Asian Times: Beijing

Chinese racecourse puts its money on the end of Communist gambling ban
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The Independent Online

Life isn't easy for a Western woman living alone in a small Chinese village. Especially when your neighbours include the "Soldier" and the "Ice Man", who try to beat you with their whips. But Karen Johnstone, a pint-sized New Zealander, is more than a match for the men of Xuxingzhuang, near Beijing.

As China's only foreign jockey, resident at its only legal racecourse, Ms Johnstone has spent two years nicknaming and training the novice riders taking the sport of kings to the masses. This autumn, the £30m Beijing Tongshun Jockey Club and breeding centre opened to China's punters. If China had any punters, that is.

The immaculate grass track, rated by some as among the world's finest, has drawn barely 100 people to its weekly meetings in its first season. And the going remains tough. Zhou Wenzheng, a 65-year-old farmer, cycled 30 minutes to the course. His peasant garb contrasted sharply with the cigar-puffing trainers and owners in suits and sunglasses. But he echoed their complaint.

"The returns are too low," Mr Zhou said as Ms Johnstone won another race. "And you can't choose an individual horse." In China's adapted totalisator betting system, one buys a "view-and-admire" ticket for at least 10 yuan (85 pence), predicting either an odd or even-numbered winner.

"It's because gambling is illegal in China," he said, "but you can do this kind of 'intelligence contest'. That's not gambling!" The gambling ban appears a cruel restriction for a people addicted to games of chance. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese fill local racetracks every week. Casinos across Asia rely on ethnic Chinese custom. But at home in the motherland, Maoist-era prohibition remains the law.

Tongshun's Hong Kong backers have yet to clear this hurdle, which has unseated previous challengers. Betting may be the lifeblood of racing but two years ago China's ruling Communist Party closed the few racecourses that tested the limits. Several owners were jailed on corruption charges.

Ye Xiang, a manager at the Beijing Country Riding Club, said: "Racing could be good for China. It could earn money for social welfare projects, like the Jockey Club does in Hong Kong. But the government said racing 'had a gambling nature' and shut us down." Forbidden from holding races, Mr Ye lobbies to host Olympic equestrian events in 2008.

Ms Johnstone, whose blond looks made her a celebrity, said: "Racing could get very, very big. It just depends on the government and the management. It is politically hard."

Kevin Connolly, Tongshun's Irish manager and trainer, concedes that betting would spur the business but said: "We have permission to race, while other places may have overstepped the mark. We imagine there's a vast number of people who'll be interested in racing in Beijing." The form guide backs him. There has been Chinese horse-racing from the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago to swinging Shanghai early last century. Race meetings in Beijing and Tianjin were considered the world's biggest.

Some believe Tongshun heralds the return of those glory days, as the official hard line on gambling softens. The authorities across China are encouraging a boom in once-banned lotteries. The popular football lottery pays £430,000 to whoever predicts the results of English and Italian matches. It was launched last month partly to curb rampant underground betting on foreign games.

If the betting ban is publicly reconsidered, conservatives will rail against losing the last shreds of Communist morality. Others will justifiably argue that life in rapidly changing China is enough of a gamble without tempting the proletariat to lose their shirts on the gods of chance.

But Mr Ye believes history is on his side. "Sooner or later, racing will be approved again. We love horses and believe racing could be good for China and the Chinese people," he said. "A day outside at the races is far more healthy than a night of mah-jong, stuck in a room full of smoke and alcohol!"