The Business Of Sport

The Business of Sport: Facelift for horse racing key to revival

Singapore Turf Club president Chong Boo Ching, who took on the role in March, has a few ideas up his sleeve to revamp the Kranji racing grounds and bring in the crowds.
Singapore Turf Club president Chong Boo Ching, who took on the role in March, has a few ideas up his sleeve to revamp the Kranji racing grounds and bring in the crowds.ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Turf club's new president wants to remove social stigma tied to the sport in Singapore

The sprawling 85ha on which the Singapore Turf Club (STC) sits could be the key to reviving horse racing in Singapore.

It is no secret the sport has been on the decline in recent years but by turning the Kranji premises into a lifestyle hub, new STC president and chief executive Chong Boo Ching believes he can reverse the slide and also counter the social stigma attached to horse racing.

In an interview with The Straits Times, the former president of American chemicals company DuPont Titanium Technologies outlined his vision and said: "Forget about racing for a moment. We are sitting on a beautiful piece of land with very nice facilities. How can we share this with more Singaporeans?

"We must find ways to create more buzz and excitement, open this space up for people to visit through the week."

The 55-year-old, who took over from his long-serving predecessor Yu Pang Fey in March, rattled off several ideas which included hosting a monthly farmers' market, animal shows, stable tours for families with young children and even holding open-air concerts. The club is also home to the KF1 Karting Circuit, which opened in November 2014.

Signs of Chong's influence can already be seen. Since last Tuesday, the club has opened its grounds for free public access every morning (6-10am, aside from race days on Sundays) for community events and to allow visitors to watch the racehorses undergoing their morning routine.

  • HORSE RACING IN SINGAPORE: FIGURING IT OUT

  • $1.377b

    Singapore Turf Club's turnover in 2015-16, down 5 per cent from the previous year's $1.453b. In 2010-11, it was $1.848b.

  • 1,400

    Singapore's thoroughbred population in 2015 was about 1,400 horses.

  • $1.55m

    The turf club dropped nine Group 3 races, the lowest rung of feature events, worth $1.55 million last year and redistributed part of that purse to higher-tier Group races.

STC's senior vice-president (corporate services) Simon Leong said: "With this new initiative, we hope more people will get to use and enjoy our facilities for social, recreational and sports activities throughout the week, all year long."

Action is needed when considering the club's turnover numbers. It was $1.377 billion in 2015-16, down 5 per cent from the previous year's $1.453 billion. From 2010-11, it was $1.848 billion.

By comparison, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has more than 23,000 members, recorded turnover for 2015-16 at HK$107.4 billion (S$19.46 billion), an increase from the HK$105.4 billion of the preceding season.

Strict government restrictions coupled with horse racing's reputation as a vice activity in Singapore make for a challenging environment to operate in, said Chong.

JUST LIKE THE OLYMPICS

When I got here, I saw the top horses, trainers, jockeys, facilities, broadcasting, everything running like clockwork. It feels like we're organising a mini Olympic Games and watching Usain Bolt every week.

CHONG BOO CHING, new Singapore Turf Club president, on the sights and sounds at his new place of work.

He stressed, however, that the STC's goals were to combat unlicensed bookmakers and provide a safe and legal alternative and that all surplus goes to the Tote Board for charity. He added: "There are no shareholders who profit from this."

He adopted a similar mindset when discussing the Remote Gambling Act, from which the Government last year had granted STC exemption for three years.

"The illegal bookmakers are already online," he said. "We're playing catch-up but we are working closely with the authorities to do things in the most responsible way.

"If more people use the remote channel, it will also help us to improve productivity and reduce manpower."

He was also keen on cutting the number of Class 5 races - featuring the lowest-ranked horses competing for the smallest purses - and channelling the prize money to the bigger races to incentivise owners to buy more expensive but higher quality thoroughbreds.

The STC, whose horse population in 2015 was about 1,400, was moving in this direction last year.

The club dropped nine Group 3 races - the lowest rung of feature events - worth $1.55 million and added $1 million to the purses of several Group 1 and 2 races to encourage owners, whose cut is 48.25 per cent of the total prize money, to invest in better horses.

"That's one way to upgrade our local horses," said Chong, who also wants to entice wealthy individuals from South-east Asia and China to become horse owners and establish their base of operations in Singapore.

While Hong Kong might be the centre of horse racing in Asia, the Republic retains a strong profile despite the loss of the prestigious $3 million Singapore Airlines International Cup, an international Group 1 race, in 2015.

Chong said: "If you're operating, running and selling races, which I am, you want them to be the best and for that you need international recognition. So having something like the SIA Cup, yes, I have that in my mind to bring back."

For someone who had never stepped onto a racetrack - even though the famous Delaware Park Racetrack was a 10-minute drive from his home when he was based in the US with DuPont for five years - until he took up his current post, Chong is now a firm enthusiast.

"When the headhunter first mentioned to me about the turf club, I almost fell off my chair," he said, chuckling at the recollection.

"I don't gamble - not even casually - and I don't know anything about horses.

"But I was intrigued. And when I got here, I saw the top horses, trainers, jockeys, facilities, broadcasting, everything running like clockwork (the club staged 90 races last year).

"It feels like we're organising a mini Olympic Games and watching Usain Bolt every week.

"That's the kind of excitement I want us to share with the spectators."

•The Business of Sport is a monthly series that explores the current trends and talking points of the emerging sport industry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2017, with the headline 'Facelift for horse racing key to revival'. Print Edition | Subscribe