The horse whisperer: “It’s natural to ride,” says Lin Lang
Image: Jessie Casson for Forbes
His first encounter with Manchurian entrepreneur Lin Lang was back in 2012. Andrew Birch, head of New Zealand Thoroughbred Marketing, was sitting in his office in Hamilton when a woman walked in off the street. She worked for a local veterinary-supply company, she said, and was making inquiries on behalf of a gentleman in Inner Mongolia keen to import horses from New Zealand.
Birch loaded her up with information, but “the minute she left I had to look on Google Maps to see where Inner Mongolia was”, he says. Within the month, Lang was in New Zealand, and armed with a stud-and-stable directory, he travelled around the country buying 65 horses privately. That was June. In December he was back to buy more.
Since then the chairman and chief executive of Rider Horse Group, which owns China’s largest horse farm, has become one of the most consequential players in New Zealand racing and breeding circles. He’s expanded mainland Chinese interest and investment in the sector, aggressively buying privately and at auction to become the biggest importer of New Zealand horses in China, while bringing wealthy mainland buyers to New Zealand to view what’s on the block. He’s chartered 15 planes since 2012 to transport 1,484 horses. “About 90 percent of our clients buy New Zealand horses,” Lang, 50, says through an interpreter.
Australia remains the top overseas purchaser of New Zealand bloodstock, capturing 70 percent of total exports last season, followed by Hong Kong and Singapore. But China is coming up fast on No 3 and is the industry’s biggest emerging market, says Andrew Seabrook, managing director of New Zealand Bloodstock, a bloodstock-sales leader in Karaka, south Auckland. Last year Chinese buyers made up 5 percent of the buying bench at NZB sales, spending $3.9 million, up from zero six years ago. “We took the first Thoroughbreds up to China in 1993,” he says. “At that time we thought [the market] was going to take off. But it wasn’t until Mr Lang came that it really started to happen.” Following Lang’s first purchase, the Chinese flag was added to the international array at the auction house. “There is no doubt his influence in helping to open the Chinese market has been significant.”
It’s a day’s journey from Rider Horse’s waterfront office in Auckland to the company’s headquarters in the waving grasslands of Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in northern China where a deep cultural affinity for horses goes back thousands of years. In addition to a hotel and a restaurant, the complex includes a 2,000-acre farm with stables, a racetrack and a grandstand, a feed mill, a breeding centre and livestock trading, veterinary and quarantine facilities. It’s also home to Lang’s favourite pets—two wolves and a falcon. His surname has the same pronunciation as wolf in Chinese, giving rise to his widely used English moniker, Mr Wolf.
Equine cubicle life: Lang is the biggest importer of New Zealand horses in China—1,484 so far
Image: Jessie Casson for Forbes
Hailing from Jilin Province, Lang got a job after college working for a state-owned truck maker. “But this was the 1990s in China, and you had this atmosphere,” says Victoria Wang, bloodstock manager at Rider Horse. “A lot of people jumped out of government jobs to start their own businesses.” He launched a number of small ventures; one sold ice cream and another made furniture. He made real money with a hot pot restaurant, which he expanded into a chain of ten (there are four now), reinvesting the profits in property and eventually establishing a riding club to indulge his passion for horses. He began racing half-bloods to compete against other horse owners and have some fun.
In 2006 Lang got a phone call from officials in Khorchin in Inner Mongolia, promising land and subsidies in exchange for shifting the club’s operations there to build up the local equine industry. Today Rider Horse employs 700 people in Khorchin involved with the care and trade of more than 4,500 horses—including 900 Thoroughbreds—and is the largest horse importer and supplier in China. The group also owns a track-and-stables complex in Hunan for year-round training and racing. Rider Horse says it posted $31 million in sales last year, up by 300 percent from four years ago, while net profit has doubled to $6.1 million over the same period.
Lang holds the biggest stake among 21 shareholders. The company became the first in China’s nascent horse sector to receive venture capital, and it’s secured $72 million in five rounds of funding. He has long talked of a public offering on Shenzhen’s ChiNext—though he says the timing still isn’t right—and that would make Rider Horse the country’s only listed equine company. Besides meeting the recreational demand for horses, the company is one of China’s biggest race organisers; horses compete for limited prize money.
After building a small racing team in Khorchin, Lang branched out, buying several horses in the US to race in Macau. Then he turned to New Zealand, with the country’s free-trade agreement with China, an advantageous exchange rate, a ready infrastructure for livestock export and the market’s reputation for quality fuelling his interest. He saw a niche in buying a mix of horses at the bottom end of the market, including Standardbreds and ponies, helping Kiwi breeders offload excess stock while filling the demand for horses in China. Says New Zealand Thoroughbred Marketing’s Birch, “They have certainly cast the net far and wide, and it created a market for stock that might otherwise have been viewed as non-commercial.”
Lang has spent $9.5 million on Kiwi-bred horses since 2012 and leaves his larger purchases in New Zealand to be trained. The watershed was his “very lucky” 2013 auction purchase of an outstanding Thoroughbred named Mongolian Khan for $180,000. Two years later it became the first Chinese-owned racehorse to win an international Group One event and the first horse in nearly 30 years to win both the New Zealand and Australian derbies, drawing cheering spectators from China to the events and raising Lang’s profile at home. He has brought some 190 clients and friends to New Zealand, and one is Zhang Yuesheng, the head of Chinese conglomerate Yulong Investment Group and owner of three horse farms in Australia and a racetrack and stables in China. He’s been a significant investor in New Zealand bloodstock since 2015.
Chinese investment in New Zealand horses has doubled over the past few years, says Alan Fu, managing director of New Zealand Chinese Jockey Club. But this year New Zealand slipped from its position as the second-biggest supplier of horses to China, with Australia coming in at No 2 behind Europe. The primary reason is Australia’s capacity to outspend New Zealand in marketing and sponsorships, he says, but he also cautions that New Zealand has become heavily reliant on Rider Horse. The key is to extend the market, he adds. “We are starting to form relationships with multiple parties and make it more open for Chinese buyers.”
In August, Lang took over a 300-acre horse stud in Hamilton, where he will house some of the 150 Thoroughbreds he keeps in New Zealand. It will also underpin the group’s strategic shift to breeding, where Lang sees the most profit. Rider Horse has just added a third stallion to its lineup in New Zealand and has purchased 110 broodmares to support them. The progeny of now-retired Mongolian Khan will go on sale next month for the first time and are widely expected to be popular.
For the immediate future, Rider Horse’s focus is firmly on New Zealand, but further down the track, the plan is to sell top-selected progeny not only in New Zealand but also in Australia and the northern hemisphere. For Lang, it’s all about the horses. “It’s natural to ride,” says the married father of four, adding, a touch wistfully, that he’s now too busy.
(This story appears in the 15 March, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)