by Katherine Fidler, Racing Post
HISTORY has a funny way of repeating itself, particularly in racing. Derby winners sired by Derby winners. Father and son training teams winning the same race decades apart.
In the 1970s, John Magnier teamed up with Robert Sangster and Vincent O’Brien, and together they transformed the face of European breeding. Nearly 40 years on, Magnier is looking to do the same in China. His partner this time around is Malaysian architect Teo Ah Khing.
If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Since Derby favourite Australia made his debut almost 12 months ago, Teo, 53, has been an owner alongside the established Coolmore triumvirate of Magnier, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor. But if the name is becoming increasingly familiar, his work is more so – he is the man behind Meydan, a project that not only transformed 67 million square feet of Dubai desert into a world famous racetrack boasting a 1.6km-long grandstand, but also sparked Teo’s interest in a sport that has now usurped his other enterprises.
“In Dubai I had the opportunity to be the adviser to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed for seven years,” says Harvard graduate Teo. “To build Meydan properly, to ensure it was going to be everything Sheikh Mohammed wanted and what I wanted, I had to know about the horse and all that it requires. So Dubai was really the first time I started to pay attention to thoroughbreds.”
Mr Teo Ah Khing (Chairman of China Horse Club)
Other Dubai projects completed by Teo’s TAK Design Consultants include the emirate’s imposing gallery and museum, and the third of its luxurious palm island developments, but the fact the company’s website now offers a section dedicated to equine projects is indicative of the path along which Teo has now embarked.
Pride of place in his new venture is the China Horse Club, billed on its website as “Asia’s premier racing, business and lifestyle club offering its members and their guests peerless service, experiences and top-tier racing all within a luxury equine environment”.
“By the time the China Horse Club was envisaged in 2010 my goals were clear,” says Teo. “Like every owner I wanted to taste success at the highest level and, with the China Horse Club, I wanted to bring high-class thoroughbred racing and the experiences that come with it to a population that has not experienced the social, cultural and lifestyle aspects of this sport.”
But bringing high-class racing to the Chinese population will also include taking the people of China to high-class racing, with the country yet to legalise gambling and the infrastructure required to cope with the proposed influx of thoroughbreds not yet in place.
“It won’t happen overnight, but it is very real,” says Teo. Next year the China Equine Cultural Event (CECF) will be held in Singapore in conjunction with the Singapore Turf Club, an event Teo says around 10,000 Chinese will attend.
“It’s the first event designed for a Chinese audience that can be hosted at locations around the world to attract a Chinese audience and it will be broadcast back into mainland China to a Chinese audience,” says Teo. “The importance of the CECF in the growth of the sport and the industry in China should not be underestimated.”
Nor, however, should the success the China Horse Club has already enjoyed since its inception.
“Our racing team started competing last year and we have won races in five countries,” says Teo, whose partnership with Coolmore includes a number of runners in Australia – the country – including leading juvenile Zululand. “We’ve won a Group 1, a Group 2, a Group 3 and a Listed race and we’re now chasing our first Classic.”
SUCH a rapid ascension to the upper echelons of the sport of kings is reminiscent of that enjoyed by the Magnier-Sangster-O’Brien axis who, after investing heavily in top-end yearlings in the US, were justly rewarded with a string of Classic victories. And yearlings don’t come much more top end than Australia, a son of Derby winner Galileo out of the Oaks winner Ouija Board.
“I have to be very thankful to John Magnier for becoming involved with Australia,” says Teo. “I was at the Tattersalls October Sale with John, and the Coolmore team had bought a number of yearlings there and at previous sales. John and I had discussed racing together and he singled out two colts, both from Tattersalls. Australia was one of the two, so it was very much on John’s recommendation that I’m able to share this ride with him, Michael, Derrick, their families and the China Horse Club.
“If Australia were lucky enough to win we might have to borrow the trophy and take it on a tour of China. Very soon we will be involved in a charity and educational tour that will take in ten cities across China. In partnership with Bazaar China we will be educating people in the Year of the Horse about horseracing, and raising money for charity.
“The Derby trophy would be a wonderful highlight for people on such a tour – but we have to see if our colt is deserving of it first. Every owner in the race is dreaming of winning – that is why this sport is so compelling.”
An architect by trade he may be, but as a spokesman for racing Teo appears equally adept, a skill that when combined with the razor-sharp business acumen of Magnier suggests that if racing is going to take off in China – not forgetting that is has been tried, unsuccessfully, before – this pair are the ones who could do it.
“What is significant about our partnership with Coolmore is the vision and foresight of John Magnier,” says Teo. “John has again moved faster than his counterparts, he has seen the opportunity and promise that China offers and invested into the region in the long run.
“Coolmore’s involvement in a breeding venture with the China Horse Club in China is a long-term one and a breeding industry in this region could have global implications. The only commercial industries that exist without breeding industries are Hong Kong, Dubai and Singapore. Every other region is supported by a breed industry in the region – and China will be no different.”
But China will be different. While Teo is keen to remind that racing does have a history in China, one intrinsically linked to Britain, recent false starts are still fresh in the memory, and starting a breeding or racing industry from scratch is no mean feat – although it is one achieved in Dubai, which Teo, of course, has some experience of.
However, for the next few days it is Australia – the horse – not China the country who will be carrying the hopes of Teo. Luckily the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt is unaware of the burden he shoulders, not only for the future of a man who has stepped back from his other business interests to focus solely on the China Horse Club, but also that of his own future, for a Derby win is a golden ticket to stud.
“We have breeding interests with Coolmore in both Ireland and Australia so it would certainly make sense to evaluate this opportunity,” says Teo on the longevity of his share in Saturday’s favourite.
“But right now I’m focused on enjoying racing him. He is a very exciting racehorse.”
That excitement is one not only shared by Teo, who will attend Epsom with his wife Ivy, and the Coolmore team, but also the chestnut’s many backers.
“To share these moments with family, friends and members cannot be underestimated.”
by Katherine Fidler, Racing Post