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What next for racing in Macau?

Once a potential 'little brother' to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, a rapid decline over the last decade has consigned the Macau Jockey Club to 'poor cousin' status.

Macau racing has stumbled through the first few weeks of the current campaign with its beleaguered horsemen dismayed at the lack of direction from the Macau Jockey Club (MJC) and exasperated by its out-of-the-blue decision two weeks ago to cancel the first of this season’s Friday night fixtures at Taipa.

With no clear messaging from MJC’s most senior figures, signals from Macau are mixed. On the one hand, the Club has just appointed former Hong Kong Jockey Club man Damian Yap as the soon-to-be-in-place director of racing, returning champion trainer Gary Moore will touch down this week, and Macau interests have been back in action buying horses at Australasian sales. But then there is the aforementioned cancellation, and you can throw in the Macau Horse Racing Company’s accumulated losses reported to be MOP$1.9 billion (US$235 million) through 2021, having not made a profit since 2005.

But that’s not all: consider the meeting between trainers – simmering with exasperation – and officials the Tuesday after the fixture cancellation; the rare occurrence of a trainer speaking in critical terms to the Chinese language media; the earlier decision not to broadcast Macau racing on local TV this season; the job cuts; the diminished pools prone to wild price fluctuations; the Macau government allowing simulcasts for betting on Malaysian racing only and then not enabling the export of the Macau product to Malaysia or anywhere else.

The vibrant racing scene built by the late Dr Stanley Ho has faded to barely a shadow of how it looked in its peak years approaching the turn-of-the-century through the next decade. Racing returned to Macau in 1989, taking the place of harness racing at Taipa, and when Ho led a consortium to buy the MJC in 1991, the sport was a prospect with huge potential.  

During that time the Asian Racing Conference came to town, an international race was established, the best of its 1200 horses could mix it with their Hong Kong counterparts, an international apprentices contest became an annual event, and top riders like Frankie Dettori were occasional visitors.

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TV star Liza Wang Ming-chun, Stanley Ho and Gary Moore in 1978. (Photo by Yau Tin-kwai/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

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

Importantly, turnover was strong, hitting MOP$9 billion in the 2003-04 season. But, by 2011, with Ho ailing in a hospital bed and the MJC bowed by competition from the booming casinos, that figure had dipped to a little more than MOP$2 billion per season.

Things only got worse as first Li Chi Keung and his son Thomas Li failed to build on Ho’s platform. The latter Li moved aside in spring 2021 and Ho’s son Arnaldo Ho has been at the MJC’s helm since, with his mother Angela Leong On Kei seen as a steering presence in the background. The change at the top has not initiated the positive direction participants had hoped for.

The first quarter of this year brought in MOP$10 million (US$1.2million) in racing revenue, but that already puts the MJC behind last year when its total revenue was just MOP$47 million (US$5.8 million).

In general, Macau faces difficulties – the casinos themselves are struggling – locked as it is into China’s approach to Covid, with strict measures still in place. 

Its seven-day quarantine upon arrival has destroyed tourism and has turned off too many of its Hong Kong-based horse owners. But the feeling among participants on the ground is that Covid is also too convenient an excuse for the MJC’s lack of a stated and actionable strategy for Macau racing.

Hanlon’s Razor is an adage that runs along the lines that one should not assume malicious intent to something that might adequately be explained as incompetence. Participants are uncertain as to whether it is a case of one or the other or both, with questions raised about the root reason for Macau racing’s backslide under the previous Li leadership and the current executive team. There is a fear that the actual sport of horse racing, the heart of the business, might not be at the centre of the controlling group’s motivations.

But there are some that believe Ho has the intelligence and intent to turn the ship around; the appointment of Yap – seen as a knowledgeable operator and respected in the region – and the return of Moore could be signs that Ho’s heart is indeed in the task to reinvigorate Macau racing; the argument goes that he just needs time to gain the know-how and navigate Macau’s politics and economics during a time of difficulty for the city’s gaming industry.

Gary Moore is bringing his unbridled enthusiasm back to Macau. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)

Either way, his stewardship so far, following on from Li’s, has eroded almost all confidence in the MJC’s leadership among owners and trainers. Ho has not replied to Asian Racing Report’s requests for comment.

Multiple sources confirmed that trainers were blindsided by the MJC’s sudden decision to cancel the Friday 14 October fixture – which in past years would have linked with a lucrative Singapore simulcast – and that no adequate formal explanation was given. 

Instead, word of mouth from officials to trainers had it that the reduction to an already depleted programme was due to a lack of nominations.

Sources refuted that reason, noting that the Saturday fixture the following day had some races oversubscribed and that the current Macau horse population is around the same as last season (approximately 280 horses), when regular race meetings were held on Friday and Saturday.  

With the MJC’s non-official line struggling for credibility there are now fears among horse connections – not eased by the leadership’s silence – that more Friday fixtures might be axed as a cost-cutting measure. Being reduced to a single Saturday meeting of only five races each week would not help trainers sell their product to wavering owners, nor recover Hong Kong-based owners who packed up due to the travel restrictions.

Kenneth Liang, then Executive Director & Chief Executive, and Mr Li Chi-keung, then Managing Director of MJC in 2003. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/Getty Images)

Macau racing could yet be the exciting prospect it once was: the MJC has highly competent horsemen and respected racing officials; it has a facility – on a lease until 2042 – that could shape up as something akin to Happy Valley; and with its mix of turf and sand tracks and Australasian-bred horses, it could have a product more appealing than the sand-only Korea, which simulcasts into Australia and reaps the rewards of that deal. 

Macau itself, current Covid struggles aside, is part of China’s Greater Bay Area initiative that links nine megacities in the southern province of Guangdong, including nearby Zhuhai, into a megalopolis of more than 70 million people linked by high speed trains and infrastructure projects including the 55-kilometre Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, completed in 2018. 

The upside is clear, but the growing feeling among the jurisdiction’s long-suffering horsemen is that if Macau is to survive and advance as a racing jurisdiction as Dr Ho envisioned, then the MJC leadership must at the very least be transparent about its motives and put a stated strategic plan into visible action. 

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