Creating a horse racing city

Lee Jian Wen plans a $4bn state-of-the-art development that will establish China as the worldwide hub of equine excellence.

BEIJING // Lee Jian Wen smiles as he holds up a photograph showing him with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. It is hardly surprising that Mr Lee is enthusiastic about Dubai and its Ruler. His Beijing-based firm, Globe Enterprise Management, has partnered with Meydan Group, the Dubai-based developer of the Meydan Racecourse that hosted its first Dubai World Cup in late March, to create plans for Meydan Phoenix City in China.

The US$4 billion (Dh14.6bn) development in Ninghe county is expected to include an equestrian college, stud farm, horse auction centre, feedstuff plant, offices, apartments, villas, a five-to-seven-star hotel and, should the state give the go-ahead, a horse racing course. "The horse racing culture, the whole management of the industry in Dubai is very similar to [the proposals for] China," he said. "Around the world, horse racing involves gambling and betting, but in Dubai it's a carnival."

Mr Lee, the chairman of Globe Enterprise Management, said the Meydan Phoenix City project represented the culmination of a personal quest dating back nearly a decade to when Beijing won the bid for the 2008 Olympics. Although the Olympics were hailed as a success, the equestrian events had to take place in Hong Kong because horse racing was outlawed on the mainland when the Communists took over in 1949. When the Olympic plans were taking shape, Mr Lee decided it was time that changed.

"I did research in the domestic market and I visited places like Dubai and the United States to see what horse racing is like," he said. "I thought why shouldn't we have a national-scale horse racing course." Mr Lee emphasised that Meydan Phoenix City was about more than racing, which remains heavily restricted on the mainland. "We will build the infrastructure and see if the Chinese government opens the market," he said. "We can develop it with the horse racing centre or without the horse racing centre."

Other sources of income will include levies on horse auctions and tuition fees from the equestrian college. The market, he said, is "huge". "With the training college, we have always used coaches trained in other countries to be directors here in the domestic market. That costs money and it's very humiliating. We send our competitors in horse racing around the world, but we don't have our own college. That's ridiculous.

"We will build the infrastructure and lay the foundation for this industry in the future." The plan is to employ 10,000 people and have 1,000 horses in the breeding programme. Mr Lee said the location at a site in Ninghe county, 30km from the centre of Tianjin, a city 30 minutes by high-speed train ride from Beijing, was a major plus. "According to the experts it's suited to the breeding of horses because there's abundant juicy grass," Mr Lee said. "In Tianjin in the summer it's very mild, and in the winter it only snows once or twice."

Overall, Mr Lee said the project, the building of which could start later this year and take five years, would succeed because of its scope and scale. "No single horse racing course has a future in China," he said. "We don't have the expertise or the talent for that and it won't get support from the government. "This is a whole industry chain [being created] and that's why we seriously think it will be a success."

Gaofeng Yue, the executive secretary general of the China Horse Industry Association, said Tianjin Horse City would play "a leadership role" in expanding the country's horse industry. "It's very complete and self-sufficient. It has feedstuffs and everything else needed for the industry," he said. "It integrates resources from Malaysia and the UAE. Our association is paying great attention to this project.

"All the sports related to horses originated in China although they're more popular in western countries. They came from China and we're trying to regain that position."