The Singapore Turf Club has announced that it will close its racecourse in Kranji in 2024, bringing an end to more than 180 years of horse racing in the country. The decision was made after the government said that it would be repurposing the land for public housing. The STC said that it was ‘deeply saddened’ by the decision, but that it understood the government’s need for the land. “We have been racing at Kranji for over 50 years, and it has been a home to many of our horses, jockeys and staff,” said the Turf Club’s Chairman, Niam Chiang Meng. “We will be working with the government to ensure a smooth transition.”
The closure of the Kranji Racecourse will mark the end of an era for horse racing in Singapore. The sport was first introduced to the country in the early 1800s, and it quickly became popular amongst the British colonial population. The first racecourse in Singapore was built in 1842, with the STC being founded a little over 20 years later. Horse racing reached its peak of popularity in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s. Kranji’s racecourse was built in 1971, looking to capitalise on that popularity, and it quickly became one of the most popular sporting venues in the country.
A Brief History of Horse Racing in Singapore
The history of horse racing in Singapore is a rich and vibrant one, which dates back over 180 years. It is a sport that has captivated the imaginations of locals and visitors alike, becoming an integral part of Singapore’s sporting fabric. Horse racing was introduced to Singapore during the colonial era in the mid-19th century. In 1842, the Singapore Sporting Club, later renamed the Singapore Turf Club, was established. It was initially formed by a group of British merchants and planters who sought to create a recreational outlet for the growing expat community living there.
The first race meeting took place in February of 1843 at the Farrer Park, marking the birth of organised horse racing in Singapore. In its early years, horse racing in the country was primarily a leisure activity for the British colonial elite. The races were exclusive in nature and held in high regard, with participants competing for prestigious trophies and substantial prize money. As the sport gained popularity, it gradually became more accessible to the general public, attracting more spectators as a result. What followed was a crucial development of horse racing facilities in the country.
This played a crucial role in shaping the sport’s growth in Singapore. In 1933, for example, the Singapore Turf Club decided to move its operations to a what was then a state-of-the-art venue in Bukit Timah. This move marked a significant milestone in the history of Singaporean horse racing, with Bukit Timah becoming the permanent home for the sport. Over the years that followed, horse racing in Singapore experienced several transformations and advancements. The sport was, understandably, suspended during World War II, making a triumphant return in 1946 and continuing to flourish in the post-war era.
Modern Training Facilities
The introduction of modern training facilities, enhanced veterinary care and the use of advanced technology further contributed to the growth and development of horse racing in Singapore. The horse racing scene gained international recognition in 2000 when the Singapore Turf Club introduced the Singapore Airlines International Cup, a prestigious Group 1 race attracting top-class horses from around the world. The event firmly established the country as a major player in the global racing circuit, showcasing the country’s commitment to hosting world-class events.
The Decline of Racing
In recent years, Singapore Turf Club made significant efforts to enhance the overall racing experience. The development of the Singapore Turf Club Riding Centre, which offered riding lessons and equestrian activities to the public, helped to promote the sport and foster a greater appreciation for horses. Even so, state-of-the-art facilities and a vibrant social atmosphere wasn’t enough to stop the sport from declining in the country. The fact that other sports have gained in popularity certainly hasn’t helped, whilst the rising cost has also caused fewer people to engage in horse racing in general.
On top of that, the government has cracked down on gambling, imposing stricter regulations, which has made it more difficult for people to bet on horses. As a result, the number of people attending horse races in Singapore has declined significantly. In 2000, there were over 1 million racegoers in Singapore. By 2022, that number had fallen to just over 200,000. Whilst it remains popular in other countries, including those in which people might well have either watched or attended the Singapore racing in the past, the decline of interest paired with the need for space has led to the closure of numerous racecourses over the years.
The Racecourse Moves to Kranji
When Scottish merchant, William Henry Macleod Read, worked with others to create Singapore Sporting Club in 1842, they could hardly have imagined how big it would grow to become. A patch of partially-swamped land in Farrer Park, which was in central Singapore, was chosen as the ideal location for a racecourse. In 1924, the venue took on a new moniker to represent its importance, being re-named as the Singapore Turf Club. It wasn’t just the European expats that liked the sport, with wealthy Malay and Chinese racegoers also being attracted to watch it.
