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Teo Ah Khing plans to run the world on horseback

On track to staging his biggest venture yet, the architect-turned-horse racing club owner hones his understanding of humans through his study of equines.

It was a gamble that could have ended careers and a reputation. The deciding factor: a two-minute race with an untested contender.

When Teo Ah Khing picked four-year-old gelding Tropaios to race in the 2013 Longines Singapore Gold Cup for his China Horse Club (CHC), the young horse had never competed over a distance more than 1,600m. It was also CHC’s maiden Group One race, where the best horses compete.

The chairman and founder of CHC recalls: “I saw him a few nights before the Cup. I told him that I would take care of him but he had to help me and secure the future of China Horse Club.”

After lagging behind 13 competitors for the first 2,100km, it surged in the final 20 seconds and edged ahead with a half-body-length win. It was the club’s 10th global win, seven months after CHC was launched in April 2013. Today, the trophy sits proudly in his office at International Building where we meet.

Says the 54-year-old, who is an architect by training: “If you can talk to horses, you can talk to humans. I’ve been studying horses and learning their behaviour for the last 10 years. Through all that, I think I have developed a finer understanding of humans. You’re able to read body language, engage better and build rapport.”

Both owner and horse clearly have something special going on. If it weren’t for Teo’s soothing presence for Tropaios, this magazine cover – which features the gelding on the right – would not have happened earlier in the day at Kranji. When it felt neglected, a skittish Tropaios threw tantrums by ignoring Teo’s bidding and moving out of frame. At one point, it tried to get Teo’s attention by attempting to “nibble” his ear.

Teo immediately put it in its place. He took its noseband, gently patted its neck and whispered into its ear. Tropaios submitted to his owner’s bidding.

From The Horse’s Mouth
Perhaps it is this finely honed ability to relate that has endeared Teo to friends in high places. Queen Elizabeth II’s personal racehorse adviser, John Warren, is his pal and a member of CHC’s panel of high-flying consultants that includes former Swiss president Joseph Deiss. The Shanghai-based club aims to be a platform through which its 200-plus UHNW members – who each paid US$1 million (S$1.4 million) to join – socialise with local and international industry leaders. It purchases horses at public auctions and private sales, and invites members to share in the ownership of these horses.

He persuaded Yang Lan, one of China’s most powerful women and often called the Oprah of China, to attend CHC’s China Equine Cultural Festival (CECF) held over Chinese New Year in February. It is Singapore’s richest horse race, with prize money of $3.05 million. Louis Romanet, chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities in France, also made a rare appearance at the Singapore Turf Club for CECF’s first international event outside of China. Teo also has the support of Coolmore Stud, the world’s largest breeder of thoroughbred racehorses.

CHC has been on a buying spree of late, spending over US$7 million on 13 fillies and mares at two major breeding-stock sales in the US last November. In October, it bought five horses for 2.69 million euros (S$3.9 million) at the Arqana Arc sale. This is all done to promote ownership.

“The Mandarin translation of CHC is ‘horse-owning club’. All members must be owners of thoroughbreds. This is the only way to get recognition overseas and be in the same league as top owner-breeders like Alain and Gerard Wertheimer of the Chanel luxury goods empire, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan (IV),” Teo says. CHC also owns a ski resort in Switzerland and a A$5.8 million (S$6.2 million), 40ha property outside Sydney meant for its members who come from 19 countries, including one from Iceland. Membership is capped at 2,000.

In the last two years since CHC was founded, Teo says his horses have won 53 per cent of the time and claimed 63 titles in eight countries. Teo mostly lets the awards won by his 200 racehorses do the talking now. And it seems he has a knack for choosing, well, dark horses.

Teo completed high-profile projects for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (seated on left) in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Teo’s bold changes to Putrajaya township’s design impressed Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (seated on left).

One of the most significant triumphs took place last June when prized colt Australia won the coveted Epsom Derby. It had never run more than a mile; the derby is a mile and a half. The horseshoe track is peculiar for slanting left. Its uneven and undulating terrain is an added challenge, making it one of the toughest in the realm of flat racing. Whereas its competitors slowed down, Australia surged ahead and overtook in a surprise move – while balancing a 58kg jockey on its back. The victory shot CHC from obscurity to worldwide fame. Teo had beaten the Queen and client-turned-friend Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum. Incidentally, the ruler of Dubai was also the one who had introduced the equestrian world to Teo.

Teo says: “Isn’t that what life is about? There is nothing too difficult that you cannot overcome. Australia taught me that. If you wake up every day and find yourself about to fall off the edge, you will find a way out. You’ll be alert and aware of your environment.”

Building a Foundation
Teo knows what it is like to be on that precarious edge. Born in Kuching, Sawarak, to a fisherman and housewife, and raised in Miri, he graduated from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with a degree in architecture. He worked for a few years in Australia and, upon the encouragement of his boss, prominent Australian architect John Andrews, applied for a master’s degree course in urban design at Harvard University.

