x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

China's field of dreams

A 10-year plan for Tianjin Horse City has a lofty goal: remake a quiet county into a world-class horse racing venue, with a complex designed in co-operation with Meydan.

The rural landscape of Ninghe County in northern China will soon be transformed, as will the lives of the people who work there.
The rural landscape of Ninghe County in northern China will soon be transformed, as will the lives of the people who work there.

A 10-year plan for Tianjin Horse City has a lofty goal: remake a quiet county into a world-class horse racing venue, complete with a Dh14.7 billion complex that will be produced in co-operation with the Meydan Group. Daniel Bardsley, foreign correspondent, reports Tianjin province, CHINA // The landscape stretches bleakly into the horizon, the flat brown fields broken up occasionally by factories, highways and waterways where men sit and fish patiently.

Ninghe County, a few hours' drive south-east of Beijing, is in some parts as quiet as the high-rise Chinese capital is bustling. Keen to close the gap with their more economically powerful neighbours, the authorities and the people here have welcomed a US$4 billion (Dh14.7bn) proposed horse racing development from the Dubai-based Meydan Group. Horses have always had a place in China, despite a clamp down on racing after the 1949 communist takeover. In Hong Kong, horse racing is immensely popular and in 2008 racing returned to the city of Wuhan.

The Chinese Equestrian Association says there are more than 50 equestrian clubs in Beijing and over a dozen in Tianjin. "China wants to learn from the Dubai model. It's a good thing to have this equestrian sport promoted in China," said Cheng Qing, the association's secretary general. He described Dubai as "one of the leading centres" for horse enthusiasts, adding he had attended events in the city.

There is a 10-year plan to develop Tianjin Horse City in the county, which stretches down to the city of Tianjin, and is part of a municipal region of the same name. "It might have a very profound economic impact on Ninghe County and the Tianjin area," said Zhang Zhi Yuan, the head of the general office of the county's land planning bureau. Mr Zhang said Ninghe County was keen not to get left behind, as other areas have.

"Every big county has such large development projects, and this new project could be something similar," he said. "It will affect the population in a positive way." In addition to Tianjin Horse City, which was announced earlier this week and will train equestrian professionals, host races and breed studhorses, a host of other major developments are on the county's drawing board, according to Mr Zhang.

While local people are also enthusiastic about the scheme, some, perhaps not surprisingly given its reputation as the sport of kings, wonder if they will be able to afford a visit to the races. "It might be very exciting," said Xing Li Hong, 47, a shopkeeper in Lutai, the capital of Ninghe County. "It's a good thing for rich people because obviously horse racing cannot be enjoyed by ordinary people."

Her husband, Jin Zai Ling, also 47, described horse racing as "exotic" and said the development would benefit from Ninghe County's good transport links to Beijing, Tianjin and other urban areas. "It is very close for the rich people [to visit from] Beijing and Tianjin," he said. Gao Zhu, a 46-year-old taxi driver and property agent, said he was pleased outside investors were looking at Ninghe County.

"It would have very bright prospects," he said. Some locals, such as a former farmer who now works in a factory, lamented the rapid changes. "Development is very fast. This area used to be a rice field, but since a development zone was set up, it has become deserted," he said, referring to an out-of-town stretch of land in Ninghe County. Meydan Group, the developer of Dubai's racecourse which opened on March 27, plans to partner with International Equine Group, its joint investment arm with TAK Design Consultants, based in the UAE and Malaysia. They have set up Hua Zhi Jie Horse Industry Investment Co with other partners.

Tianjin Farm Group in China is also involved in the proposal, which is expected to create 10,000 jobs. @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae