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Sport of kings in Middle Kingdom

IT has been more than 60 years since Shanghai's high society turned out to watch their steeds race at what was then one of the biggest and richest race clubs in the world. But local horse-racing enthusiasts have reformed the club and hope to use a savvy Internet marketing strategy to recapture some of its former glory.

While the Shanghai Race Club was established in 1862 and once counted billionaires Sir Victor Sassoon and Eric Moller as members, its modern-day incarnation involves an innovative online horse ownership structure that allows people from around the world to enjoy the sport of kings.

Founded by Shanghai-based online marketer Byron Constable, the re-launched club meets at the historic Hengshan Moller Villa Hotel for eight major international horse races a year, including the recent Royal Ascot races.

Members can also purchase part ownership of horses online from a growing list of race clubs, including clubs in Shanghai, Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, and Macau.

"I believe that the perception of horse-racing and horse owners is completely wrong," says Constable from the United Kingdom, who first started his online marketing business in the late 1990s. Last year he launched a board game based on the history of the Shanghai Race Club and famous venues around the city (Shanghai Daily, May 27, 2009).

"I think in the last 20 or 30 years horse-racing has steered away from being the sport of kings to the sport of gamblers and I want to steer it back to race horse owners and an elite lifestyle."

Blazers were mandatory and the champagne flowed when some of the club's 500 members met recently for the Royal Ascot Golden Jubilee race, which was broadcast at Moller Villa, the club's official club house.

Constable hopes that members will one day be watching horses they have a stake in racing in some of the richest races in the world.

Full members gain reciprocal membership rights at the clubs where their horse will race and also access to the owners' enclosure on race day.

Combining aspects of online social marketing, Constable hopes trainers and owners will be encouraged to blog and communicate about the progress of the horses they train to maintain and attract online owners.

At the Shanghai Race Club race horse ownership doesn't come cheap, with full members paying 5,500 yuan (US$808) a month to enjoy the horse owners' lifestyle.

"I want people to get into the lifestyle of owning a race horse that would be like owning a Ferrari or a luxury product, it is another part of a premium lifestyle," he says.

Along with these full paying members, there are members who pay 550 yuan a month just to attend the Moller Villa race meets.

Constable says they have 500 members paying either the full membership or paying for events. The club also has 3,000 subscribers who pay 55 yuan a month to participate online.

The model is designed to be eventually expanded so these online subscribers can own a tiny fraction of a race horse anywhere in the world.

Since the club was launched in late 2009 it has partnered with Shanghai's Nine Dragons Hill Race Club and race clubs in Nanjing and Macau to give its members the chance to purchase between a 5 and 10 percent stake in a number of horses.

Horse-racing was banned on the Chinese mainland in 1949, but in the early 1990s jockey clubs around the country began to spring up as an adjunct to already-established equestrian and horse-related industry activities.

Some of the clubs closed in a government anti-gambling drive in 2000 but the first legalized horse race on the mainland was held in late 2008 in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province.

The China Equestrian Association is responsible for managing the rules and regulations surrounding horse-racing on the mainland.

The Association's Secretary General Cheng Qing says there are about 3,000 race horses on the mainland owned by approximately 500 owners.

They also have 60 registered trainers and 120 jockeys.

"Horse-racing is new to China and it's a fledgling sport but people with wealth and status are slowly trying to promote it," Cheng says.

"Just like golf, horse-racing in China will one day become another elite sport."

Cheng says there were seven tracks capable of holding professional standard racing, with Dalian, Wuhan, Hangzhou, Beijing and Nanjing some of the cities with tracks.

In Wuhan the Oriental Lucky Horse Corp has major expansion plans to make it China's so-called "horse city."

Following in its hoof prints is Tianjin, which earlier this year unveiled plans for a multi-million-dollar horse-racing and breeding facility backed by investment from Dubai racing interests.

Cheng says the Shanghai Race Club is not the only organization promoting fraction ownership of horses.

"Recently, people have been selling horses like stocks but it is still a small business," he says.

"Typically, a wealthy individual may have between 10 and 20 race horses."

Gambling is still illegal in China and betting on races has been limited to a lottery-style system in which participants win scratch-style lottery tickets for picking the winning horse. Some racing clubs are seeing an opportunity to be pioneers in the event of any changes to betting regulations.

Shanghai held its first race in April this year at the Nine Dragon Hill Race Club, with subsequent races involving between six and eight horses held in May and June.

Nine Dragon Hill Racing Club General Manager Rachel Wyatt says the races were run under the auspicious of the Equestrian Association in partnership with the Pinghu City government in Zhejiang Province.

The Shanghai race season will resume in September and the races form part of the China National Horse Racing Club's League.

Wyatt says the club stables 80 horses that are trained and ridden by about 30 trainers and jockeys.

"We are not in racing to benefit from any gambling but because of polo and equestrian, we want to provide a facility to people who are keen on developing their horses and the horse industry in China," Wyatt says.

"Just as we have promoted the elite culture of polo, we also want to promote the lifestyle of horse ownership and the love of training and racing horses."

Macau Racing Club Manager James Carstairs says he hopes the online model will provide an avenue for popularizing horse-racing on the Chinese mainland.

The Macau Racing Club already has 25 Shanghai Race Club members investing in five race horses.

"It's a very innovative and unique model, which I hope will take off for the club," says Carstairs who is also a member of the Shanghai Club. "I believe it's a good starting block to help Chinese on the mainland gain knowledge about horse-racing and breeding."

For more information on the Shanghai Race Club, visit

(Additional reporting by Benjamin Li)


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