainland China itself.

It permitted the Hong Kong Jockey Club to build and develop its Conghua training centre in Guangzhou, for one. That site’s place within the important Greater Bay Area development – and under the five-year National Equine Development Plan – at least shows there is some appetite somewhere within Beijing’s corridors of power for the sport’s potential. 

The HKJC is operating in a different league to Macau and has already fostered relations with Mainland officials. Among other agreements connected to China’s huge Greater Bay Area development, HKJC is signed up to an agreement with the Chinese Equestrian Association, a supplemental agreement to which was signed in May. Part of that entails promoting and supporting the development of horse racing in Mainland China.  

Given the HKJC’s hard work in fostering a positive image to central government of horse racing as a sports and lifestyle offering, if the sport in Macau is in fact a desired part of the Macau government’s plans to diversify its gambling sector, the question might not be if the sport will survive in Macau, but in what form and under whose management any future racing in the city would continue?

Dr Stanley Ho with his wife Angela at Sha Tin in 2006. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/Getty Images)

As things stand, Leong holds the reins to Macau racing as the widow of its father figure, Ho, but her interest in the sport is evidently limited and her grip might be loosening. Should the right deal come along from a suitable party – another casino operator, perhaps – would Leong agree to sell? Or if the current situation were to lead to the ultimate demise of MJC under the Macau Horseracing Company Ltd. umbrella, with the MJC losing its monopoly and its lease on Taipa, would that necessitate a total reset under new ownership? 

HKJC seems to have the dream model, but there has been no appetite to incorporate Macau into the Sha Tin, Happy Valley, and (eventually) Conghua circuit. Perhaps a complete reboot might change that, but so far there has been no indication from the top deck of its Sports Road HQ that Macau is on their wish list.

Whatever the connotations and possible outcomes, the sport’s participants in Macau still await answers and direction from the MJC board. For now, they are stumbling in the darkness of the unknown, with too few horses to sustain the reduced race programme for much longer and an ever-growing likelihood that Macau racing as we know it is on its last legs.




    Subscribe now & get exclusive weekly content from Asian Racing Report direct to your inbox

      Expert ratings, tips & analysis for Hong Kong racing