Peking's new Derby Day has the punters 'guessing'

Teresa Poole studies the form at the top Horse Racing Intelligence Contest
Gambling is completely illegal in China. But that will not dampen enthusiasm for next Sunday's inaugural Peking Derby, the richest horse- race ever staged by the Peking Jockey Club. The promised purse for the winning horse is 250,000 yuan (pounds 20,000) and the organisers hope that up to 5,000 Chinese spectators will roll up for the event.

The audience will not, of course, be allowed to "bet" on the race. But they will be encouraged to "guess" the likely winner, and if they are successful in the so-called "Horse-racing Intelligence Contest", they will pick up their winnings at one of the grandstand's "Prize Redemption Counters".

Thus does horse-racing in the People's Republic negotiate the hurdles of a half-reformed economy. It may have little in common with the glamorous pre-1949 days at the Shanghai track, but a day at the races is an excellent introduction to the flexible terms now on offer from the Chinese Communist Party.

Since the Peking Jockey Club quietly started staging races in 1992, punters have each weekend been "guessing" which horses will win. Two- thirds of the money collected from entrance tickets is redistributed as "prizes". A sign informs visitors that the minimum "guess" costs 5 yuan (40p), while high-rollers are welcome on the top floor where a "special counter" deals in "guesses" of at least 150 yuan (pounds 12).

The Jockey Club, 25 miles north of Peking, walks a knife-edge between theory and reality in China. It is not, for instance, allowed to advertise on television or in the newspapers. On the other hand, its list of Honorary Members, displayed for all to see in the entrance hall, is a roll-call of illustrious figures including a vice-chairman of the National People's Congress, a Politburo member, a state councillor, a son-in-law of Deng Xiaoping, a vice-mayor of Peking, and the vice-governor of the People's Bank of China. On my only race day, one weekend last summer, the car park was full of luxury limousines bearing army number-plates.

The Peking Derby next Sunday - the day after the Epsom Derby - marks the start of a new era for the club, one of only two licensed horse-racing tracks in China. Since February, a Singapore shipping company has been involved in plans to expand the racing venture, by greatly increasing prize money and introducing big corporate sponsors. The number of horses is doubling to 400, and the Mongolian breeds will be augmented with imported thoroughbreds.

Who owns the racetrack? Well, the same company that owns the neighbouring Peking Golf Course, also popular with Chinese leaders. The key figure is Chen Chunbo, formerly the county director of the Agriculture Industry and Commerce Company, a rural collective belonging to Mabo County, within whose boundaries the golf course and racetrack both lie. Mr Chen is now boss of the golf and racetrack parent company, described as a Mabo County "collective enterprise". At least, that is the official version. "Horse- racing in China is at the starting gate. If we talk about politics, it will destroy the enterprise," said a staff member, who preferred not to give his name.

The Peking Jockey Club's problem is that, after 60m yuan (pounds 4.8m) investment, it is losing money. The grandstand area can accommodate 30,000, but the average attendance is about 600. The difficulty is to market the Jockey Club to a wider audience - without over-stepping the unspoken rules of discretion for such fringe ventures.

The Singapore company has brought in an American "racing development manager", Brian Griffin, to find big corporate sponsors. Is he optimistic about the race-track? "There is no question. If you see what happens in Hong Kong and Singapore, the Chinese just love horse-racing," he says.

It is certainly true that at such events the Chinese display an uncanny enthusiasm for making the odd "guess".