All that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s only horse manure.
Finally, we get to take a closer look at Desert Star Holdings. Last September, we reported a little on the Chairman of this company, Mr. Teo Ah Khing, indicating that he was a very successful architect, and a wealthy businessman. Having designed a racetrack for the ruler of Dubai during the period 2006 to 2010, Mr. Ah Khing professed to have developed a love for thoroughbred horses and for horse racing, and his stated goal is to develop the sport in China.
Mr. Ah Khing is also the founder and Chairman of the China Horse Club, an exclusive Club with 200-plus members where the minimum entrance fee is US$1mn. The China Horse Club also buys thoroughbred horses and invites its members to purchase shares in those horses, with all members expected to be owners or part owners. In seeking to further his goal of establishing thoroughbred horse racing in China, Mr. Ah Khing has established ties with many of the major horse racing clubs around the world, and the China Horse Club owns or has interests in horses in some of these locations.
Having developed a successful architectural practice, Mr. Ah Khing’s first involvement with horse racing was with the development of the Meydan racecourse for the ruler of Dubai in 2006. Dubai is part of the oil rich United Arab Emirates, (UAE), and the Meydan racecourse was completed early in 2010 at a reported cost of US$1.25bn. According to the Teo Ah Khing Design Consultants (TAK) website, it includes a grandstand with a capacity of 80,000 persons, a 290 room hotel, and an integrated car-park accommodating 10,000 cars. By comparison, the project being proposed for St. Lucia is valued at US$2.6bn, twice the cost of the completed project in oil-rich Dubai.
The day after the holding of the first Dubai World Cup at the new Meydan racecourse, on March 28, 2010 Mr. Ah Khing briefed the media on a proposed Tianjin Horse City project in China. According to a release by the Dubai Racing Club, the project was to be jointly established by Meydan City Corporation (Dubai, UAE), TAK Design Consultants (Mr. Ah Khing), Zhouji Jiye (China), and Tianjin Farm Group (China), with construction scheduled to have commenced in May 2010 and to have been completed by December 2015. In addition to providing an equestrian college, feedstuff plant and breeding base for 1,000 horses, Tianjin Horse City was also to include five-star to seven-star luxury hotels, a clubhouse, commercial offices, and residential facilities.
The cost of this Tianjin project was not given in the Dubai Racing Club’s media release, but in an April 23, 2010 post on whatsonxiamen.com, the project was valued at £2.6bn. It was reportedly backed by developers in Dubai, with Mr. Ah Khing’s firm, TAK Design Consultants, reported to be raising finance for the project. Nothing further is heard of this project except for an un-dated post on tianjinracecourse.com describing the Tianjin Horse City project as above, and indicating that its name had been changed to Tianjin Equine Culture City. That website also describes the re-named project as being an arrangement between China and Ireland, with the project scheduled to begin in 2013.
A report in the Irish Examiner of April 16, 2012 confirms that China was putting together a world-class Tianjin Equine Culture City project with a value of US$2bn, with Ireland’s involvement being in the establishment of a stud farm. The actual contractual arrangements were with the Irish horse breeding company Coolmore Stud and the Chinese government owned Tianjin State Farm Agribusiness Group, but the renamed project was now to include 4,000 horse stalls, 150 trainers’ offices, five training tracks and two international standard race tracks.
While no date of its formation is provided on its website, the China Horse Club, (CHC), lists Mr. Teo Ah Khing as its Founder and Chairman, and as a member of its International Advisory Council. This section of the website indicates that Desert Star Holdings Ltd. was established in 2012 with Mr. Ah Khing as its Chairman, and that the company “has immediately made its presence felt in the global equine affairs with its landmark project – Tianjin Equine Culture City (TECC) – in China.” There is no mention in that release of the involvement of the Government of China in this project.
In a post on the China Horse Club website of April 15, 2013 the project was expanded to include a signature grandstand and clubhouse, an international equestrian college, and a horse auction house. Phased opening of the project was scheduled for sometime later in 2013, but there is no further information on this project from Desert Star Holdings or China Horse Club, while a report in the Wall Street Journal dated June 05, 2014 indicates that “… some seriously question whether the project will ever get off the ground …” Meanwhile, Desert Star Holdings Ltd. and the Government of St. Lucia commenced negotiations regarding the Vieux Fort project sometime around June 2013 according to a statement by the Leader of the Opposition.
Whatever the actual date post-2010 on which the China Horse Club was founded, and with its landmark Tianjin Equine Culture City project going nowhere, by 2013 the Club was hosting the China Equine Cultural Festival in Hohot, China, followed by a similar Festival in Shangai in 2014. These were followed by a Festival race event, held in February 2015 in Singapore, that is significant to us in St. Lucia.
