Reports say, with its small horses and tiny jockeys, racing at Vietnam's only track is a low-key affair receiving high-level attention as officials threaten a crackdown on under-age riders.
"On paper the jockeys say they're 15 or 16, but they're 12 or 13. If you're too young you can't ride, so they have to lie," says Vo Hoang Vi Thanh, 33, whose family has trained racehorses for three generations.
AdvertisementTrainers say young jockeys and small horses have for decades been a mainstay of Phu Tho racetrack in the southern commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, which was set up by a Frenchman in 1932.
Officially, gambling is considered a "social evil" and banned by the communist government but Phu Tho is one of the only places, along with some dog races and the official lottery, where it is allowed.
Illegal gambling on cock fights, underground lotteries and other gaming is nevertheless widespread.
Phu Tho has relied on riders weighing between 30 and 40 kilograms (66-88 pounds) because they are the only ones small enough to mount the ponies, which stand up to 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) at the withers, workers in the industry say.
"We can't keep huge horses. It costs too much money," says Thanh, whose seven racehorses and a brood mare might make him rich in other countries.
In Vietnam they do not.
Vietnam is rapidly industrializing and focused on the future but it remains a largely rural society where horseracing still seems stuck in the past.
Local media cited officials in Ho Chi Minh City talking tough about bringing changes to the industry.
Phan Thanh Minh of the city's labor department was quoted as saying "we cannot let the violation and abuse of children continue."
The department declined to comment when reached by AFP.
State media said labor authorities, along with officials from the local sports department, had formed a joint task force to examine the young jockeys' situation.
Racing has continued in the meantime but all the attention has left trainers nervous about their futures, and defensive of their sport.
"I won't be able to go on. I guess everybody will quit" if authorities enforce a ban on young jockeys, Vo Hoang Vi Thanh says.
Local media reported that almost all of about 850 horses at Phu Tho weigh less than 250 kilograms, about half the weight of horses competing at the Singapore Turf Club, where jockeys weigh more than 50 kilograms.
"To avoid child exploitation in horseracing, organizers will have to import big Thoroughbreds, although this will be expensive," Tran Van Nghia, former chairman of Phu Tho, was quoted as saying by the online English version of Tuoi Tre newspaper.
"But we have to do it if we want to have an international-standard racing industry."
The director of the racetrack did not respond to AFP's queries.
Closed in 1975 after the Vietnam War ended, Phu Tho reopened in 1989 and seems to have changed little since then.
The weekend racecard, where a minimum bet is 10,000 dong (56 cents), draws a mostly Vietnamese crowd of men who squat on large concrete steps that serve as the grandstand as they watch the ponies.
Without the neck-and-neck contests involving large horses that are a feature of major tracks, fewer jockeys are badly injured, one trainer said.
"In bad conditions like rain they'll fall off, but it's not normally dangerous," said Thi Bao An, 30, a stable worker.
There were "many deaths" in the early 1970s, said Nguyen Van Thanh, 53, who rode from the ages of 14 to 16.
Thanh now dismisses concerns over young riders who, he says, take a six-month course and have to earn a certificate.
"They were trained. They have skill," says Thanh, who comes from a long line of teenage jockeys.
"My father, my uncles, my mother's father and my father's father were all jockeys," he says.
Thanh, whose son carried on the jockey tradition, said a good young rider "can support his whole family" with his earnings.
Local media reported that jockeys can earn in excess of two million dong on a race day, a good wage in a country whose per capita income is about 1,000 dollars.
With a Thoroughbred and other large horses among his stable, Nguyen Van Thanh is better placed than other trainers if the industry has to change. But all the talk of a crackdown on an industry which has been his family's life for decades has still left him uneasy.
"Four generations till now, that's been our job."
A crackdown, he says, "makes no sense."
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