I am a sucker for animal pictures so it was nice to see a local horse get into the news last week. The horse concerned goes by the name of Hong Kong Bet, which is a pretty ugly name even by racehorse standards, so I shall call him HB.

HB has a handsome and intelligent face. A third of him is owned by Junius Ho, who has achieved a certain notoriety by public utterances which seemed to welcome – indeed sometimes to urge – a bout of vigilante violence as a solution to Hong Kong’s public order problems.

Junius Ho Hong Kong Bet
Junius Ho and Hong Kong Bet. Photo: Junius Ho.

Some readers are probably thinking at this point that it is easy to look handsome and intelligent if the only other person in the picture is Junius Ho. Shame on you.

The story which propelled Junius and HB onto the news pages concerned a race meeting. HB was booked to run in one of the races. This was noted and commented on in resistance circles. This, in turn, worried the Jockey Club, which organises the race meetings here. Would the meeting attract a large and hostile crowd, leading to another performance of the nightly teargas festival?

Or would there be attempts to spook the horses? Racehorses have been inbred for centuries. They are notoriously nervous.

The Jockey Club responded first by moving the race with HB in it to the beginning of the meeting. There may have been a hope that Mr Ho and his fellow-owners would take the hint and withdraw their horse from contention.

This did not happen. After further thought, the club then decided to cancel the whole meeting.

Happy Valley racecourse
File photo: Jockey Club.

No doubt this was disappointing to some people. I was not terribly impressed by the complaint offered by Mr Apollo Ng, an owner of several racehorses, that the cancellation had cost HK$100 million in tax revenue and HK$50 million in charitable donations. This money does not come from nowhere. Another way of looking at it is that the cancellation saved gullible punters HK$150 million which they would have blown on slow horses.

Another commentator – the cancellation of a race meeting is a big story in some circles, you will gather – suggested that the Jockey Club should “examine the social atmosphere before approving a horse’s application in joining a race”.

This is an interesting idea but I am not sure it would work in practice. Owning a racehorse is an expensive enterprise. Can they add a political test before the owned animal is allowed to run?

Anyway, these are matters which we can leave to the racing fraternity, of whom I am not one.

Sha Tin Racecourse
File photo: Hong Kong Jockey Club.

What I found surprising was the take on the matter from Mr Ho, who generated a fine head of steam over the idea that the cancellation was unfair to HB.

“The horse is innocent,” he said. “We can’t deprive [HB] of his right to gallop. We talk about human rights every day. Animals have their basic rights too.”

“I reiterate: Hong Kong Bet is innocent. Loving the country and Hong Kong is not a crime.”

Well nobody is suggesting that HB is the target of possible protests because he loves the country and Hong Kong. As a horse he is clearly innocent in that sense. Nobody supposes that he has political opinions, correct or otherwise.

I thought, though, that Mr Ho was getting onto dangerous territory in suggesting that animal rights should be respected and this was a violation of them.

Junius Ho Kwan-yiu
File photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Consider the process which eventually delivered HB to the tender clutches of the Jockey Club and his three joint owners. Firstly he is the product of the centuries of in-breeding, with consequences which we will come to in a moment.

Then he had to survive a test of suitability for high-speed racing, which has a pass rate of about 25 per cent. What happens to those who fail? Cat food.

Then, in order to prepare him for his role in increasing Mr Ho’s social prestige, they cut his balls off. He was then transported several thousand miles from his home (he was born in Australia) to Hong Kong, where he lives in a box (albeit – eat your hearts out, subdivided flat dwellers – an air-conditioned one) from which he emerges only occasionally for a run… with a person on his back.

You might think that running for a few furlongs was a riskless activity but not for racehorses. It is an unnatural behaviour and sometimes produces spontaneous bleeding in the lungs.

Also, the centuries of in-breeding with an emphasis on the need for speed has resulted in a type of horse which has highly developed muscles and a lightweight fragile skeleton. As a result racehorses “break down” fairly often with stress fractures or other injuries of the legs.

horse racehorse jockey club
File photo: Pixabay.

The usual treatment for these injuries is a bullet in the head. The polite explanation for this is that although – of course – a horse is perfectly capable of standing on three legs, if the same leg is disabled for a long time then the other one at that end of the horse has to support twice as much weight, and sometimes collapses under the strain.

Cynics will note that almost all racehorses are insured against death. Insurance against injuries causing inability to continue a racing career is more expensive and much rarer.

The incidence of terminal injuries among racehorses in Hong Kong is quite low by international standards: 1.68 per 1,000 horse/starts in 2018.  It doesn’t sound very much but it adds up. In the US, where there are a lot of racetracks, two racehorses die a day, on average. This is an avoidable risk and HB will avoid it for a while because he is apparently not going to race again until “the current unrest has come to an end”.

Meanwhile, Mr Ho needs to get with the animal rights programme: animal rights means the animal should be allowed to live in the circumstances and lifestyle for which nature has equipped it. Horses in the wild walk 20-30 kilometres a day at a leisurely pace while grazing. They do not voluntarily carry other animals.

File photo: Stanley Leung/HKFP.

If HB has rights it is a right to be left to roam on some grassy prairie, not the right to be galloped to death so that his owners can cut a dash round the Happy Valley Members’ Bar.

Some American states are now mulling proposals to ban horse racing altogether as an unnecessary example of animal abuse. This will not happen any time soon in Hong Kong. The Jockey Club’s charitable generosity extends to animal welfare organisations, which are in consequence not terribly interested in the welfare of racehorses.

Still, I think the less racehorse owners say about animal welfare the better.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.