In the world of horse racing, nothing is more distinguished – or elusive – than the US Triple Crown. Considered among the most accomplished honours in thoroughbred racing, it is awarded to a three-year-old horse that wins three successive races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes – three stand-alone feature events run in three different states, at three different distances in only five weeks! Only 13 horses have ever been Triple Crown winners over the course of 143 years.
Lucky number 13 is an exceptional thoroughbred called Justify, a strapping chestnut known for his physicality, durability and virtuosity during an historic 111-day career. However, the qualities of the stallion were not immediately noticeable to the sport’s acclaimed judges. While his imposing frame hinted at what he may one day become, he was assessed as structurally frail with most reviewing x-rays of him as a yearling and failing him as a viable racing prospect. CHC and partners were in a distinct minority when determining that the colt was a ‘must-have’ asset under any circumstances. While Justify was slow to make his debut, his rise to fame has the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Emerging from obscurity on 18 February 2018, Justify raced through six successive races, four G1s back-to-back, in less than four months to redefine modern thinking on the durability of the thoroughbred. In the process, Justify became the Triple Crown’s second winner in the past 39 years and only the second undefeated US Triple Crown winner in the sport’s storied history. On the strength of Justify’s Kentucky Derby win this year alone, the Longines IFHA World’s Best Horse Rankings named Justify the world’s best three-year-old horse and the world’s best active dirt horse – titles he held until his retirement this year.
For the co-owner of the thoroughbred, a deeper significance can only come from this remarkable win. “This is a first for Asia,” says Teo Ah Khing, the Founder and Chairman of China Horse Club, for which Justify races in partnership. “Justify is the epitome of what Asians – in particular, Malaysians – can do to make it to the biggest stage. The story of Justify really shocked the world. That a Malaysian man owns such a horse indirectly promotes our brand (and our country) as one that can make it in the most competitive of fields.”
Teo is speaking to me in his head office in Singapore, a modest space considering his staggering achievements as architect, entrepreneur, and racehorse owner and breeder. In fact, TAK Group of Companies seamlessly incorporates Teo’s architect firm, Teo Ah Khing Design Consultants, his property development arm Desert Star Holdings Limited, Inner Mongolia Yitai Desert Star Horse Industries and the aforementioned China Horse Club. Framed press clippings of Teo’s winning thoroughbreds adorn the wood-panelled walls of his office. Several trophies – from the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and more – are given pride of place both at the reception as well as his room.
Less ostentatious but strikingly located nearest his desk in his office is a smaller photo frame containing a yellowing photo of a younger Teo laughing with Malaysia’s Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a man he later credits as his mentor early in his career. Fellow Malaysian, the late Dato Tan Chin Nam, a pioneering racehorse owner and immensely successful businessman, was a guiding light in more recent years.
We joke about a new career as a model while Teo poses with professional ease, despite having flown in from the UK the night before.
The man’s versatility – and resilience – is impressive, not least in him being a relative newcomer to the sport of horse racing and thoroughbred breeding, having only formed China Horse Club in 2012. An architect by profession (he has a postgraduate degree in Urban Design from Harvard), Teo’s enthusiasm for thoroughbred racing came, quite literally, by design, having been the mastermind behind the highly acclaimed, award-winning Meydan Grandstand and Race Course, home to the richest day of racing in the world, the Dubai World Cup Carnival – a programme with prize money totalling over USD29 million.
“To understand and design the Meydan Race Course, which is currently the world’s largest, encompasses many aspects. One of which we, as architects and planners, needed to really understand was the horses. “Horses don’t talk and so you really have to understand their psychology and behavioural patterns,” Teo explains, matter-of-factly. “I think it’s very important from a humanistic aspect to ‘translate’ the animal kingdom. We practically designed everything, inside and out, from the horse’s point of view, before and after the race. Many people, when they visit Meydan, see only the outside. What they do not see is the back of house – there’re a few kilometres of tunnels in a very serene environment, from what we call a receiving barn to where we parade them, the first time they interact with human beings before a race. I think that aspect itself has gained a lot of accolades but it’s not written about because it’s from a very professional angle.
