Singapore – On a sunny Saturday afternoon in the far north of Singapore, a weekend ritual is in full swing.
Racegoers at the Singapore Turf Club are crowded around banks of screens, studying the odds for the afternoon’s upcoming horse races.
Many are clutching newspapers, scrutinising the form guide in the hope of picking out a winner. The crowd is largely made up of older Singaporean men, affectionately known as “uncles”.
Soon, they will need to find something else to fill their weekends. The curtain is about to come down on more than 180 years of horse racing history in Singapore, with the final race scheduled for October.
The Southeast Asian nation’s sole horse racing track has fallen victim to the tiny island’s need for land, with its entire 120 hectares (297 acres) to be handed back to the government in 2027 for redevelopment into public and private housing.
When the announcement was made last June, Singapore Turf Club’s chairman, Niam Chiang Meng, said he was “saddened by the decision” but “understands the land needs of Singapore”.
More than six months later, Singapore’s horse racing community remains shocked, confused and frustrated.
“We had no indication [prior to June] or any information that this place is closing”, said Jason Ong, the president of the Association of Racehorse Trainers Singapore.
“To close down the whole industry in one and a half years, I think that’s something that every participant in horse racing feels is very sudden and hard to come to terms with,” Ong added.
Horses have been raced in the city-state since 1843, with the inaugural Singapore cup race held in front of more than 300 spectators.
As the popularity of the sport grew, racing moved to a 98-hectare site (242 acres) in the centrally located Bukit Timah area in 1933. Queen Elizabeth II was a notable visitor to the course in 1972, with 26,000 fans flocking to see her and other members of the British Royal Family.
Then, on the eve of the Millennium, the turf club was moved so the site could be returned to the government for housing and other uses.
The 500 million Singapore dollar ($295m) Kranji Racecourse was opened in 1999 and included a five-storey grandstand with a capacity for 30,000 fans.
This new venue was supposed to signal more opportunities for the growth of horse racing in Singapore, even allowing for atmospheric night races under floodlights.
But today, it is a very different feeling at a racecourse that is soon to be demolished.
The grandstands are far from full, with most people huddled together in the shade of the concourses watching the races on monitors.
‘It’s a hobby’
Food and drink options are limited, with one food court sitting empty. Just a few shops remain, selling cheap cans of Tiger beer and plastic containers of noodle and rice dishes.
But the enthusiasm for racing and gambling remains strong among the loyal patrons.
“It’s a hobby, my hobby. I’ve been betting for more than 30 years”, said racegoer Frankie Koay.
“I’m very sad – it shouldn’t have had to be closed. Once it goes down we have to concentrate on other racing, like Hong Kong and Malaysia,” Frankie added.
In the lull between races, action from other tracks in South Korea and Australia is broadcast on TV screens. Occasional roars can be heard from different crowds, presumably cheering a winner in the 3:40 at Seoul.
While far from full, there is a real sense of community at the course, with the largely working-class crowd enjoying the chance to pocket some winnings.
“I’ve come here for around 30 years”, said Mr Tay, who preferred not to share his full name.
When asked why he keeps coming back, he says: “Just nothing to do. No place to go. I just come for fun”.
With horse racing soon to bow out in Singapore, one sport retains a stronghold on the tiny island.
As of 2023, there were 16 golf courses on the island, according to local media, although one public course closed at the end of the year.
On top of this, the 712 sq km (275 sq mile) city-state retains several country and social clubs.
The government says golf courses are being targeted too, with the centrally-located Marina Bay course to close later this year when its lease comes to an end.
When announcing the closure of the Kranji Racecourse, Singapore Turf Club blamed dwindling attendance over the past decade. And on this Saturday afternoon, it was not difficult to find a seat to watch the action.
“Closing down is OK for me because there’s no new generation to do horse betting,” said racing fan Roger Chuay.
Some members of Singapore’s racing community are placing the blame for the ageing fan base firmly at the door of the Turf Club’s management.
“Horse racing here has gone backwards a bit. But it was only going backwards because of the way they manage it and they never kept up with the times,” said one leading trainer who wished to remain anonymous.
“If you put the right people in to run racing and get it right, it could be a massive asset to Singapore and to tourism and to jobs,” the trainer added.
500 horses to consider
Eyebrows have also been raised at how long it took to begin the redevelopment of the Turf Club’s previous site in Bukit Timah.
Since it closed in 1999, the racecourse has been host to several businesses, including restaurants and children’s play facilities.
It was only at the end of 2023 that it was finally cleared for work to begin on a new housing neighbourhood.
“The old turf club is only just now closed up and they are going to start doing something to it. That’s 24 years”, said the trainer.
“This place [Kranji Racecourse], nothing will happen to it for 10-15 years. It will just rot.”
For those still involved in horse racing in Singapore, there is now the considerable challenge of winding down their operations and finding new homes for hundreds of horses in a relatively short period of time.
“The important part now is thinking about what the exit strategy is,” said Ong.
“It’s the welfare of the horses as well, even if you want to export the horses out, will there be anyone taking them in? If you say we can send 500 horses to Malaysia, I don’t think Malaysia will be able to take in so many horses,” explained Ong.
In a statement, the Singapore government said: “Racehorse trainers and owners will receive support for horse maintenance and exportation.”
The Singapore Turf Club declined an interview request from Al Jazeera. In a statement released last year, they said they “will work with the government to ensure a well-managed exit for local horse racing.”
Racing at Kranji will draw to a close with the running of the 100th Grand Singapore Gold Cup.
It will be a day that will bring immense sadness for the Singaporeans for whom racing is the highlight of their weekends.
“A lot of people have no place to go for amusement. We are not going to go drinking or out to night life, this place [the races] is for old men to go”, said Paul as he studied horses in the parade ring.
“If they want to build commercial buildings or houses, I think a golf club is better. One golf club cleared away means you can build a lot.”