Racehorse owners scrambling since closure of Vietnam's lone track

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Vietnamese French Jean Yves Baudron and his new horse Nobel, a former champion at Phu Tho,  Vietnam's only horse racecourse which closed in 2011. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

The hammer is raised, the bang is heard, and the animal collapses.

It was a racehorse, one of more than a thousand to be put down since the government closed Ho Chi Minh City's only racetrack in May 2011 to make way for new apartment buildings.

Their owners saw no point in continuing to spend money on them, with no guarantee that a new track will be built anytime soon.

Jean Yves Baudron, a Vietnamese French man, one of a few owners who can afford to keep his horses, said the shutdown of Phu Tho track came as a shock to local horse owners.

"We just went there and saw a brief notice, which also thanked us for using the track," Baudron said a Tuoi Tre report early this month.

Baudron said there had been around 1,200 racehorses at Phu Tho and about 4,000 in HCMC and nearby provinces in total. The population is now estimated to have dropped to fewer than 300.

"Two years ago, a horse was worth five bulls, now it takes three horses for a bull."

He is spending VND3 million (US$142) a month to feed and care for his nine horses at a stable in Hoc Mon District in the city's outskirts. He used to spend VND5 million on each of them when they were profitable.

Governments in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, nearby Binh Phuoc Province and the northern province of Vinh Phuc have mentioned plans to build racetracks.

But the 66-year-old said he isn't getting his hopes up, as each project will cost tens of millions of dollars, a real burden in current economic climate.

Baudron said he developed a special interest in horses as a boy. His father-in-law worked as a supervisor at Phu Tho and Baudron started raising horses in Vietnam in 1968. He owned a horse that was six-time champion between 1967 and 1974.

His colleague Vo Buu Tri is also keeping some horses as he tries to maintain his childhood passion.

Tri has sold half of his herd and now keeps 11, which he can only afford to let graze.

"I don't have much even to feed myself, let alone them," Tri said, cited by Tuoi Tre.

The man is living in an old house he rents for VND1 million a month where he keeps the medals his horses won alongside a stack of photos of him and his horses receiving awards.

Tri said the horses earned him money to raise his family and send his children to school. Now they are all married.

He pointed to a nearby café, saying horse owners used to gather there every morning to discuss races and share breeding experience. "Now we're all apart."

The 72-year-old said he inherited his love for horses from his grandfather and uncle.

"I love them so much I had to watch any movie that had horses. I adore seeing American cowboys firing their guns from their saddles."

Tri bought his first horse in 1963 and he managed to train it to win a series of races. He sold it two years later for VND100,000, six times the original price and which was enough to buy a car at the time.

Rough course

Baudron said he has tried to keep up the spirits of his friends who own horses, and fortunately, an unidentified company in Long An neighboring Ho Chi Minh City heard about their plight.

Last July, the firm made plans to start building a small racetrack for the horses to train and for holding small races, until a bigger racecourse materializes.

Baudron said the company's visit "really heated up the owners' spirits."

"I'd pray for the race track to finish soon as the horses are very vulnerable now."

He said fewer horses have been sent off to slaughterhouses since, and some owners have even bought more.

Baudron spent VND100 million last month on Nobel, a former champion, which was valued more than VND300 million when the racecourse was still in operation.

His neighbor Pham Van Trieu, a retired police officer, recently added a horse worth VND30 million to his four-horse stable.

Tri also saved enough to buy a VND15-million horse.

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