Philippine horse racing will be off and running starting May 13 under the leadership of recently-appointed Philippine Racing Commission chairman Aurelio ‘Reli’ de Leon following the green light given by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Sport of Kings to resume.
“It’s four days of races in Malvar, Batangas. May 16 will also be a stakes race day with P1 million prize for the first Maiden Stakes for three-year-old horses,” says De Leon, named to the post only last December after serving as one of the commissioners since July 2019 to become Philracom’s 12th chairman.
A close friend of Philippine basketball legend Robert Jaworski and boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, De Leon is a regular fixture in PBA games and prizefights, but has horse racing blood running in his veins ever since he sold his first dividendazo as a kid.
As head of the country’s horse racing industry, De Leon, a marketing management pundit, now gets to apply years of experience, study and training on his watch as the spectator sport seeks to rebound amid a terrible health and safety challenge caused by the pandemic.
He agreed to an online Q&A with Manila Bulletin Sports and touched on Philracom’s priorities, the state of livelihood of jockeys and trainers, and several other matters pertaining to horse racing.
MANILA BULLETIN SPORTS: Did you get to watch Medina Spirit win the Kentucky Derby recently? How did it feel in light of Philracom’s efforts to get Philippine horse racing back on track, so to speak?
CHAIRMAN RELI DE LEON: I had gone to more than 10 famous race tracks in the world, and I was able to watch their stake races. No question, we have lots of thing to do for us to match the hype and excitement of their races. But we know what to do. It’s just a matter of time before we can create a big event that will start a huge hype among horse racing aficionados.
MBS: Philracom will still hold Triple Crown races, right?
RDL: Oh, yes. These races feature the best three-year-old horses and will start this July at San Lazaro Leisure Park in Carmona, Cavite.
Last year, we had a Triple Crown champion in Heneral Kalentong, who earned almost P6 million despite the six months stoppages of races.
MBS: What are your immediate priorities as Philracom chairman?
RDL: We expect a big development in Philippine horse racing late this year and the next two, three years.
Data development program is our priority. The Races committee is also reviewing the possibility of upgrading the handicapping department and the steward and judges composition, and have better implementation of rules on races.
MBS: Are the country’s race tracks all operational?
RDL: The Metro Manila Turf Corp. in Malvar, Batangas just renewed its franchise for the next 25 years last Dec 20.
A new group, the Hapi Group, also applied a new franchise which was already approved in third reading of Congress last month. San Lazaro and Sta. Ana both have expiring franchises in Oct. 2022. Neither has applied yet for a new franchise.
MBS: How is the livelihood of jockeys, trainers and grooms during this COVID-19 period? Has Philracom come to their aid in whatever way?
RDL: The jockeys and trainers have their funds coming from the share of horse prizes. I believe they can afford to provide subsidy to their members in this time of pandemic.
But we at Philracom also exert effort to start the appeal to lawmakers re their other trust funds coming from the Metro Manila Turf Club Inc. It’s in the process now. Let’s wait for the lawmakers to change the amount of benefits due to jockeys and trainers
For the grooms, we provide them food packages last year and we also conducted a community pantry for them a week ago. The horse owners provide assistance to them too.
MBS: The great names in local horse racing — Triple Crown champions like Fair and Square, Skywalker, Time Master, Sun Dancer, Strong Material, even Silver Story — broke into public consciousness decades ago. Do you foresee the Golden Age of horse racing here dawning again? What is your projection for the remainder of 2021?
RDL: This year, I clearly see more than 10 horses shining and vying to become popular gallopers among racing aficionados. We will also be having the biggest prize in the history of Philippine horse racing this year.
MBS: Business-wise, is there any reason for optimism this year, what with Philippine sports practically on standstill due to the pandemic?
RDL: The good thing about horse racing today is the sudden and continuous increase of online bettors. We started at only 3% last March 2020, then by December hit 12 %. Last March this year, we are now 17% of the total sales.
MBS: And this helps the country during these times in what way?
RDL: Horseracing is not only a sport or game with betting. We contribute regularly to different charitable institutions, aside from the billions of pesos in annual taxes from betting. We also help Philippine tourism by offering a well-organized sports entertainment.
More importantly, we provide direct and indirect employment to more than 12,000 in the marginal sectors of our country.
MBS: Any message to the ‘Bayang Karerista’?
RDL: We want to inform prospective bettors that horse racing will not only give them an exciting entertainment but will also help in generating funds for worthy charity projects.
For every peso you bet, you will be happy to know that you contributed to the employment of thousands of people aside from sharing in Philracom’s charitable projects.
MBS: When will they be allowed back on the race tracks?
RDL: Bettors will not be allowed in the race tracks until the IATF says so.