|Fifteen-year-old jockey Vu Thanh Tu waits before the start of a race at the Phu Tho Racecourse in Ho Chi Minh City.|
The use of underage jockeys might close the only racecourse in Vietnam, involved parties fear, after the illegal practice came under the authoritiesâ scanner recently.
The Ho Chi Minh City Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs on April 29 issued a document recommending that the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism inspect the employment of minors at the Phu Tho Racecourse in District 11.
The labor department said horse owners have hired jockeys between 10 and 17 years of age who are pushed into the âdangerous sportâ after being trained for just a few months.
Although the sports department has taken no action yet, the document has ignited heated debate among authorities, horse owners and the young jockeys.
Horse owners said most of the racehorses are of a small-sized breed that cannot carry heavy jockeys.
According to the Thien Ma Company, organizer of all races at the course, only 10 of around 850 horses are large-sized thoroughbreds, while others weigh less than 250 kilograms.
Owners of small horses have no choice but to hire jockeys under 17 years of age weighing less than 40 kilograms, the company says.
Of nearly 50 jockeys at the course, only 10 are more than 18 years old, and these only ride the 10 bigger horses.
âItâs hard to find a jockey over 18 who weigh less than 38 kilograms,â said one of the trainers. âIf concerned authorities are determined to enforce the working-age law, the racecourse would have to close and more than 800 horses have to shift to pulling carts.â
Nguyen Van Be of Hoc Mon District said his grandchild is a young jockey and it was unfair to say horse owners have abused him.
One 15-year-old jockey said he doesnât know what he would do if he is not allowed to continue with the job.
Le Tien Cong, a horse owner from Hoc Mon District, said enforcing the minimum working age regulation was sad news as it was not possible to find jockeys for their small horses.
âHorse owners would go bankrupt because they are breeding racehorses that cannot race because there are no jockeys,â he said.
Keep children out
Tran Van Nghia, former deputy manager of the racecourse, said the sport is inextricably associated with gambling and is clearly a harmful environment for children.
âWhen I was working here before the  Law on Child Protection, Care and Education, we recognized that we were following outdated practices and lacking humanity in hiring children to work as jockeys,â he said.
He then decided to import two horses for US$200,000 from Hong Kong to improve the quality of the local breed.
However, Nghia admitted that improving the breed was not a truly effective measure to prevent abuse of underage jockeys.
âThe only solution is to import all horses from abroad,â he said. âA common racing horse in Australia costs between $5,000 and $10,000 which is within the reach of horse owners.â
âI totally support the enforcement of laws on child protection. Itâs not the environment for them.
âItâs really dangerous for the children and society, as the underage jockeys will develop improperly, both physically and spiritually.â
He said the enforcement of the law would also help the racecourse develop to international standards.
Huynh Tan Dung, chief inspector of HCMC Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, said horseracing is not considered a type of employment that allows underage workers, as it is different from other sports that allow talented players younger than 18 to participate.
He said underage jockeys would be legal as long as the labor ministry conducts scientific research on the physical and psychological characteristics of children before deciding the issue.
Nguyen Hung, deputy director of HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said horseracing should be considered a special sport to find a workable solution to the underage jockey issue.
Nguyen Ngoc My, director of the Thien Ma Company, said he would hold a meeting on May 9 with horse owners to find a reasonable solution.
âThe labor department is right to consider the issue,â he said. âBut horse racing should be considered a sport that deserves exceptions [on age regulation].â
âWe would require the horse owners not to hire very young jockeys and would hold a training course in July for children who want to be jockeys,â he said, adding that the applicants will be required to have health certificates and the consent of their families.
A HARSH JOB
Around 40 jockeys under 18 years of age weighing less than 40 kilograms have taken turns riding 840 racing horses at the Phu Tho Racecourse.
The jockeys are paid 10 percent of the money organizers pay each horse owner for sending horses to the races, besides rewards from horse owners.
Each jockey can earn between VND2 million ($112.5) and VND4 million ($225) on a race day.
Jockey Mai Thanh Giang, a native of the Mekong Delta province of Long An, says he began working as a jockey in 1993 when he was 14 and weighed 23 kilograms.
He quit the job in 2006 to get married and have children, but years of being a jockey had got him addicted to gambling, and he became soon bankrupt and unemployed.
Two years later, he started tending race horses for VND50,000 ($2.8 a day, sometimes getting the chance to ride one of the big horses in a race.
âThis is a warning for other young people to stay away from this job,â he said.
Experts also say the jockeys have to stay under the maximum bodyweight to help horses run as fast as possible. To do this, they used to sit in narrow containers with a burning candle to sweat and lose weight. However, this method has since been replaced by covering themselves with electric blankets.
In just a few hours, they will lose a few kilograms, but their life span will also be shortened, they add.
Source: Tuoi Tre