The more things change, the more they remain the same. This possibly profound aphorism has outlived the fame of the Frenchman who first uttered it more elegantly in his own language. But it may have occurred to a few in Singapore on May 26. Three years after international racing had been suspended in the island republic, at least partly because Hong Kongers kept coming over and hogging the prize money, raiders from the racing giant 1600 miles to the north east turned up and carried on where they’d left off.
Southern Legend, ridden by Zac Purton and trained by Caspar Fownes, took the Kranji Mile as though all three of them knew it was their property, and fellow Hong Kong raider, Horse of Fortune, ran second with the locals forming a respectful retinue. Both the first two are decent horses in Hong Kong. Neither is anywhere near a champion.
If Singapore was disappointed, it made a good job of concealing the fact. But the result could do little but remind Singaporean racing fans that since their very own Ouzo won the inaugural Singapore International Airlines Cup in 2001, overseas invaders, and particularly those from Hong Kong, have just been too good for them. Even Rocket Man, the one truly world class horse Singapore can yet boast, was unable to defend their home international prizes when he got turned over by Hong Kong’s Sacred Kingdom in the 2008 KrisFlyer Sprint.
International racing is only fun to stage if the home side can beat off the challengers now and then. This may be a bitter pill, but it has to be swallowed. To be fair to the Singapore Turf Club (STC) however, it is not deterred by this setback, although the 2018 Kranji Mile cannot honestly be described with any other word. The STC’s relatively cheerfulness may be attributed to brave face, but the truth is that this year’s running of one international event was essentially just a toe back in the water: a taster for what is to come next year; and the STC is determined to go ahead with plans to resume international racing with another running of the Mile in 2019 and a major sprint to back it up.
During an interview that took place on the day of the Kranji Mile, the Club’s Chief Operating Officer, Soong Tze Ming, a driving force behind the original decision to go international at the turn of the millennium, explains the logic behind this determination. “I guess when you boil it down it is all about branding, isn’t it? Branding and international standing. At the end of the day we realised that Singapore being what it is geographically and economically the Singapore Turf Club relies a lot on support from the international community, not just in terms of owners, trainers and jockeys but in terms of customers too. And when we stopped the international races for two years we found that we were lagging behind in terms of support from the international community and also from our own racing fans. At the same time our owners felt too that we were lagging behind a bit and felt that the whole industry had taken a step backwards in Singapore. We therefore decided to bring international racing back now, primarily to strengthen our brand but at the same time to boost our industry again to where it rightfully belongs.”
So international racing, apart from being a flagship for the STC, actually makes a difference to the popularity of racing within Singapore?
“It does, in the sense that it was possible to see that the enthusiasm and the support shown by the owners and the fans actually slackened a bit when we stopped the SIA Cup - and then, when we announced that we are going to bring international racing back, the owners said, ‘Hey this is a good move; let’s see if we can get more good horses into Singapore and see if we can compete this time. And from what we can see, some of the horses that are coming in now to Singapore are really good quality and will really be aiming at these two races next year.”
How about the economics of it? Will next year’s meeting be dependent on sponsorship?
“Well, running international races is an expensive affair. It’s very costly to put on an international meeting that’s genuinely world class. So we’re now looking for sponsors for the international races next year, and obviously we’re now trying to sell the races to as many countries as possible because although home loyalty does help to cover part of the cost, eventually we still have to look at it as a promotional expense, if you like to use that term. It’s something that we need to do to promote the industry here”.
This very much mirrors the thinking that went into the development of international racing in Hong Kong during the 1990s. In their early years the now firmly established Hong Kong International Races were loss leaders which invariably caused a drop in turnover, rather than a rise, as local punters scratched their heads while trying to compare incomers with their own heroes. But the HKIR have now attained a status that more than justifies their international races’ existence, both as flagships for HKJC racing as advertisements for Hong Kong itself, and recently in a rise in turnover that helps justify their existence economically.
So the Singaporean purpose must be to follow the trail blazed by Hong Kong. But how is this to be achieved? The development of overseas interest in Kranji generally may be one way forward. At The Races in the UK, for example, has just lost Irish racing (although it’s gained Ascot and Chester). Might this be a market STC racing could step into?
“It’s possible” says Soong. “We actually are quite aggressive already about selling our races to say, Europe, Australia and what not. In fact now, for today, the races are going to the UK and hopefully we can build on it and we can see more racing from Singapore more regularly in Britain. Who knows? We hope so.”
The problem as far as enthusiasm for Singapore racing in Britain is concerned is that people just don’t have any way of making up their minds about likely results. What plans does the STC have for filling that information gap?
“We are looking at how we could better package our racing to sell it” says Soong. “But really it’s not easy. At the end of the day it’s like Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s been there for a while and part of its success has really been the packaging. We have lost two years progress since we suspended international racing in 2016. But now we’re starting to come back, and hopefully we can put something together to improve the accessibility of our form and make Singapore racing more acceptable, not just in England but worldwide.”
But 2018 is a trial, isn’t it? This year’s Kranji Mile stood on its own. What does the Turf Club see as the perfect package? And will it be ready by 2019?
“In 2019 the Kranji Mile will go to S$3 million (around GBP1.4 million at present rates). It will be a full international event obviously, and the Lion City Cup (also on the May 26 card but without international challengers), which is a S$1million race today will go to S$1.5 million next year which is about US$1 million. This will also be a full international race next year.
