Track closure could result in mass slaughter

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Horse racing at Ho Chi Minh City's Phu Tho Horse Racecourse. The municipal authorities closed the track on May 31 to build a new sports training center for professional athletes.

For the past week, Le Trong Hieu has assumed visitors to the stables of the Phu Tho Horse Racecourse are all looking to buy meat.

On May 31, the Ho Chi Minh City's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism instructed the Phu Tho Sports Complex not to renew its contract with Thien Ma Company"”which has successfully operated the track for the past seven years.

The move came as part of the HCMC People's Committee's plan to build a sports center to train a new crop of professional athletes.

Since then, there have been no races, creating a dire atmosphere at the stables.

"Some horse owners have already sold their racing horses to butchers," said the 28-year-old horse trainer. "Many meat traders have stopped in, looking to buy more."

Hieu said some people were forced to sell race horses that had drawn offers of more than VND30 million each for just around VND7 million.

But Hieu worries that his last three horses will end up on someone's dinner table, since the city put the nation's only racetrack on hold indefinitely.

Up in the air

Phu Tho opened in 1932 as the country's first and only horse racetrack. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it fell under the management of the HCMC authorities.

The track opened and closed repeatedly for the next three decades and rarely held races.

In 2002, the Thien Ma Company signed a seven-year contract to hold races at the complex.

Business finally resumed in 2004 with races held every weekend.

Thien Ma officials say the company has contributed about VND24 billion (US$1.17 million) annually to the city's revenue.

But last month, the company's request to renew its contract at Phu Tho was rejected.

Under the new plan for the space, the city's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism is required to relocate and begin work on a new racetrack.

But the plan does not stipulate where or when work will begin.

Nguyen Ngoc My, chairman and director of Thien Ma Company, said he only became aware of the decision to relocate the racecourse three months ago.

"I sent a letter to the Department [of Culture, Sports and Tourism] this morning asking them to begin talks about selecting a site for the new racecourse," he told Thanh Nien Weekly on Monday. "I agree with the decision to relocate the track. I hope that the new course will meet international standards because the current place was too small."

My estimated that it would take at least three or four years to build such a facility.

He also said that they are considering spots in Cu Chi or Binh Chanh districts but a final decision has yet to be made.

According to My, Thien Ma Company, which also provides construction services, would not face many difficulties in the interim.

"Our biggest concern is the uncertain future of more than 600 horse owners, 1,200 race horses and thousands of horse trainers and jockeys," he said. "They can't sit around waiting for the new racecourse to open."

My said he hopes the authorities will continue to lease the Phu Tho Racecourse until construction of the new course is finished.

A bloodbath

Many horse owners and trainers say they now face a horrifying dilemma.

Cao Van Minh, 32, began working as a jockey in 1991.

Four years later, he began training horses full time. He doesn't know what to do in the coming years.

"I became aware of the sudden decision to close the racecourse last week," he said. "We are really worried"¦ we don't know anything besides training race horses."

Minh said a horse trainer can train a maximum of two horses at a time. But that kind of work only brings in an average monthly income of roughly VND2 million ($97.5).

"I don't know how I'll support my family if I can't train horses anymore," said Minh, who lives in a makeshift house near the stables at Phu Tho Racecourse with his wife and their two young children.

Le Van Nhiem, who was born in 1945 and grew up in Phu Tho Sports Complex, began work as a jockey at age 14. In 1960, he transitioned to working as a horse trainer and currently keeps 14 horses in his stable.

He argues that the decision to move the racecourse will result in a virtual bloodbath - though he has pledged to maintain and breed his horses until the new track opens.

"There should be some sort of transition plan, otherwise, every horse in the city will be sold to slaughter," he said.

"It takes a lot of time and money to feed and train these horses"”and we can only afford to do so by racing them. A stable cell costs VND1.5 million per month, excluding feed," he said. "No one will keep the horses if there aren't any races. They will die, just like the sport."

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