Blue cushions are up for grabs as masked spectators cheer horses galloping to the finish in Wuhan, ground zero for the pandemic but also a major centre for racing in China.
The city of 11 million people is synonymous with the coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan about a year ago, but far less known is its vibrant horse racing scene dating back more than 150 years.
At first glance Wuhan Open Horse Racing, which sprang back into action in October after the city reopened from lockdown, is much like the sport anywhere in the world.
There are thoroughbreds with names such as “Freedom Fighter” and “Ultimate Perfection”; jockeys wear coloured silks; spectators in a grandstand check the form guide to pick a winner.
But there is one crucial difference: gambling is broadly illegal in mainland China.
Instead, people scan a QR code on their mobile phone and select a winner. If that horse comes in, they win a prize.
On a recent Saturday at Orient Lucky City racecourse, the prize was a cushion.
But it can also be cooking oil, phone credit or — if you guess several winners in a row — a rice cooker or even a car. There are no cash prizes.
For Mr. Zhang, a spectator who declined to give his first name, the absence of betting does not matter.
“It’s different from foreign countries, the fun here is watching the horses in action and soaking up the atmosphere,” the 65-year-old, who lives nearby and is making his second visit to the races, said behind a face mask.
Jin Lei, who is attending with two friends, said it was his first time at the races and there is a thrill in “getting close up to feel the power of the horses”.
“I came here more out of novelty,” the 27-year-old medical consultant added.
Entry for spectators starts at 50 yuan ($8) although at least two people told AFP that they were given free tickets.
– ‘I missed it’ –
The wet and chilly weather put a dampener on what was the penultimate race day of the coronavirus-shortened Wuhan racing season and made for a crowd of just a few hundred people, many of them young families.
But Jacky Wu, chairman of Orient Lucky Horse Group, which built and runs the racecourse, said there would normally be between 3,000 and 5,000 spectators.
Unlike race days in other countries, which can be alcohol-fuelled affairs, there was tea, juice and fruit as adults and children sheltered inside from the rain.
The purpose-built Wuhan course saw its first action in 2003 but Wu said that there is “a long history” of horse racing in the central city because of the British who once traded there.
“Wuhan’s first racecourse was in 1864 and in the past there were four racecourses running at the same time,” he said in his office overlooking Wuhan’s sand track.
According to Wu, although there is racing in other parts of mainland China, notably in the far-flung regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, Wuhan is “the centre of Western-standard horse racing” in the country.
However, like sport all over the globe, the coronavirus hit racing in Wuhan hard, wiping out four months of the season.
The city was locked down from January 23 until early April and racing only resumed in October. Nearly 4,000 people died of the virus in Wuhan.
Xiang Yan, a jockey from the city, said it was a relief to get back in the saddle having been locked down for 76 days.
“Riding every day is my habit and not doing so for a long time, I missed it,” said the 24-year-old.
– Wuhan ploughs on –
After a grim year Wu is optimistic about the future of Wuhan horse racing. It is backed by local authorities and China’s ruling Communist Party wants to boost equestrian sport.
“It wasn’t easy for us to get horse racing going in Wuhan this year and the pandemic isn’t over,” said Wu, who is also chairman of Wuhan Jockey Club.
“But the fact we now have races on shows that Wuhan attaches great importance to horse racing.”
With China successfully slowing virus infections to a trickle nationwide, plans are afoot for a bigger and better 2021 for the Wuhan racing industry.
“If all goes according to plan we expect to increase the level of competition, the prize money, the number of foreign jockeys and the quality of the horses,” said Wu.
“We will continue to invest in the next few years and it should be said that we are very confident in the future of Chinese horse racing, very confident.”
He added: “Horse racing in many cities has stopped, but Wuhan hasn’t.”