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December 6, 2011

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Shanghai Race Club rides again

ONCE Shanghai's top horse-race trophy was the world's ninth in ranking. Today a British IT entrepreneur has revived the old Shanghai Race Club and aims for a Shanghai Cup in China in 2013, the Year of the Horse. Yao Minji reports.

Byron Constable grew up next to a horse racing track in Wimbledon but never thought back then he would one day realize his childhood dream of getting involved with the ponies far from home in Shanghai.

Constable has revived the Shanghai Race Club, once one of the world's most powerful private clubs.

The British businessman arrived in Shanghai in 2001 to set up the Shanghai branch of his Internet advertising company, one of the earliest in China. Shortly after his arrival, Constable heard the story of what was once one of the biggest and richest clubs in Shanghai right in its original club building, now the Shanghai Art Museum.

"There are two things that I'm most passionate about - horse racing and technology. So when I first heard about the history of Shanghai Race Club back then, I felt I had just heard the right story from the right person, a historian friend, at the right time," Constable tells Shanghai Daily.

"It came at the time when I thought I would want to go into horse racing, my childhood dream, after I retire."

The 43-year-old Briton man has not yet retired as an Internet marketing strategist and executive. But horse racing is his passion and hobby. He has contributed financing and great effort to bring the club back to life since 2006.

"Horse racing has long been misunderstood. People either don't know much about it or know it for the wrong reason - gambling. But I believe this sports will be steered into a new direction in the following years, and quite possibly Chinese enthusiasts will be a big support of this new direction," he explains.

Constable sees the new direction as a combination of horse racing and technology, twin passions, to make the elite sport more accessible and attractive, especially for young people. For example, members can buy partial ownership of a horse anywhere in the world from the Internet, and witness the training and racing of the horse through online videos anytime they want.

The club existed since the 1840s and was established as an independent club since 1862. At the time, it owned a few race tracks, including one where People's Square stands today, right in the center of the city, an unusual venue for a race track.

The original list of club members and executives included nearly all the big names in foreign business and politics at the time, including Victor Sassoon, Eric Moller and Catchick Paul Chater, among many.

The grand racing days, with a spring and autumn season, were described as great festival in the city, with free-flowing Champagne and parties.

The club was forced to close in 1941 when invading Japanese troops entered Shanghai and occupied the opulent race club. It was revived swiftly after Japan surrendered in 1945. Later the municipal government began drawn-own negotiations to take the land back.

After 1949, horse racing was banned on the Chinese mainland, considered decadent, corrupting and an colonialist remnant. The municipal government turned the race track itself into People's Square and the club building became the Shanghai Art Museum in the 1950s.

When Constable came to learn about all this, he was fortunate to find the club's logo was still available, never having been renewed. He purchased the global rights to the logo, in the first step of the club's resurrection.

Now, Constable has gathered more than 3,000 horse racing enthusiasts around the world to join the club, both Chinese and foreigners.

Many are not in China. Those who are in town meet at the Hengshan Moller Villa Hotel, former mansion of shipping tycoon Eric Moller, to follow the world's eight major horse racing cups.

Since many of the old club members were British, it wasn't too difficult for Constable to collect history about the venerable institution from families of former club members living in the UK.

Since he started the revival and publicized his work, he has constantly been getting e-mails and phone calls from people related to the old club - descendents of club members, employees, and others who knew about the club and some who don't.

Constable was contacted by a Scottish woman who had no idea why there was a Shanghai Cup trophy in the attic of her house. Through his research, Constable found that the woman was probably related to the Scotsman who won the cup and took it back to Scotland; he left it in the attic and forgot all about it when he moved out.

Constable has a grand vision of a revived club.

"I hope that a Shanghai Cup will be held here (on the Chinese mainland), hopefully in 2013, the year of horse. After all, there was a Shanghai Cup [various names over the years] and it was the ninth most important horse race in the world back then," he says. He says a likely location is Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, which has been discussed as a venue for horse racing.

Constable sees his role as "bringing together powerful and passionate people who can make it happen."

His horse race mission reminds him of his early day in China working in the emerging Internet business, alongside industry pioneers such as founder Charles Zhang and founder Jack Ma, among many other notables.

"It is nice to have known these people when they were starting out their successful business and to have witnessed the growing of IT field," he says. " And I can see that for the horse racing industry in China now."

Byron Constable

Nationality: UK
Age: 43
Profession: Internet entrepreneur

Self-description: Curious.

Favorite place: The patio area of Kathleens 5 restaurant on top of the former Shanghai Race Club building.

Motto for life: ×???2??¢ Zi qiang bu xi (Self-strengthening never ceases), which Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) had carved into his royal seal to remind himself not become indolent, but to remain mindful and diligent and govern his subjects well.

Worst experience: Spending time with people who just want to talk about their worst experiences in Shanghai.

How to improve Shanghai:
It's hard to suggest improvements to a city which has truly transformed itself in such a short period of time. If I could make a small and simple wish for the city, though, it would be for more grass areas reserved just for children to play on. I have seen a simple patch of grass do wonders in bringing out creativity in children and of course it helps them treasure nature.

Advice to newcomers:
Learn to cook the Chinese dish you love most in Shanghai. It's the best Shanghai souvenir you can take with you.


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