Of those activities, the sport of horse racing — sometimes called the Sport of Kings — is very popular. It is a $A6.3 billion a year industry in Australia alone. It is therefore a big business with a vast infrastructure supporting it.
I only knew the English style of horse racing and was surprised to discover, when I arrived here, that there was a racecourse in Ho Chi Minh City.
I was too late; the race course was abandoned in 2011 and the grounds turned into an athletics facility. Nevertheless, I took a taxi to Phu Tho and wandered around it one afternoon. I was surprised at what I saw as I expected some elegant old French grandstand with some ornate metalwork and decoration, but instead found a 1930s heavy concrete structure that was definitely not elegant. It is very basic and nowhere as refined as some of the buildings built by the French in the city at or near the same time. It is hardly a celebration of horse racing.
Horse racing began in Vietnam in 1893, controlled, naturally, by the French military. After being suspended during the First World War, it resumed, becoming increasingly popular with the French as well as the Vietnamese. The track itself was relocated in 1932 to what is now Phu Tho Stadium and new facilities built, but racing was halted again in World War II resuming under Vietnamese control after the war until 1975.
Battles during the American war were fought around the race track. After re-unification, gambling was prohibited and the race course was temporarily turned into a Sports and Education college, until it reopened in 1989 as a track again.
The stopping and starting proved to be a significant factor in preventing the sport becoming viable again. To understand why, we need to understand that racing is an industry and the racetrack is merely the outward manifestation of that industry, requiring for its success an enormous investment in infrastructure.
Even in Australia the sport is facing challenges with too many racetracks and too many racing clubs. The track alone claims a large amount of taxable land — usually a length between 1km and 2km long — and the facilities at the track must include restaurants, stables, administration areas, carparks and so on.
To make all this work needs public support. The racing industry in Australia is supported by an entire culture spanning a wide spectrum of society, from the extremely wealthy to working-class people, and attracts men and women in equal numbers. When people go to the races they dress up. It is not just about gambling but an enjoyable day out. It is that aspect of the industry that fuels its popularity, a popularity that requires facilities attractive to the public.
The now abandoned Phu Tho building is a reminder that without these things supporting its existence, it is no longer relevant. The building is not one of the remaining elegant structures that the city is renowned for and the facilities are basic.
There are plans to build the country’s only horse race track in Binh Phuoc, as part of a US$100 million Binh Phuoc Recreation Complex Project. The building itself may be the cheapest part of the investment if there is no racing infrastructure to support it.