“Horses are like athletes – they get nervous, they get excited, they are going to compete. The environment created in Medan has allowed all these world-class ‘athletes’ to come down and compete (effectively)”
Considering the animal and its wellbeing has worked so well that “Meydan set a precedent for what can be done beyond a typical race course,” says Teo. “To date, it has been visited by professionals in the design fraternity from all around the world. Everybody comes to Dubai to study and analyse how it works.”
The Meydan project practically converted Teo to the idea of something similar, if not better, for Asia. “Those days and months we spent travelling around the world and visiting places of significance for the horse industry – the vet clinics, the movement of the horses – I started to realise that this was something the Westerners had done so well. Yet, for us Asians and Chinese, all that we have been exposed to was just one aspect of the horse – racing”
The inception of China Horse Club came with Teo and his partners trying to establish something that went beyond just horse racing. “The sport’s reputation precedes itself with a lot of negativity, such as gambling,” he says. Forming the club was a way to counter this, targeting those who would rather “engage in business networking, charity and education, tying this in with horse racing. The club also provides gainful employment for a growing number of people, from varying backgrounds across a growing list of countries.”
To date, the club has attracted a bespoke and select membership, and has justified that support by quickly establishing itself as a global player in one of the most international of sports. Independently ranked as high as fifth in the world as owners in 2018, the club has won more than 420 races (28 G1s – the pinnacle of the sport) since it first began competing in March 2013. Its colours have been successfully represented at major races around the world.
While the club welcomes the international elite, its members are drawn primarily from China. “We were interested in the global platform after studying Meydan in Dubai and seeing how it could be emulated all over the world. The biggest growing industry at the time was China, which was what caught our attention,” says Teo.
More than that, Teo cites the longstanding love that the Chinese have for horses. “Horses have played a central role in China for centuries,” he says. “In the royal court, in ancient armies, in agriculture… you see them portrayed in art, poetry, Chinese classic literature. The horse is ingrained in Chinese culture. It’s a longwinded way of explaining why we think China Horse Club would be able to play a role. Our theme to this day is to ‘Bring the world to China and China to the world’. Because of our involvements overseas, we can bring Chinese interests to the countries we are participating in and vice versa.”
The idea that CHC goes beyond pure racing helped to pave the way into a notoriously closed-off market in China. “It is very guarded for newcomers,” acknowledges Teo. “We knew about the hindrances and hurdles. But the objective of CHC wasn’t just racing. We started off with education. We created the CHC China Dream Project, providing international opportunities for young talent such as promising jockeys and giving them a platform by sponsoring their training and studies. The second thing was that, slowly but surely, people saw that we were not a threat to them, and we went into the market to give and contribute. Thirdly, business networking – we are the most active horse club connecting the business dots in Russia, China, Middle East, America, Australia and Asian business together.”
Teo himself is an iconoclast who eschews ideas of lineage despite the business he is in. Born to Chinese migrant parents from Fujian who eked out a humble living from fishing – “All they knew from Fujian was fishing, so they took up the same trade in Sarawak” – Teo is the youngest of 10 children.
“My horse industry advisors always say, ‘Don’t buy these young yearlings – there’s not much left in the 10th yearling because the nutrients are gone from the mares – the mares are older, the horse is no good. I always remind them, I am the 10th!”
It explains Teo’s mentality of not automatically following industry norms. “Sometimes, newcomers can also add some valuable insights,” he says. “Justify didn’t come highly recommended because he had some issues and the X-ray picked it up. If we had purely believed in X-rays and not human instinct, we would have missed the Triple Crown.”
Bucking against convention was probably the trait that led Teo to working with Tun Dr Mahathir (a maverick, himself ) on Putrajaya, a project that Teo cites had a profound impact not just on his work as an architect, but also in the thoroughbred line.
“Twenty years on, Putrajaya is still looking very much in ‘vogue’,” says Teo of the federal administrative city that Tun Dr Mahathir had envisioned. “It’s about mid- to long-term planning. It has taught (Teo Ah Khing Design Consultants) many things. There was resistance and naysayers during the planning of Putrajaya, but the strong leadership, support and foresight of the then… ” he laughs before continuing, “… and now Prime Minister, (reinforced) the idea that you need to see what’s beyond the current scenario.
