Virus-hit Hong Kong racing gallops on behind closed doors

Daniel HICKS
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It was a surreal meeting at Sha Tin in front of just 307 spectators, made up entirely of owners and guests, with only the horses not wearing masks

The bell sounds as 11 runners in the Gold Cup break from the stalls at Hong Kong's famous Sha Tin racecourse.

But there is no customary roar from 30,000 excited punters lining the home straight. This year the grandstands are empty.

Welcome to horse racing behind closed doors, the latest sporting victim of the coronavirus outbreak.

"It is extremely important to continue," declared Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, wearing a facemask as he spoke.

The city's most famous sports event, April's Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, was forced into submission last week and postponed until October but Engelbrecht-Bresges insisted the racing show had to go on.

Nevertheless it was a surreal meeting at Sha Tin in front of just 307 spectators, made up entirely of owners and guests.

Only the horses were mask-free. Jockeys quickly grabbed protective gear once back in the weighing room. And in the deserted betting halls windows were shuttered. The usually bustling bars were closed.

"If you take this (racing) away you take the city's favourite pastime away," said Engelbrecht-Bresges. "The social impact of racing in Hong Kong -- there's nowhere in the world that's similar."

The COVID-19 virus has killed more than 1,700 people and cut a swathe through Asia's sporting calendar.

Events from the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai to leading golf tournaments in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia have been cancelled.

But racing, fanatically followed in Hong Kong, is standing firm, albeit under lockdown at the city's two tracks -- Sha Tin and Happy Valley, which lie eerily quiet.

Racing is such a part of the city's DNA that it is estimated that more than 10 percent of the city's seven million population hold an HKJC betting account enabling wagers online or via telephone.

- 'It's no problem' -

The raceday shutout, instigated as part of efforts to contain the deadly coronavirus outbreak, follows the indefinite closure of all HKJC's 101 off-course betting branches.

"It is important that we contain the (virus) risk, but we are still able to offer entertainment for the 600,000 to 700,000 who have betting accounts and watch TV," Engelbrecht-Bresges told AFP.

He said that turnover for Sunday's meeting was HK$1.181 billion (US$150 million), down about HK$400 million from last year.

"But this is what we expected. Some people are wondering can we stomach a 25 percent decrease in turnover. It's absolutely no problem," he said.

"Maybe our bottom line (for the season) drops a billion dollars. That's for us, nothing," added the CEO.

"It is important that here we contain the risk by having only 300 people here, but we are still able to offer entertainment for 600,000 to 700,000 people: they buy their form book they study the day before, they're glued to the TV."

Engelbrecht-Bresges said that calling off racing would create more problems than it solved.

"It's really not a revenue issue. I think if you would suspend racing, jockeys would leave.

"And you have to still take care of those horses. You have 1,300 owners who have horses in training. They still have to pay their bills."

Trainer John Moore, who saddled Beauty Generation to win the Group One Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Cup on Sunday, said it was vital to carry on.

- 'Winning is winning' -

"The Jockey Club's done a great job," he told AFP.

"We didn't miss out on any races and that includes the Group One today which is very important," added Moore, whose goal is to take Beauty Generation to next month's prestigious Dubai World Cup meeting, where millions of dollars are on offer.

"This horse has to have racing, not only to get him fit but to get him focused, so congratulations to the club."

Winning jockey Zac Purton even seemed to be enjoying the lack of atmosphere.

"Oh, it wouldn't worry me if no one was here,' Said the Australian. "Winning a Group One is winning a Group One."

"It is a shame racing is going through hard times," said Tony Cruz, who trained Time Warp to win the Gold Cup on Sunday. "But I'm sure it will recover."