Gripping his mallet, Peng Zhichun gallops towards goal on a Chinese polo field, one of a growing number of the country’s wealthy elite discovering the joys of the saddle and the whip.
“New clubs are opening, people are more into equestrian sports, into polo, there are more international players coming, so it’s growing really fast,” the young man, dressed in an expensive leather helmet, boots and white trousers, said after dismounting.
Peng, who was taking part in a luxury lifestyle event in the northern port of Dalian earlier this month, spent several years in the United States and is typical of China’s emerging upper class, with a keen interest in travel and Western leisure activities.
Among the privileged minority, chosen sports are indicative of status — usually tennis and golf to start off with, graduating to skiing or riding.
It is fertile ground for luxury brands such as the Swiss watch manufacturers for which the country has become a major market.
In June, Shanghai hosted a stage of the Longines Global Champions Tour for the first time, a five-star showjumping event, the highest in the International Equestrian Federation’s rankings.
At Beijing’s Tango Polo Club members are “select” and wealthy, says deputy chairman Chen Xie, and their numbers are growing steadily.
“Polo is special. Members have to be rich enough to afford the membership. Courage is also needed as you can see, the sport is quite fast, intense and dangerous on the field,” he told AFP.
“The major customers are those above white-collar workers, say, entrepreneurs, or at least ‘golden-collars’.”
It is undoubtedly a rich man’s game. Club members have spent as much as three million yuan ($ 500,000) on a polo pony, and in one case 80 million yuan on a racehorse, Chen said — sums which are lifestyle expenses rather than investments.
“Horses are like humans, they go down in value when they pass their peak.”
China has a long equine history, with the first cavalry troops recorded in the Spring and Autumn Period of 770BC-476BC and ceramic horses unearthed alongside the later Terracotta Warriors.
Chen also claims polo had its origins in Tang dynasty China before a British army officer imported it from India, although he acknowledges that “We all agree modern polo started from England.”
Nonetheless indigenous Chinese horse breeds are too small for many modern equestrian disciplines, he admits.
The country’s main equine stock is descended from Mongolian strains, but for centuries the animals of the steppe were bred primarily for stamina, rather than explosive speed.
Most polo ponies are imported — with three-quarters of the animals at the Tango club coming from Argentina.
China imported fewer than 300 horses in 2005 but the number has risen tenfold in less than a decade.
Now the country has about 500 riding clubs and half a million amateur enthusiasts, according to Wutzala, an ethnic Mongolian who uses only one name and runs the www.horse.org.cn website.
But equestrian sports are far beyond most people’s budgets, he says, with riding courses generally costing “250 to 400 yuan per hour plus coaching fee” and needing 30 hours to complete.
For more populist disciplines — in particular racing — the picture is different.
Gambling is illegal in China except where it is run by the government or the proceeds donated to charity, and the state-sanctioned lotteries do not offer betting on foreign horse races, unlike football games.
The ruling Communist Party associates racing with what it sees as the decadence and national humiliation of foreign occupation in the first half of the 20th century.
In Shanghai, the colonial-era racecourse, once one of the largest in the world, was replaced by People’s Square — the site of the local government headquarters — and a park.
The global industry salivates at the prospect of a vast new market opening up, and in recent years French gambling representatives have visited China several times to promote Tote-style betting on races, with the bookmakers financing the sport.
But while rumours of a relaxation in the rules have seen entrepreneurs invest in infrastructure, they have been left with abandoned courses hosting neither races nor spectators.
Hong Kong group Desert Star Holdings had ambitious plans for a $ 1.7 billion “Horse City” in Tianjin including a racetrack, an international equestrian college and a 4,000-place stable, but the project has been postponed and some doubt it will ever see the light of day.
“Chinese people enjoy betting,” said Chen, adding that pure sports fans were not a sufficient market to develop racing.
“With no betting there will be few participants.”