Against all odds, Wuhan horse racing gallop beyond virus

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Wuhan (Chine) (AFP)

Blue cushions are up for grabs as masked spectators cheer on the galloping horses until the arrival in Wuhan, zero point of the pandemic but also a major racing center in China.

The city of 11 million is synonymous with coronavirus, which first appeared in Wuhan about a year ago, but its lively horse scene dating back more than 150 years is much less well known.

At first glance, Wuhan Open Horse Racing, which returned to action in October after the city reopened after the lockdown, looks a lot like the sport around the world.

There are thoroughbreds with names like “Freedom Fighter” and “Ultimate Perfection”; jockeys wear colorful silks; spectators in a grandstand consult the forms guide to choose a winner.

But there is one crucial difference: gambling is largely illegal in mainland China.

Instead, people scan a QR code on their mobile phone and select a winner. If that horse enters, they win a prize.

On a recent Saturday at Orient Lucky City Racecourse, the prize was a cushion.

But it could also be cooking oil, phone credit, or – if you guess several winners in a row – a rice cooker or even a car. There is no prize money.

For Mr. Zhang, a spectator who refused to give his first name, the absence of bets does not matter.

“It’s different from foreign countries, the fun here is watching the horses in action and soaking up the atmosphere,” said the 65-year-old, who lives nearby and is making his second visit to the races, behind a face mask.

Jin Lei, who is present with two friends, said it was his first time at the races and there was a thrill of “getting closer to feel the power of the horses.”

“I came here more as a novelty,” added the 27-year-old medical officer.

Entrance for spectators starts at 50 yuan ($ 8) although at least two people have told AFP they have received free tickets.

– ‘I missed it’ –

Wet and cold weather put a damper on what was the penultimate racing day of Wuhan’s shortened coronavirus racing season and drew crowds of a few hundred, many of them young families.

But Jacky Wu, president of the Orient Lucky Horse Group, which built and operates the racetrack, said there would normally be between 3,000 and 5,000 spectators.

Unlike racing days in other countries, which can be alcohol-fueled business, there was tea, juice and fruit as adults and children sheltered from the rain.

The Wuhan course, built for this purpose, saw its first action in 2003 but Wu said there was “a long history” of horse racing in the central city because of the British who once traded there.

“Wuhan’s first racetrack dates back to 1864 and in the past there were four racetracks at the same time,” he said in his office overlooking the Wuhan sand track.

According to Wu, although there are races in other parts of mainland China, especially in remote areas of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, Wuhan is “the center of Western standard horse racing” in the country. .

However, like sports everywhere, the coronavirus has hit races in Wuhan hard, wiping out four months of the season.

The city was closed from January 23 until the beginning of April and racing did not resume until October. Nearly 4,000 people have died from the virus in Wuhan.

Xiang Yan, a city jockey, said it was a relief to get back into the saddle after being locked up for 76 days.

“Riding every day is my habit and not doing it for a long time, I missed it,” said the 24-year-old.

– Wuhan continues its work –

After a bleak year, Wu is optimistic about the future of Wuhan horse racing. He is supported by the local authorities and the Communist Party in power in China wants to boost equestrian sport.

“It was not easy for us to start horse racing in Wuhan this year and the pandemic is not over,” said Wu, who is also president of the Wuhan Jockey Club.

“But the fact that we now have races shows that Wuhan attaches great importance to horse racing. ”

With China having successfully slowed viral infections nationwide, plans are underway for a bigger and better 2021 for Wuhan’s racing industry.

“If everything goes as planned, we hope to increase the level of competition, the prize money, the number of foreign jockeys and the quality of the horses,” said Wu.

“We will continue to invest in the coming years and it must be said that we are very confident in the future of Chinese horse racing, very confident. ”

He added, “Horse racing in many cities has stopped, but Wuhan has not. ”

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