Dr Keith Watkins yesterday launched a strong defence of the Hong Kong Jockey Club's veterinary department in the wake of criticism from leading trainer Ivan Allan that Hong Kong racing lacked specialist care for major problems with its horses. Speaking for the first time on the affair, Watkins, the Club's chief veterinary surgeon, said: 'I'm not seeking to get into a slanging match with any trainer. But I am here to talk about the facts of the matter. And the facts are that we have been bringing to Hong Kong experts in the various fields of equine medicine and surgery since the 1970s.' Watkins said he was happy with the care provided by the Club's seven full-time vets and stressed the team nature of his department. 'Someone in the team can do most things,' he said. 'I would say that we can deal with 95 per cent of the work we have, but we are only too aware that there are situations which might require innovative technologies and the services of a specialist. Whenever there has been anything that we have been aware of and haven't been able to tackle, if we have been able to get a specialist we have done so.' While praising the routine veterinary services provided by the Club, Allan hit out earlier this week at the 'unhelpful' attitude of the veterinary department with regard to visiting specialists and said the Jockey Club should have consultant specialists 'readily available when our top horses incur a serious problem and require specialised surgical treatment'. The trainer's comments followed his decision to bring in leading US vet Dr Robert Lewis to perform an operation on Fairy King Prawn, the dual Horse of the Year who has been sidelined with a splint and suspensory problem in his off-foreleg. Allan compared the Jockey Club vets with general practitioners treating human beings, and said: 'We all have family doctors or company doctors but when a serious problem emerges we seek the services of specialists. General practitioners usually refer patients to these specialists. That's all I am asking for our horses.' Dr Peter Schiff, one of Watkins' team, said the Club vets 'have no problem with asking for another opinion. And we often ask leaders in veterinary science for their opinions and we often ask if they will come to perform surgery here when we have a batch of cases. And when they do, we watch and we learn from them'. Watkins said the idea of providing a register of specialists for owners and trainers was unnecessary. 'We have contacts throughout the world,' he said. 'If someone wants to get in touch with a specialist through this department, they have only to ask. We are quite comfortable with having experts brought in. 'When David Hayes first came to Hong Kong, he asked if he could bring Alistair MacLean to perform surgery on his horses. David had been using Alistair in Australia, so at that time he was more comfortable using a leading surgeon he knew. 'These days, David is quite happy to use the vets we have here, but if he or anyone else wants to bring in a vet they know or prefer then that isn't a problem. And if there is a need for specialist work and they don't have anyone in mind then we can help them too.' Allan also complained about the 'blocks and checks' encountered by visiting specialists in gaining official approval to work in Hong Kong. Watkins said he hoped the process could be simplified in the near future. Watkins - a member of the Veterinary Surgeons Board of Hong Kong, the government body which regulates matters such as work permits for visiting experts - said: 'When someone has been practising for some time, it is possible that they have misplaced some of the documents which are requested, qualifications which they might not have to produce regularly. The Board is considering ways in which it can streamline that process.' Watkins added that service of the horses on a quick and regular basis was paramount for his department. 'Our system has an excellent ratio of vet coverage for our 1,200 horses, a hospital on-site and the vet can be in the stable in 15 minutes even outside normal hours,' he said. As a rough comparison, the Emirates Racing Association in Dubai provides 14 vets to service its thoroughbreds, Arabs, endurance, polo and show horses - well over 2,000 animals. 'We have probably got double the horse population of Hong Kong, and we have double the number of vets,' said Les Benton, the ERA's chief executive. 'The situation is not exactly like that in Hong Kong - every racing centre is a little different - but it's fair to say that the coverage would be comparable.'