Land row leaves racehorses starving

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am

Horses have become the losers in a Hong Kong businessman's bet on the mainland legalising racetrack gambling.

More than 30 horses have died of starvation at a Beijing racing club, where a large number of thoroughbreds were seen in a severely malnourished condition last month.

The Beijing Jockey Club, the biggest horse racing and thoroughbred breeding facility on the mainland when it opened in 2003, looked run-down yesterday. Feed and stacked hay were present, but some horses still looked extremely thin with the contours of their ribcages and hind quarters clearly visible.

Club operator Kevin Connolly said the horses were starved in August and September because of a blockade staged by local villagers over a land dispute. The villagers blocked the two main gates to the 160-hectare facility with a mud trench, bicycles and chains, preventing staff and feed deliveries getting in.

The club's tight operating budget meant that feed is brought in monthly, so there were no stores to last through the blockade, he said.

'We are now trying to bring the horses back [to health],' said Connolly, an Irish trainer who was hired to run the club. But some of the weaker horses had died from their ordeal.

'We are trying our best. Genuinely, it wasn't our fault,' he said. 'I love horses; they are my life. You can imagine how I felt about that.'

The club was closed down in 2005 for alleged gambling on site. But Connolly said it had 1,750 thoroughbreds, and new mares were still imported for breeding. The club's owner, Y. P. Cheng, has kept the facility running because he still expects the central government to eventually lift the ban on horse-race betting.

Cheng is investing tens of millions of yuan per year in the club, according to Connolly, with each horse costing 4,000 yuan (HK$4,550) per month to maintain. Cheng could not be reached for comment yesterday.

At its launch, the club attracted international media coverage as being the biggest and most professional racing club on the mainland, with jockeys and horses coming from first-tier equestrian countries.

It made headlines again when it reportedly put down 500 horses in late 2005 after the shutdown. Connolly said yesterday the number was between 120 and 150, and that the culling was in line with international practices, as the horses were injured, weak or could not reproduce.

The blockade began in protest at what Neijunzhuang villagers claim to be an unfair land grab. The village signed a 30-year lease with the club in 1997, at 2,250 yuan per hectare, according to mainland media. But the land, near Songzhuang on the eastern outskirts of Beijing, has risen in value to over 6,000 yuan per hectare.

One witness to the blockade said the villagers guarded the two gates around the clock, with two shifts of about 30 villagers each.

Police were called in but said they could not interfere if there wasn't an element of violence, Connelly said.

A Neijunzhuang villager who gave his surname as Li said the villagers ended the blockade days before National Day because local officials asked them to show solidarity for the 60th anniversary celebrations.

Whatever the reason for the dispute, animal rights groups said starving the horses was inexcusable.

'If there was ... any reason why the animals couldn't be cared for properly, it is the responsibility of the owners to take necessary action, such as legal action, to reduce the damage,' said Dr Kati Loeffler, veterinary adviser to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. 'The tragedy is, if this was Hong Kong, Europe, Australia, or anywhere with strong welfare laws, this could not have happened.'

Mainland authorities are reluctant to introduce an animal welfare law despite calls from animal lovers for more than a decade.