How ‘one country, two systems’ is benefiting Hong Kong horse racing, of all things

David Dodwell says cross-border collaboration can pay off. A recent success story is the opening of the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s training centre across the border, which was made possible by concessions from mainland officials

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 7:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 8:33am

Once upon a time, I used to spend interminable hours sitting in large conference rooms in the Government Secretariat on Lower Albert Road in a variety of advisory bodies. By far the most interesting was a business advisory group chaired by the now-Stanley resident, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, which not only gathered many of the great and good, but also occasionally addressed fascinating topics.

One such agenda item was tabled by Henry Tang Ying-yen, the former aspirant chief executive now keeping a very low profile. He began by complaining that the limited space available in Hong Kong for stabling racehorses meant that he could own just two horses.

He paused to let most in the room splutter into their tea, then pressed on: he wanted the government to stable Hong Kong racehorses across the border in Shenzhen, which would deepen and enrich the pool of equestrian talent in Hong Kong, and allow him to own more horses.

After a short debate, the idea was shot down. The most potent objection was not the massive cross-border challenge of protecting Hong Kong’s pampered and expensive horses from a wide range of equine diseases lurking on the mainland. Rather, it was a richly flippant debate about whether the horses would be allowed right of abode in Hong Kong – a very controversial issue for Hong Kong’s human population at the time.

But today, two decades later, Tang must be a very happy man. The Jockey Club’s opening of the HK$3.7 billion (US$470 million) Conghua equine training facility close to Guangzhou last week is the culmination of more than two decades of astonishing, patient collaboration.

With no understatement, Chris Ganswindt, the club’s head of information technology and sustainability, said Conghua had been “a monumental project for the club”.

After two lacklustre seasons, and amid worries that Hong Kong’s millennials have less passion for the races than our older generation, fresh impetus is obviously needed. Hong Kong is, without question, among the world’s leading horse racing economies, and is keen to stay that way.

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With a turnover last season of HK$234 billion, the Jockey Club remains Hong Kong’s biggest taxpayer (HK$22.6 billion) and biggest charitable donor by far (HK$4.2 billion), as well as an employer of over 24,000 people.

The Conghua project has involved cooperation between myriad government agencies on the mainland and Hong Kong, and began not with Tang, but with the Jockey Club’s support for equestrian events in the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games.

For those in Hong Kong wringing their hands over the concessions involved in letting mainland officials operate on Hong Kong soil at the new West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus, this pales in comparison with the concessions made by mainland officials in support of what the Post’s Sports Editor Noel Prentice called “a cross between Andorra and Alcatraz”.

To allow Hong Kong racehorses, currently numbering around 1,200, to stable and train in Conghua, then travel 200km to race in Hong Kong, Beijing has had to create China’s first-ever equine disease-free zone. Obviously, mainland officials got good practice with Deng Xiaoping’s creation of special economic zones.

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With electric fences, biosecurity gates, air locks, disinfectant washes and human screening, no Chinese horses are to be allowed within a 5km radius of Conghua. Some 1,600 security cameras monitor movement around the facility 24 hours a day.

Horses commuting from Conghua to Hong Kong to race will travel in convoys of four to five specially designed floats. The horses must have cross-border permits, health certificates and entry-exit declarations.

With an estimated HK$100 million of precious equine cargo aboard – officially called VIAs, or very important animals – the convoys will be scanned (for contraband), sealed (with grooms accompanying each horse) and then GPS-monitored along the entire route. No scruffy mainland horses will be allowed within 1km of the convoy route.

When fully in operation, Conghua will house around 600 horses, meaning a total of 1,800 horses will be available to compete in Hong Kong’s 88-meeting season. For now, only nine of Hong Kong’s 22 trainers are being allowed to set up in Conghua – they have to be stabling at least 55 horses at present, and must house 25 on the mainland.

This season, the Conghua horses seem to have left the starting gates in fine form. Out of seven that raced at Happy Valley on Wednesday, one scratched and just one came last. In their various races, one came in first, one second, one third, one fourth and one fifth, which by expert accounts is a strong showing.

All this has been achieved while China itself still forbids horse racing. However, to catch an aerial glimpse of the Conghua facility is to see that it is begging to host races. It really is a state-of-the-art facility. It already has a parade ring. All it lacks is spectator stands. Already, the Jockey Club is planning to hold showcase races – with no betting – at Conghua next year.

And if reports from the Sha Tin training facility are to be believed, the Conghua opening comes not a moment too soon. Three of the Sha Tin stable blocks are said to be in very poor condition, and some have sunk more than 1.5 metres since being built on reclaimed land in the 1970s. Conghua will allow some serious upgrading to occur at Sha Tin.

I sense that Deng Xiaoping would be pleased. Before the handover, he promised: “Horses will still run, stocks will still sizzle, dancers will still dance.” I don’t see much sizzling in the stock market of late, nor much dancing, but his successors have made sure the horses will still run – and in style.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view