When horse-racing was just a matter of course

CHINA'S short flirtation with horse-racing may be over, but ARTHUR HACKER looks back to the days when the sport thrived as the British were granted trading concessions at major mainland ports.

HORSE-RACING has been forbidden in China only eight months after its revival at new racecourses in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. But at the beginning of the century the pastime was ended rather more forcefully.

Beijing then had its own racecourse. It was reported to be the largest in the world at the time. Only when it was burnt down by fanatics of the cult of the Righteous Harmonious Fists in 1900, did the West take the Boxer Rebellion seriously.

According to the Hongkong historian Austin Coates in his fascinating book China Races, about the sport of kings and coolies, the East India Company staged the first English style race-meeting in Macau around 1798-9 at Hak Sha Wan, a black sand beach, about three-quarters of a mile long.

The perfidious British surreptitiously started building a ''road'' in 1802 in Macau which was really a racetrack. Unfortunately it soon became known as Horse Road and its real purpose could not be concealed from the Chinese for long. The Mandarins objected loudly.

''The Horse Road is forever prohibited. We will maintain the Laws immovably as a mountain; positively not the least indulgence will be shown. You must all tremblingly obey! Do not oppose!'' It sounds today a bit like a New China News Agency press release on the Hongkong's new airport.


As Coates points out: ''By this time, of course, the road was built. It was the best road in Macau.'' Today it is called Rua dos Cavaleiros and is near the Luis de Camoes Museum.

In those early days, once a year Hongkong's racing men would ship their horses to Macau for the annual meeting. There were no official races in Hongkong simply because there was no racecourse. However road-racing was a popular sport. It was illegal.

Late at night, to avoid trampling the public to death, the young bloods would gallop wildly down Queen's Road, which was then the only street in Hongkong. There were complaints to the newspapers; but there was not much the police could do to stop them.

Britain and Portugal had a diplomatic row in 1844 and the English were stopped from racing in Macau. So Hongkong decided to have horse-racing of its own and the first official race took place at Pok Fu Lam in 1845. Racing started at Happy Valley a year later.


Whenever a new Treaty port was opened to the West for trade the inevitable racecourse was built: Chefoo, Tientsin, Hankow and the great track at Shanghai. Half this racetrack has been concreted over and is now known as the People's Square. The rest has been turned into a garden called the People's Park. Both are bewilderingly desolate places.

China's latest, short-lived racing renaissance was marred by the fact that betting was not allowed, an echo of 1892 when a Hongkong Governor, Sir William Robinson, banned betting at Happy Valley. Public opinion forced him to back down two years later.


Whether racing itself will be determined as contrary to the spirit of the Basic Law or in breech of the Joint Declaration, only time can tell; but one thing is certain, that a Hongkong without Happy Valley would not be a very happy place.