Saturday, 30 September 2023

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From rumour to reality: The shocking cosure of Singapore Turf Club rattles horse racing community

Authorities leave horse racing industry unconsulted

SINGAPORE — In an unexpected development that has stunned the horse racing community, the Singapore Turf Club (STC) has officially announced its impending closure set for March 2027.

This decision was jointly endorsed by the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Ministry of National Development (MND), citing a decline in local horse racing spectatorship and the necessity to repurpose the land for the city-state’s growing infrastructure needs.

Weeks prior, disquieting rumours – as reported by Asian Racing Report (ARR) – had started to circulate within the horse racing community about a potential shutdown of the STC as early as 2026.

These rumours hinted at a government audit into public land use and left Kranji’s trainers, owners, and bloodstock agents feeling particularly unsettled, especially during events such as the Magic Millions National Yearling Sale.

STC officials maintained a conspicuous silence amid these rumours, offering no comment or reassurances when approached, leaving stakeholders, trainers, and fans in a state of suspense.

This silence was abruptly broken on Monday (5 Jun), when STC’s assistant vice president, Zane Turner, summoned the trainers for an urgent meeting.

According to ARR, the trainers congregated with less than three hours’ notice in a space ironically named ‘Progress 1 & 3’ meeting rooms, where the club’s president and chief executive, Irene Lim, delivered the sobering news of the industry’s fate.

What transpired in that meeting turned out to be far from ‘progressive’ for the trainers. The recent buzz of rumours speculating about the potential closure of the STC by 2026 was confirmed by Lim, causing widespread dismay among the community.

Speaking to ARR, Michael Clements, the president of the Association of Racehorse Trainers Singapore (ARTS), and the current premiership leader, said, “I had a gut feeling going into the meeting,”.

The decision to close highlights the impact of regulatory restrictions and the establishment of a casino in 2010 on the sport, leading to a drastic drop in turnover, a decrease in horse populations, fewer race days, and dwindling public interest. The advent of COVID-19 only exacerbated the club’s struggles, particularly with the sudden need to pivot to online wagering.

The impending closure is a particularly hard pill to swallow given recent signs of recovery for the sport, including a fully occupied grandstand at the last Kranji Mile meeting and new investments from market players.

The decision has also left those who recently invested heavily in the industry, like Eric Koh of Team Cheval and Jason Ong, one of Kranji’s emerging young trainers, grappling with uncertainty and disappointment.

Later in that afternoon, the MOF and MND issued a joint statement, confirming that the 120-hectare land currently occupied by the STC will be repurposed for housing, leisure, and recreation facilities under the Singapore Government’s direction.

This marks the end of a rich chapter of Singapore’s history, with the last race meeting scheduled for 5 October 2024, and the land set to be returned to the government by March 2027.

Despite the club’s official confirmation, many stakeholders are still seeking an extension and support from the STC’s executive team.

Speaking to the Straits Times, Clements voiced the concerns of the 21 trainers. They feel the timeline for the closure is unrealistic given the magnitude of the industry. They also expressed worries over the logistics of relocating the horses.

“We have new horses who were just bought, and owners have been busy buying horses to bring in,” he said. “They say horses will be repatriated after October next year. But… they can’t close it so quickly.”

Clements suggested the possibility of requesting an extension given the complexities involved.

He said, “You can’t wrap an 181-year-old industry in 16 months,” encapsulating the prevailing sentiment among the horse racing fraternity.

Jason Ong, a young trainer, also shared his discontent over the abrupt closure, noting that the STC should have advised them not to buy more horses had they known about the impending closure.

Four-time Singapore champion jockey Vlad Duric empathised with the staff at the STC, expressing sympathy particularly for the owners who have recently invested in the industry. He also emphasised the bond and resilience within the community, stating they will stick together until the end.

One jockey, speaking under anonymity to ARR, said: “It’s unfortunate that it is closing but the current model was unsustainable, it was a sinking ship and they were very happy to let it sink, it is disgraceful how they have handled it but totally unsurprising.

“Did those people that have left the club over the last couple of years already know the club’s future? Governments don’t make these sorts of decisions overnight.”

ARR also quoted a trainer saying that “the sickening part of it is that we have been busy buying horses, and all the while they have been planning this. I think the anger is that there was no dialogue whatsoever … The history of the place, the livelihoods at stake … and there was zero dialogue.”

The sudden announcement has also raised questions about the STC’s strategic planning and the transparency of its decision-making process.

For now, stakeholders, horse owners, and racing enthusiasts are left contemplating the future of the sport in Singapore.

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