“As an architect, you are looking beyond your own time. There is some significance about the space, the human environment, the preservation of nature – I’m glad Tun, 20 years ago, saw that too.
“The Fates brought us together,” muses Teo, aware of the fact that his company, set up in Singapore, was barely two years old when it was plucked from obscurity. Teo is admiring of the nonagenarian statesman. “I’m not very good with politics but I can share a little about the months I worked with him. Even now, with (Tun’s recent gruelling visit to New York, held in conjunction with the 73rd United Nations General Assembly), it is amazing,” he says. “I salute the man; I think he is our modern Socrates – he’s not just a politician; he’s also a doctor, a philosopher. He has a vision that surpasses many others and he is going to be remembered as a legend, and not just in Asia.”
It was Tun Dr Mahathir who introduced him to former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, for whom Teo designed a military headquarters. In Pakistan, Teo was also commissioned to work on an USD11 billion township in Rawalpindi for property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain. From there, Teo, having established an office in Dubai, was appointed by Dubai ruler His Royal Highness Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, to design a portfolio of notable landmarks, which included Dubai’s Meydan City and its famed Meydan Grandstand and Racecourse. The building, incorporating the grandstand, a 285-room hotel, museum and iMax theatre, spans 1.6km in length. It was constructed to the tune of USD1.25 billion.
All these mega projects have, according to Teo, “helped in the formation and strategy for China Horse Club.” When asked what advice he would give to those looking to similarly break into the market, he says: “I won’t claim to give any advice because we are starters ourselves. I think there are many successful entrepreneurs ahead of us and it’s those people you should ask. China has its own culture, its own eccentricities and methods of doing things that a Western-trained architect like me wouldn’t understand.”
But perhaps Teo identifies with how the country is indefatigable in its quest for progress: “I think they have a thirst and continue to learn and get the best. The desire to improve makes China’s position in the world very unique.”
Teo himself is already looking to the future. “Our business networking now has broadened and we are going on a global platform, even in Latin America.” Currently, the TAK Group of Companies is also exploring the Caribbean. DSH Caribbean Star Limited, a subsidiary of Desert Star Holdings Limited, is the Master Developer for the nation building project known as the Pearl of the Caribbean. The only international integrated development in the island’s history, the touted Pearl of the Caribbean will be at the heart of the Caribbean’s renaissance in sport, lifestyle and entertainment. It is set to incorporate a new homeport capable of mooring the world’s largest cruise ships, a racetrack and racino, a marina with facilities for mega yachts, a waterfront entertainment precinct and different tiering of commercial and residential property.
For all his global commitments, Teo proudly identifies himself as Malaysian, recounting how, in the last elections, he and his Malaysian team had literally raced home straight after the Kentucky Derby, to make sure they got to the ballot boxes on time. “I’ve lived overseas for the past 15 years,” says Teo. “But many people don’t understand – that the Chairman is Malaysian, still truly Malaysian, and holding a Malaysian passport. He loves his country.” The Master Planner is equally proud of the decidedly more modest Miri City Fan, an award-winning, uniquely fan-shaped civic park in Teo’s hometown, covering 26ac of individually themed gardens, a library cum cultural centre and a promenade. Teo is tight-lipped about future developments in Malaysia but allows that “the path is leading us back to Malaysia.”
“To me, it is about returning what the Motherland has nurtured. It has always been my intention to find a way to give back, to contribute. I have been very fortunate to have been shaped by Malaysia and I am very proud of that,” Teo said. “I have a lot holding my focus right now, but Malaysia is in my thoughts more and more, and it is proving hard to ignore that.” Teo’s warmth towards his country is unmistakable, seeing opportunity, and potential. A return home may just be the beginning of his next great adventure.
Then again, finding potential seems to be the thread tying all of this together, including Teo’s knack for championing underdogs (or underhorses, as it were) that win.
ART DIRECTION AUDREY LIM
PHOTOGRAPHY MICKY WONG