That increase in popularity required a larger course, so a move to Bukit Timah, in the western part of Singapore was necessary. That remained horse racing’s home for the majority of the 20th century, but in March of 2000 the Singapore Turf Club moved to Kranji, in the island’s north. The racecourse cost nearly £300 million to build, including the introduction of a five-storey grandstand, allowing as many as 30,000 people to watch racing take place there. In spite of everything, though, racegoers declined in number, making it increasingly difficult to justify keeping the course open.
The Course’s Closure
The closure of Singapore Turf Club might well have come as a bit of a shock to those outside of the country. It was known to British horse racing lovers on account of the fact that Queen Elizabeth II had a race named in her honour that took place there. She was present during a visit to Singapore in 1972 when the Queen Elizabeth II Cup was run for the first time. She was also at the event during a state visit in 2006. That, of course, wasn’t the only race of note that took place there, with the likes of the Grand Singapore Gold Cup also having numerous admirers around the world.
The ‘long and distinguished’ history of racing in the country will have never been under threat in the eyes of many. For those in the country, however, there was a need to consider racing’s place in Singapore’s culture when considered against the likes of the reduction in legal gambling. The truth of the matter is that horse racing and gambling has close ties wherever it takes place, even if it isn’t the locals specifically that are betting on it. There are also a wealth of reasons why the authorities in Singapore have decided to close the course, without gambling even being the biggest one.
Space Needed in Singapore
The government of Singapore said about the closing of the racecourse, “Singapore is a city-state with limited land. The government continually reviews its land use plans to meet today’s needs while ensuring there is sufficient land for future generations.” In 2023, there were major issues with rent in the country, with the cost of renting a property shooting up by as much as 60% in some cases. This was largely on account of the fact that the global health crisis of the preceding years resulted in a delay to building projects, reducing the availability in general.
This hasn’t been helped by the fact that younger Singaporeans are choosing to look for their own space in a manner that wouldn’t have happened previously. That notion was summed up by Pearlyn Siew, who said, “I needed space from my family after being in the same house throughout Covid. It felt really suffocating.” She wasn’t the only one hoping to find their own space, which put pressure on the housing market to such an extent that the Singapore government has been forced to consider where that space might be found, with the racecourse offering an ideal location.
Facilities Will Be Closed by 2027
The current plan is for Singapore Turf Club’s final race to be the 100th Grand Singapore Gold Cup, due to take place on the fifth of October in 2024. The Club has said that it will work to ‘ensure the sportsmanship, safety and integrity of every race’ up until then. Interestingly, the Singapore Turf Club itself won’t close until March 2027. This is largely to ensure there will be a ‘smooth closure’ of the venue, with the needs of all concerned parties met as well as possible. The workers will find themselves supported during what is being referred to as the ‘winding down exercise’.
This has led some to hope that something might be able to be done in order to save horse racing in the country before it comes to a complete end. The problem is that the course is based over 120 hectares, which is a huge amount of space for a sport that doesn’t take place every day of the week. Little wonder, then, that the government has decided it is the right time to begin the winding down of racing in order to use the land for the likes of housing, which will include public housing. The area surrounding it will be ‘holistically master planned to better meet our future land use needs’.
What Will Happen to the Horses, Jockeys, Etc.?
The obvious question that comes up when you consider the closure of the racecourse in Singapore is what will happen to the horses, jockeys and trainers that tend to call it home. After all, the Singapore Turf Club is the only licensed operator for horse racing activity in the country, so it isn’t as if they can just take their services somewhere else without entirely uprooting their lives. The good news, such as it is, is that there is no breeding industry in the country. Instead, thoroughbreds are imported from the likes of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
This means that the imports will simply stop, with alternative homes found for the horses that would otherwise make their way there. Horse owners tend to be made up of a mix of locals and expats, who will doubtless own horses in other countries too. The pool of jockeys, as well as the trainers, will be likely to be the hardest hit. They tend to be locals that have had licences granted by the Singapore Turf Club under the MRA rules. Quite what will happen to them isn’t clear, although it is likely that they will be supported to find new jobs in the local area where possible.
Trainers and owners will be given support for ‘horse maintenance’, as well as exportation, with the STC continuing to honour existing contractual obligations for ‘other affected stakeholders’. As for those working at the racecourse, the Ministry of Finance said, “Upon cessation of employment, employees will receive retrenchment packages aligned with the Ministry of Manpower’s regulatory requirements and guidelines.” These packages will take into account the likes of length of service, with job placement assistance being joined by ‘personal career guidance’ and ‘skills training courses’.