The Hong Kong Jockey Club often promotes Hong Kong horse racing as the pride of Hong Kong society. This marketing strategy is supported by some undeniable facts. The G1 races organising by it are widely-recognised, which attract outstanding business corporations to sponsor the prizes sustainably. The quality of its veterinary clinical services is world-class, which has been repeatedly lauded by overseas trainers after they sent their racehorse(s) to compete in Sha Tin racecourse (turf track). Its anti-doping testing is one of the strictest in the horse racing world. Its revenues are enormous to the extent that it can play an influential role in philanthropy. One can seldom find an elite sport institute or a charity organisation comparable to it in Hong Kong.
Yet despite assuming a renowned position in the world of horse racing, the enemies of the HKJC are probably as many as its supporters. For instance, many criticised that it often promotes gambling which is almost equivalent to encourage others addicting to opium, but the controversy is nothing new so that it is not worthwhile to repeat the old arguments here. Nonetheless, another line of criticism lies in the notion of animal rights which increasingly seizes people’s attention and is thus worth more public deliberations.
Hong Kong animal rights activists highlight that the so-called “achievements” of the HKJC are built upon the exploitation of the thoroughbred racehorses, such as acquiescing to trainers’ arrangement of over-intensive training and competition schedules and jockeys’ overuse of whip in the races. In other words, they vexed that racehorses are pushed too harsh for maximising the chance of winning at the expense of their health condition. Meanwhile, they blamed that the legs of racehorses are bred to be excessively thin so that they are injury-prone. Once the racehorses are severely injured in the racecourse or are retired with serious injuries, they have little choice but to receive the so-called “animal euthanasia” involuntarily. They thus insist that horse racing is an inhumane activity and urge to ban it in Hong Kong.
However, most of those criticisms are misguided.
There is no completely objective standard of reasonable training schedule, and it is often difficult to judge whether an injury suffered is a pure sport incident or is attributed to trainers’ or riders’ negligence. The huge weight differences between racehorses and jockeys suggest that more researches are needed to prove that jockeys impose significant pain to racehorses by using whip. Meanwhile, there is also insufficient research finding to support the claim that the legs of racehorses are excessively thin, and the activists are unable to tell the public that what the reasonable thickness for the legs of racehorses is supposed to be in order to prevent them from suffering leg injuries more effectively.
Moreover, imposing “animal euthanasia” is unavoidable if the racehorses had any serious injury that obstructs them having basic healthy life irreversibly, judging by the HKJC veterinary team solely without any intervention from other departments. And the critics of “animal euthanasia” often ignore the historical context that thousands of retired racehorses, if they were abandoned or released to the natural environment by their owner(s), are absorbed by the black market or illegal racing entities every year in some other states.
It is noted that the practices of settling the retired racehorses in Hong Kong are different with that of other states. In the 2000s and early 2010s, most retired racehorses in Hong Kong, except a few who were exported overseas by their owners or were imposed “animal euthanasia” by the HKJC veterinary team, were sent to Beas River Equestrian Centre for rehabilitation and training, given that the veterinarians believed their health and temperament is good enough to receive re-training as some Lead Horses, showjumpers or the like. Many of them either ended up staying at one of three local public riding schools or were sent to New Zealand, Europe and China for equestrian development. Given that the space for settling retired racehorses is limited for recent few years, the HKJC has already required the horse owners to pay the fees for sending their racehorses overseas after their retirement before they were allowed to register in Hong Kong (while the quarantine issue remains in Australia).Therefore, it is counterfactual to criticise that the HKJC is keen to impose “animal euthanasia” to healthy retired racehorses nowadays.
Crucially, there is no guarantee that the welfare of Hong Kong racehorses would be enhanced after the abolition of Hong Kong horse racing. We’re now living in the globalisation era. The racehorse owners can arrange their racehorses to compete in another corner of the world, where is unlikely able to offer as much protection as the HKJC to racehorses, easily.
While many of the activists’ accusations lack enough scientific or factual support at this moment, at least one of their critiques is right. That is, traditional Chinese newspapers reporting overwhelmingly focuses on the odds of races and the trainers’ and jockeys’ perceptions of the performance of racehorses in training. The welfare and detail of injuries of racehorses, unfortunately, is briefly mentioned occasionally. And according to my observation for more than 15 years, the veterinary records of racehorses would be deleted in their official profile webpage soon after they are retired, though some of them could still be assessed via some other pages of the HKJC’s official website. Consequently, it is difficult for the public, especially the beginners, to assess to the relevant information about the welfare of Hong Kong’s retired racehorses in detail. It is thus argued that the HKJC should enhance the transparency and provide more factual responses to media enquiry as soon as possible, given that the issue of animal welfare in horse racing is no longer irrelevant to the public.
Also, it should be noted that, although those Hong Kong racehorses that are retired for health reasons, such as suffering from serious tendon injuries, bleeding or heart irregularities, it’s still legal for their owners to export or sell them to some other states for extending their racing career in principle, and there are some relevant cases of it. It is much worried that their welfare is ill-protected, though there are a few successful stories framing by the traditional Chinese media or by horse owners in social media.
Furthermore, ensuring that the decent healthy retired racehorses are sent overseas does not imply that they must not be killed or be cruelled. Therefore, the HKJC shall be responsible for enhancing the welfare of retired racehorses through purchasing prairie or land to build paddock outside Hong Kong for settling them in the long run. The owners should be imposed the fees not only for sending them overseas after their retirement but also for supporting the post-race live of racehorses before they were allowed to register in Hong Kong. The fees should be refunded only when the owners signed an agreement for arranging their retired racehorse(s) to breed or to retire in some reputable paddocks or in their private pasture, subjecting to scrutiny. In other words, selling their racehorses for non-breeding purposes should not be refunded so as to discourage the owners to evade the responsibility of taking care of them by agreeing on a free transfer or selling it(them) in low price. This arrangement is arguably capable of requiring the owners to bear the responsibility but at the same time defending that they should not be morally blamed solely because of deceiving by their agent(s) who is(are) paid for settling the retired racehorses supposedly (Meanwhile, killing the retired racehorses often fails to contribute to the world significantly. They should not be regarded as a reliable source of meat because quite many of them receive the treatment of analgesics and anabolic steroids in their career, which is adversarial to the health of meat-eaters).
2 September will mark the beginning of new Hong Kong horse racing season. There will be little surprise that the HKJC will re-emphasise on its administrative excellence and the racing competitiveness under its arrangement. However, the old problems remain unsolved, and they would be exacerbated if the loopholes were realised by more principled agents. Nonetheless, if it determined to tackle those problems, then the HKJC would be able to become a true leader of the horse racing world. This will be the true pride of Hong Kong society as well.