[SCMP Column] Conghua horses

September 08, 2018

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, which not only clustered many of the great and good, but also occasionally addressed fascinating topics.

One such agenda item was tabled by Henry Tang, former Chief Executive aspirant now perfecting a very low profile. He began by complaining that the limited space available in Hong Kong for stabling racehorses meant that he was limited to owning 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 race horses across the boundary in Shenzhen, which would deepen and enrich the pool of equestrian talent in Hong Kong, and allow him to own more horses.

After 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 over 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, Henry Tang must be a very happy man. The Jockey Club’s opening of the HK$3bn 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, head of Information Technology and Sustainability, notes that Conghua whas been “a monumental project for the club and a big step for Hong Kong racing.”

After two lacklustre seasons, and a worry that Hong Kong’s millennials have less passion for the races than our older generation, fresh impetus is obviously needed. Hong Kong it is without question among the world’s leading horse-racing economies, and is keen to stay that way. With Jockey Club turnover last season of HK$234bn, it remains Hong Kong’s biggest taxpayer (HK$22.6bn), by far the biggest charitable donor (HK$4.2bn), and employer of over 24,000 people.

The Conghua project has involved cooperation between more than 20 government agencies on the Mainland and Hong Kong, and began not with Henry Tang, but with the Jockey Club’s support for equestrian events in China’s 2008 Olympics, and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games.

For those in Hong Kong wringing their hands over the concessions involved in letting Mainland Chinese officials operate on Hong Kong soil at the new High Speed Rail terminus in Tsim Sha Tsui, this pales in comparison with the concessions given by Mainland officials in support of what racing journalist Noel Prentice called “a cross between Andorra and Alcatraz”.

To allow Hong Kong race horses, currently numbering around 1,200, to stable and train in Conghua, and commute 200km to race in Hong Kong, Beijing has had to create China’s first-ever EDFZ – Equine Disease-free Zone. Obviously, Deng Xiaoping’s creation of Special Economic Zones gave them good practice.

Apart from 10-foot-high fences with electric wire atop, bio-security gates, air locks, disinfectant washes and human screening, no Chinese horses are to be allowed within a 5km radius of Conghua. 1,600 security cameras monitor movement 24 hours a day.

Horses travelling from Conghua to race in Hong Kong, and returning after, will travel in convoys of 4 to 5 specially-designed “floats”. Each horse must have cross-boundary permits, health certificates and entry-exit declarations.

With an estimated HK$100m of precious equine cargo aboard – officially called VIAs, or Very Important Animals – the convoys will be scanned (in case of contraband), sealed (with grooms accompanying each horse) and then GPS monitored along the entire route – with seven check points and security vehicles front and rear. No scruffy Mainland horses will be allowed within 1km of the convoy route.

When fully in operation, Conghua will house around 640 horses, boosting to 1,800 the total of horses available to compete in Hong Kong’s 88-race 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 at least 25 on the Mainland.

After just two racing days 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 2nd, one 3rd, one 4th and one 5th, which by expert accounts is a strong showing.

All this has been achieved while China itself still forbids horse racing. However, one aerial glimpse of the Conghua facility shows clearly that it is simply begging for the chance to host races. It really is a state-of-the-art facility. It already has a Parade Ring. All it lacks is spectator stands.

But Tony Kelly, the club’s executive director of racing business and operation remains inscrutable: “Having a site in mainland China gives us a position maybe for the future. At this stage of the game this is just a training centre. No one in the club talks about this as anything other than training centre.”

And if reports from the Shatin training facility are to be believed, the Conghua opening comes not a moment too soon. Three of the Shatin stable blocks are said to be in very poor condition, some having sunk more than 1.5 metres since being built on reclaimed land 35 years ago. Conghua will allow some serious upgrading to occur at Shatin.

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 many dancers 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. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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