The China Horse Club, founded by the architect who designed the other-worldly Meydan racecourse in Dubai, has rocketed onto the American racing scene and assembled perhaps the deepest group of 3-year-old candidates for the 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Kentucky Oaks, including American Anthem, the favorite for Saturday’s Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Next weekend, Florida-based Master Plan also figures to be a top threat in Meydan’s $2-million United Arab Emirates Derby. In April, Grade 3 Southwest Stakes winner One Liner will carry a spotless, 3-for-3 record into a final Kentucky Derby prep and, on the filly side, Grade 1 winner Abel Tasman will vie for a rematch with leading Kentucky Oaks prospect Unique Bella.
Incredibly, those four horses go forward in a first attempt at the Derby and Oaks for Teo Ah Khing and the club he conceived after discovering a passion for horse racing while building colossal Meydan, which his company says was planned and completed in a "record" 924 days. He has moved just as quickly in establishing a firm presence at the upper levels of racing in Europe, Australia and now the U.S. His long-term vision is to spur a reintroduction of Thoroughbred racing and breeding in a meaningful way in China. One of his first moves was to launch the China Horse Club, pooling together about 250 investors, mostly from China, to promote horse ownership in a country that has been devoid of a formal racing industry since the government banned gambling in 1949.
Khing, a native of Malaysia with Chinese parents, now lives in Singapore, and he is no stranger to the U.S., having earned a Master’s degree in urban design at Harvard University. He already plans to attend the Oaks and Derby at Churchill Downs, and what remains to be seen is whether the China Horse Club will be participating, and if so, with how many horses.
“This is our first group, so it’s a very nice position to be in,” said Michael Wallace, a New Zealander who serves as the club’s international bloodstock and racing manager. “Obviously, the Derby is a very unique experience and very prestigious race, which is what we are targeting, so everyone in the club is following it with great interest. We really have great interest for any kind of race, whether it is a stakes horse or one just starting out in a maiden, but when you get closer to a race like the Derby, it’s really followed closely. Everyone is excited.”
Wallace said the U.S. contingent is an increasingly important part of the club’s racing program, now consisting of about 50 horses of racing age in the states. At American yearling sales last year, the China Horse Club either by itself or in partnership purchased 20 horses for $9.3-million.
“Our participants as a whole want to be involved at a high level throughout the world, whether it is solely to have horses to race or also on the commercial end, to have stallions and mares and produce stock for sales,” Wallace said. “That is our worldwide external arm that has really expanded quickly in the last two years and with pretty good success.
“The second part of our focus is the internal part of developing racing and breeding in China. It is in its infancy now, but that is a major, long-term focus, to have people within China who can participate in building an industry and growing jobs and eventually for it to become self-sustaining to some degree. That is in early stages, but you have to start somewhere and it is progressing.”
Khing himself has already raced an English and Irish Derby winner: Australia. He owned Australia in partnership with Coolmore associates Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith.
Of the China Horse Club’s 3-year-old Derby and Oaks contenders, all but Abel Tasman are owned in partnership with WinStar Farm, the racing and breeding powerhouse of Kenny Troutt that won the Kentucky Derby with homebred Super Saver in 2010 and also bred the 2003 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. Tom Ryan of SF Bloodstock, another major collaborator with WinStar, was the key intermediary, as he and Wallace go back many years. The China Horse Club, WinStar and SF Bloodstock race American Anthem together.
Elliott Walden, the former prominent trainer who now serves as WinStar’s president and chief executive officer, said of the China Horse Club: “They have been great partners for us these last few years. Teo is a visionary and it has been terrific to see them make an impact in such a short amount of time, bringing some new blood into racing and excitement. I know Teo is coming to the Derby and I really hope we can get a horse there for him.”
Trained by Bob Baffert, American Anthem finished second by a head to Gormley in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 7 in his second career start. He is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line for the Rebel, a race that Baffert has won six times in the last seven years. While Wallace will represent the China Horse Club at Oaklawn on Saturday, if American Anthem comes through in punching his Derby ticket, he will very likely be joined by a large group of fervent club investors on the first Saturday in May.