Held at the Singapore Turf Club, with a prize of Sg$3.05m (1Sg$=US$0.71), the race was marketed as having the richest prize purse for any race at that track. This topped the prize for the race event sponsored by Singapore Airlines by Sg$50,000, but that top prize race was restricted to horses owned by the China Horse Club. Those horses came to Singapore from the different countries where the China Horse Club owns horses, but in effect, as only horses owned by the China Horse Club competed in the race, the prize money went to a horse owned by the China Horse Club whichever horse won.
The CHC’s China Equine Cultural Festival (CECF) races in Singapore were scheduled to run until 2017, and according to Chairman Ah Khing, Singapore was to play a pivotal role in the CHC’s activities beyond the three years for which the CECF was committed to being held there (2015-2017). In September 2015 however, the Singapore Turf Club unexpectedly deleted the two international races normally held in the month of May from its racing calendar, indicating only that the Club had achieved the objectives which it had held when introducing them. CHC makes no further mention of its relationship with the Singapore Turf Club, and the China Equine Cultural Festival returned to Wuhuan, China in August 2015, and Ordos, China in 2016. Now it seems that St. Lucia will be hosting CHC horse racing events come this November.
What we find from the above is that Mr. Teo Ah Khing is a successful architect who has designed a landmark racecourse in Dubai and who professes to have acquired a relatively newfound love for thoroughbred horses and for horse racing as a result. His stated goal is to introduce horse racing and horse breeding to China, but his widely publicized attempt and landmark project, the Tianjin Equine Culture City, although scheduled for phased opening in 2013 had not commenced as late as mid-2014 and nothing further has been heard of it.
While Mr. Ah Khing says that his goal is to develop thoroughbred horse racing and horse breeding in China, he describes his China Horse Club as first and foremost a lifestyle club, and that with the CHC, he “wanted to bring high-class thoroughbred horse racing and the experiences that come with it to a population that had not experienced the social, cultural, and lifestyle aspects of this sport” (Thoroughbred Racing August 19, 2014).
A Reuters report of March 19, 2014 however indicates that according to the China Horse Industry Association, an official body tasked with coordinating the sector’s development, more than 300 clubs and 25 racetracks existed in China at that date. The report continues that while interest in the industry is increasing in China, serious hurdles to its development include prohibitive costs, and most importantly, a ban on gambling. The report also indicates that without gambling, attempts to introduce racing in China over the last 10 years have foundered, and that those making that attempt do so in the hope that gambling will eventually be legalized as there is no other way of making money from horse racing.
Unable to establish his Equine City horse racing complex in China, Mr. Ah Khing and the CHC are now promoting Equine Festivals where his horses race against each other in high stakes races. And in promoting the holding of the China Equine Cultural Festival in Singapore, other than the suggestion of increased tourism, the media statement by the CHC also indicated that a further highlight of the races would be the “broadcasting (of) the event back to China via network(s) with a broadcast reach of 600 million”. There is no further mention of this following the race event, but with the absence of Singapore, St. Lucia has now emerged as the new venue at which “international” race events will be held and televised back to China.
With the exception of a marina, facilities similar to those promoted for the Tianjin Equine Culture City in China are now proposed for St. Lucia, but with cost increasing from US$2bn in China to US$2.6bn in St. Lucia. Only now, financing is of no concern as St. Lucia is willingly going to sell its passports to raise the money, while viability of the project is a minor irrelevance, because, as Mr. Ah Khing so clearly states, his ultimate goal is the development of thoroughbred horse racing and breeding in China.
China, of course, is where the market exists, and while the costs of establishing the industry there today are prohibitive, those involved with horse racing in China are all hoping that at some point, gambling will be legalized in China, following which huge profits will flow to those who have been the first to invest in the industry. How does a racetrack in St. Lucia fit into this scheme? Possibly as leverage for Mr. Ah Khing as he conducts his negotiations and markets his company as the premier race promoter in China. But no one, absolutely no one, has bothered to even suggest to us, the people of St. Lucia, how this racetrack at Vieux Fort is going to become a profitable enterprise.
Yet somehow, St. Lucia is made to feel that Mr. Ah Khing is doing us a wonderful favour by establishing his project in St. Lucia and we prostrate ourselves before him, enticing him to develop the Vieux Fort project with the sale of our passports. Mr. Ah Khing has so far failed in his goal to become a developer of horse racing in China, but now, we in St. Lucia lay spread-eagled before the physically diminutive but speculatively gigantic Mr. Ah Khing, anticipating his ultimate violation and the generation of his pile of glorified horse manure.
But Mr. Ah Khing has made a point to us, and that point is that sometimes, poor, gullible people, led astray by politicians and technocrats devoid of souls will sometimes grasp at straw, even when that straw is covered in horse manure.
But not many of us will do so, because we have been sold before and we have had to fight too hard for our independence, and to reclaim our identities. We will not be sold again. Especially as now we know that:
“Somebody tiefing the soul of this nation, and we, yes you and me, we have to stop this conspiracy” (Gypsy).
We continue to look at ourselves next week.