“I was kiasu and applied to three other schools as well: University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and Yale University. All three offered scholarships and living assistance. Harvard didn’t – and guess where this jian gu tou (stubborn person in Mandarin) chose to go,” says Teo, who switches effortlessly between both languages during our interview – exemplifying his comfort in the two worlds, an asset that has no doubt come in handy. He has been a Singapore PR since 1995 and lives here with his wife, Ivy, whom he met at UNSW. Their daughter has followed in Teo’s footsteps and is studying city planning.

Teo also completed for General Pervez Musharraf (standing on left) in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Teo built military headquarters for then Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf (standing on left).

While he excelled in Sydney – he was awarded best architectural graduate – Teo struggled at Harvard. He failed his first semester and was advised to take six months off. “I was too slow. I did not have the necessary computer skills. If I did not buck up, I would have been kicked out in the second semester.” He buried his head in books and quickly picked up whatever skills he lacked. Not only did he finish grad school one semester earlier, he was given a letter of commendation for his improvement.

“I later found it very amusing,” he says with a chuckle. “I never included it in my resume because I doubted anyone would want to hire someone so inconsistent.”

It was also at Harvard where he learnt the importance of self-assessment, which has served him well. “The Chinese idiom goes, ‘If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss’. Before you submit your work, you must always ask yourself what your weaknesses are. If you understand them, your strengths are bound to mitigate them. The Harvard way is to find solutions to problems.”

Career Breaks
Two years after setting up Teo Ah Khing Design Consultants in Singapore in 1993, Teo’s big break came when he was asked to review design plans for Putrajaya township, which was to become Malaysia’s new federal administrative city.

His bold proposed changes, which included a relocation of the government precinct and preservation of the landscape’s natural contours, won then PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s approval.

In early 2000s, Dr Mahathir introduced him to then Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf. He would go on to build military headquarters for the general, as well as a US$11-billion, 4,860ha township in Rawalpindi for Pakistani property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain.

Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum (third from left) was the one who ignited Teo's passion for horse racing.
Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum (third from left) was the one who ignited Teo’s passion for horse racing.

In the meantime, Teo set up an office in Dubai. “We were there from 2005, when many big projects were announced. I lived there for five years which were the emirate’s golden years. We were at the right place at the right time. My best architectural years were in Dubai. It is such an open-minded market.”

Then he was given the chance of a lifetime: Design two palm tree-shaped island developments for Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum. But it was the ruler’s ambitious Meydan racecourse that put Teo on the world map. “To design for horses, I had to understand horses. I was an adviser to Sheikh Mohammed for seven years and this allowed me to travel around the world twice to learn all I could.”

After nearly three years of construction, the track – built at a reported US$1.25 billion – opened in 2010. It hosts the Dubai World Cup, which is the world’s richest race with over US$29 million in prize money. Besides accommodating over 60,000 spectators in its 1.6km-long grandstand, it also has a 285-room hotel and museum.

His background in architecture has also proven helpful in selecting champion horses. He says: “I think my trained eye understands a horse’s proportion better – its space, curvature, stability and muscle distribution.”

Seven-year Itch
After learning about the equine species for seven years, Teo began toying with the idea of setting up a horse club. He wanted to put to test the skills he had learnt during the construction of Meydan.

It was also an opportunity to fulfil his late parents’ wish to pay tribute to his motherland, China. CHC’s jockeys wear silks that are reminiscent of the colours of China’s flag. “I’ve had people within the international horse-racing circuit question the possibility of training a winning Chinese jockey. Those words reverberate in my mind. One is reminded of China when a jockey wearing CHC’s silk wins a race, even though the rider may not be Chinese yet. Now, people respect CHC. But that’s not enough. I want them to respect the Chinese.”

"My mum, then in her 70s, was with me during my convocation at Harvard University. When I was called to go on stage, she thought I'd done something wrong because she was always called up by my school when I was younger."
“My mum, then in her 70s, was with me during my convocation at Harvard University. When I was called to go on stage, she thought I’d done something wrong because she was always called up by my school when I was younger.”

His goal is to create a sustainable breeding industry which will create jobs and boost the economy. Never mind if China is racing’s final frontier and greatest opponent as betting is illegal. “I like to do new things. I don’t want to trail behind. I’ve always wanted to understand what my father went though. What fuelled that pioneering spirit and made him travel past Vietnam, brave pirates and land in Kuching to start a new life? That same pioneering motivation drives me now.”

His mother has been his biggest influence. He says: “Mum was not educated. She was diligent and never said no. She overcame problems. When Dad was arrested during the Japanese Occupation, she single-handedly brought up eight kids.” Teo is the 10th in the family and the youngest.

He recalls a horse auction two years ago when he was told not to buy a filly because its brood mare had never won a race. A mother’s racing history typically influences the quality and demand of a horse.

“I was told the pedigree was weak. I bought it, and it has won me three races in Ireland.

“I told the auctioneer that my mother never went to school. I think there should be a new perspective of seeing things, not just a Western way. This unpredictability is also what makes a race exciting. The best horse wins.”

Teo Ah Khing has his money on China’s nascent horse racing industry. Find out why in the digital edition of The Peak here.