The food might not taste so good, but at least the beer is cheap

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am

The horses get the best treatment at Sha Tin. Not only do they live in air-conditioned luxury, they also eat the best meals, tailor-made for them.

While the Hong Kong Jockey Club's 200 stables have taken equine comfort to another level - all 42 countries have been highly impressed by the sophisticated level of hospitality provided - the organisers also allowed the visitors to bring in their own food for the horses.

Team spokesman John Gatfield revealed the Australians brought in specially prepared feed from Down Under, and that was the norm for overseas-based teams.

'It is like some of our athletes taking muesli bars and cereal to Beijing. But it is more so here as the horses are used to a certain kind of diet and we don't change that,' Gatfield said.

Not that the Jockey Club doesn't have the means to provide the horses with the best. But it is the practice in equestrian circles to travel with their own grub.

'We're not providing any horse feed at all,' said John Ridley, the Jockey Club's head of racing operations who is in charge of the venue at Sha Tin.

'Our thoroughbreds eat differently to the equestrian horses and we leave it up to the teams to bring in their own stuff.'

Lucky horses. While they munch contentedly in the lap of luxury - the stables have automatic water dispensers, padded floors and walls and even play rooms - the same cannot be said for the quality of the food dished out for the rest of us involved in this wonderful event.

I can only speak for the cafeteria food which is available to the media on the ground floor of the former Sports Institute.

It might be cheap, but it certainly does not taste good. Even the variety is limited, and mostly catered for the local palate.

In Beijing, colleagues at the media centre are enjoying a multi-ethnic diet which they say is palatable. In Sha Tin, organisers have used a local catering company - which will go unnamed in case they spike my boiled veal sausage and unsavoury mashed potato - whose only saving grace is that every three hours they throw out all the unsold salads, in line with health regulations, they say.

Thank heavens the competitors do not have to tuck in at the cafeteria. Otherwise, riders from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates would have been up in arms at the daily sight of most dishes on offer being liberally garnished with pork.

It is also probably good that Princess Haya bint Al-Hussein, a Muslim, dines away from the Hong Kong hoi-polloi in the upper levels of corporate hospitality. The International Equestrian Federation chief would not be able to choose from the menu downstairs.

But then again, we should be thankful for small mercies. Some in this world eat mud cakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This is the staple food - a mix of dirt, salt and margarine - for families in impoverished Haiti, where the United Nations says people live on less than US$1 per day. There are fears of mass starvation in the next six months.

So complaining is totally out of order. The horses, meanwhile, are happily unaware of the dietary plight that is being faced by their human masters.

They enjoy what goes in - and what comes out is welcomed by the Jockey Club which is living up to Beijing's wish to make this the green Games.

'We are recycling 25 tonnes of stable waste every day,' says Ridley, who has the help of millions of earthworms to do this.

Instead of just dumping all the waste, the Jockey Club has chosen to turn it into fertiliser with the help of a company based in Yuen Long, which uses worms as the catalyst for change.

Eighty million worms at Sunburst Biotechnologies' recycling site, munch their way industriously through all the stable waste. It takes them 28 days to turn 80 tonnes of waste into organic fertiliser which is sold for US$3,500 a tonne to farmers, as well as exported overseas.

What happens is that the waste is first drained and dehydrated of all water before being placed into containers with the worms. They quietly chew through it, turning it into organic fertiliser which sinks to the bottom of the containers, and is collected. The club expects to recycle all of the Olympic waste by the end of this year. The cost of recycling the waste is five per cent more than simply dumping it in a landfill, but Ridley believes the long-term benefit is worth the extra cost.

'We have been looking for an alternative for quite a few years. Now we've got an option. It's all about doing something for the environment,' he said.

So everyone is in harmony - the environment, the worms and the equine family.

We cannot complain too much too, especially as the beer is cheap - just HK$10 per can.

Countries in the equestrian events: 42