BEIJING (Reuters) - Sima Ming is a horse breeder's dream. One of China's growing ranks of newly minted millionaires, he has a passion for horses and the bank balance to fund this expensive pastime.
"Sitting atop an animal that's so much bigger and faster than you is a great feeling," said Sima, a dressage enthusiast who keeps eight horses.
Sima, who made his money in construction, does not know how much he's spent on his horses. But with just one of his three imported Portuguese stallions having cost around 400,000 yuan ($65,000), the investment is more than small change.
As in other countries, horse ownership in China is not just about the joys of galloping through fields, it's about status.
"Some people buy cars, some people buy yachts or expensive jewellery," Sima said. "Often it's all about satisfying a different kind of demand, a psychological desire. Horses are the same. There are many people who buy horses and then never ride them."
China's equestrian industry has gone from being nearly non-existent 30 years ago to more than 300 clubs and 25 race tracks, according to the China Horse Industry Association, an official body tasked with coordinating the sector's development.
But for Shi Zheng, the Chinese representative of a French horse-breeding region, getting people like Sima to sign a deal is no easy task. He's up against the agents of at least eight other regions fighting to get China's horse lovers to buy.
"Everyone thinks because Chinese people are very rich they'll buy anything," said Shi, voicing doubts about the strength of demand.
Two or three years ago it was easier to sell horses in China, he said, but "now the market is already confirmed".
A BIG BET
While many in China's equestrian world see interest slowly increasing, serious hurdles to development include prohibitive costs, export curbs and, most importantly, a ban on gambling.
Raena Leung, the Germany-based winner of last year's Chinese show-jumping cup league, sees the potential and the limits.
"There is certainly a demand for horses in China but it's not as big as people think, because there are only a handful of people riding at the top level," said Leung, who is often approached by European industry insiders eyeing China.
To some, it is more about playing the long game in hopes that gambling on horse racing, by far the most lucrative element of the equestrian industry, may some day be legalized.
Many look to the success of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which had a turnover of HK$94 billion ($12.1 billion) in the 2012/13 financial year.
"You can imagine the potential will be huge for a country with a population the size of China," Philippe Germond, chief executive of the Paris-based betting operator PMU, said in an interview with the China Daily newspaper.
"The people of France spend more than 9 billion euros on betting on horse races a year. That's a country with only about 60 million inhabitants."
But without the gambling, attempts to introduce racing into China over the past 10 years have foundered.
The most recent plan, to build a $1.7-billion Equine Culture City in Tianjin, a coastal hub south of Beijing, has fallen behind schedule with the club having to hold its inaugural race in Inner Mongolia last autumn. Equine Culture City representatives declined to be interviewed.
Even the man who says he wrote the business plan for the development has doubts.
"At the very beginning I thought it wasn't very plausible," said Wu Zhala, an entrepreneur who runs a national equestrian website. "I'm not very clear what the real business model is. Gambling is forbidden. Tickets and sponsorship are very poor."
But many still hold out hope that China's legislators will have a change of heart about betting.
"This is the aim for the horse industry," said Shi, the breeder's representative. "We don't have other ways to get lots of money from this." ($1=6.1502 Chinese Yuan) ($1=7.7657 Hong Kong Dollars)
(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Clarence Fernandez)