On top of that we already have a good package today. We have put our Singapore Guineas on today as well. So we have three good races today, and moving forward that will be the package next year. Whether we open the Singapore Guineas to international entries or not is yet to be decided, because we need to draw a balance between the international needs and the demands and concerns of our local owners: if we open too many races, the owners here will be upset. They’ll asking why.”
So the project of raising Singapore racing’s profile is a balancing act that has to avoid alienating Singapore’s owners while attracting overseas stars. But there won’t be a ten-furlong race to take the place of the SIA Cup, which up to 2016 had been the meeting’s main event. Is that because your owners don’t want one?
“No. It’s because, after you add everything up, given our horse population of less than 1000 in training, and looking back at the last fifteen years or so, we don’t think Singapore horses, at this point in time at least, can compete over ten furlongs. Who knows? In the coming couple of years, maybe. But not yet. If we push it further in the future, we will have a six-furlong international event, we’ll have a mile, so obviously there may be room for a ten-furlong race as well”.
How much will the success of international racing depend on the ability of Singaporean horses to hold their own against incomers?
“I think it’s important. At the end of the day it’s very important that Singapore horses need to be able to win. It can’t happen every year. It doesn’t need to happen every year. But obviously we must have a good chance of winning. If we do well in the races I think it will be fine, but there is a stage where Singapore horses get beaten all the time and local owners will just lose interest and say, “What’s the point?”. But we are taking other measures as well, to encourage Singapore owners to keep bringing in better horses, and hopefully over the next few years we will see the horses coming in who will be more than able to hold their own at home against the overseas challengers.”
Has the STC identified any other major problems that led to the discontinuation? Casinos for example?
“Well there are a lot of factors at the end of the day. There’s no single factor that made us say, because of this or because of that we need to cut it off. But let’s just say that, at that point in time the decision seemed wise: all the factors indicated that we needed to withdraw from the international scene. We needed to cut off those races. But since then circumstances have changed. Factors have changed, and therefore we looked at it and said that it was about time we brought it back again. I won’t say that there’s any one or two factors. It was a combination of quite a few factors. It’s not just the economic factor. I mean there was no pressure from the government, no pressure from anybody, to call it off. But we sat down and looked at all the things that had happened and decided, let’s do away with them. At the time. Then we sat down again last year, and we said ‘look, I think we need international races back’.
Ultimately the decisions at the Turf Club are all made by the committee. The CEO, myself, we can only make recommendations on what can be done and what we should do. Ultimately the decision lies with the board. Collectively we sat down, and the board decided that we should bring it back. We’d underestimated the impact of the withdrawal of the races.”
So the casino problem wasn’t pivotal?
“No. I mean, the casinos have been here for nearly ten years now. So I think any effect is diluted by now. There were a lot of factors. Turnover is down partly because the economy is not doing very well. There’s been a prolonged downturn for many, many years now, and the younger generation in Singapore they have so many more diversions, choices, options. So it’s a totally different environment from what we had fifteen years ago or so when the international races began. But we have changed. Like the rest of the world, we have changed. And the thing that we don’t have here in Singapore, as you know, unlike say England or even Hong Kong, we don’t have the population base. We have only about five million people here and out of them, how many people are interested in each leisure activity? The market is pretty small.”
But there was a noticeable decline in public interest that followed the pause in international racing?
“Yes, you could see it. You could sense it too, in the type of horses that our owners were buying, in the number of horses and the general feeling towards the industry. We found that everyone lost a bit of a spring in their step. This made us realise that international racing was part of Singapore racing’s success.”
And to an extent the Turf Club has had retrench a bit, hasn’t it? It’s sleeker now. Lots of people have lost their jobs, really.
“We have actually optimised our operations. At the end of the day, looking at what we are doing and the way we are doing things, we’ve had to let go some staff. But having said that, here in Singapore, when we do let go of staff a lot of effort is put into making sure they are well looked after. I think up to today, the latest count was that about eighty percent of the staff we let go have actually found other jobs. And we’ve spent a lot of time and effort and resources in retraining them, together with the government, to make sure that they receive ample compensation, and that they have skills to go and do other things.”
Ok. Are you still in charge? Or is it still your baby, let’s put it that way.
“No, at the end of the day, now what we’re trying to do is we are building a new generation of employees, officials to look after things. I do stick my nose in once in a while but generally we leave it to them to run the show.”
Is there anything that you’d like to add? A point that you’d like people to understand about the recovery of international racing here?
“No, I think I have made it very clear. It’s something necessary. At the end of the day, if you know me, and you’ve known me for many years now, I’m a strong advocate of international racing and it is something that Singapore, being what we are, a small country and a small base and we rely so much on overseas…… look at those owners down there, half of them are not Singaporeans. So this is what we are talking about. We have owners from all over the world. And to attract these owners you need something like this. And we have good prize money. Our prize money in general is very good, and particularly in these races but at the end of the day, racing is not only about prize money. Racing is about prestige, the glamour, the entertainment and so on and without the international races, we were just one or two levels down.”
Right. And how will you measure the success of today’s meeting and of the future?
A grin. “I’ll tell you in two years’ time.”
HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges likes to make sure he attends every international race in which there are Hong Kong runners. As he walked back to the stands after congratulating the Hong Kong connections after the 2018 Kranji Mile I asked if he feels at all anxious for Singapore racing after yet another triumph for Hong Kong. “No, not at all” he replied. “The winner is a very good horse and his victory helps raise the rating of this race to high international levels.”
As the Frenchman said, “Plus ca change...”