THE HOARSE WHISPERER By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 11 February 2009, Wednesday
Hong Kong Racing, Part 1
Horseracing is one of the most exciting spectacles, wherever in the world it may be found. In Hong Kong, the 124-year old Hong Kong Jockey Club has raised racing to new heights with its operations at its two racecourses – at Happy Valley and Sha Tin racecourses.
Happy Valley is the older of the two tracks and is the place to go “for fun”, as a tour guide in Hong Kong said. Sha Tin is “world-class”.
Since land is at a premium in Hong Kong, stables aren’t single-story barns like they are here or in Australia, the USA, or most other racing nations. Rather, stables are three- or four-story buildings accessed via ramps. They look like mall parking lots.
Multi-storey stables at Sha Tin are accessed via ramps.
All the stables are located at Sha Tin, in the New Territories. That same facility includes an elegant clubhouse; equine hospital; equine pool; forge; and chemical laboratory, one of only four top-class equine labs in the world.
Facade of Sha Tin Racecourse, New Territories
Attention to detail: a horseshoe-shaped drain
Training track at Sha Tin
Hong Kong’s top female apprentice brushes her horse’s tail. The bedding, changed twice a day, is of shredded newspapers.
A curious horse peeks at visitors.
The equine hospital is headed by veterinarian Dr. Lawrence Chan. Since there are no vet schools in Hong Kong, he took his degree in Australia. Dr. Chan pointed out that his hospital has state-of-the art ultrasound equipment; an operating theatre with a large hydraulic table; a gamma ray machine; treadmills to gauge horses’ cardiac health; and an overhead pulley system to transport horses all around the hospital in slings. Surveillance is via a 24-hour CCTV system.
The equine operating theater has a hydraulic table.
Dr. Chan in the recovery room beside the operating theater.
The equine pool is large and very clean. The flooring is of rubberized matting to protect horses’ hooves. After a dip, a trainer may opt for heat treatment for his horse at the adjacent solarium and its bank of infrared lights.
A horse is worked in the equine pool.
After a pool workout, the horse gets an infrared heat treatment in the solarium.
The forge is also high-tech. Several blacksmiths are on duty to create and repair horseshoes, bits, and other metal tack used in riding.
The laboratory, headed by chemist Dr. Terence Wan, contains over US$8 million worth of equipment and is upgraded as often as new equipment is invented. The lab, which monitors equine and urine samples in compliance with the HKJC’s strict rules against horse doping, has received many awards for its accomplishments.
Dr. Terence Wan in the HKJC laboratory.
Dr. Wan, who formerly worked in forensics, instituted several streamlining and safeguarding procedures to ensure the credibility of his lab’s findings so that they are admissible in court. Among his innovations are security cameras that record all lab technicians’ movements during investigation of a sample. When the technicians leave their counter, the cameras guard the samples.
The HKJC lab also has huge vaults where the specimens are stored. Access to these vaults, and to those drawers that hold other chemicals, are strictly regulated, with multiple backup and failsafe systems.
The lab processes equine and human (jockeys’) blood and urine samples, and monitors feeds and supplements as well. Their equipment is so sensitive that they can detect the presence of chemicals in the parts per billion. Samples from all over the world are sent to them for testing.
Dr. Wan points out the difference in samples of horses’ urine held by his assistant Jenny. The lighter-colored sample has had its sediments removed and is now ready for analysis. Dr. Wan says is harder to analyze horses’ urine – “We prefer human urine any day!”
Dr. Wan says their lab, staffed with 43 chemists, is so efficient that they have “never had a false positive”.
The racecourses, both at Happy Valley and Sha Tin, are magnificent. Happy Valley has turf, while Sha Tin has both turf and dirt (which they call an “all-weather surface”). Racing is held only twice a week from September to June – Wednesdays at Happy Valley, and Sundays at Sha Tin. The latter has its own MTR (train) station that makes a detour to the racecourse on racedays only.
Happy Valley’s turf track is nestled in the heart of the city.
Sha Tin’s turf and dirt tracks
With racing revenues at over US$12 billion a year, it is no wonder that the HKJC can afford such world-class facilities. Philippine racing makes P8 billion annually, which could be more if illegal bookie operations were halted. With the limitation in our resources, the most we can do is emulate the best practices we observe in racing abroad, and tailor them to fit our local circumstances. ***
All photos by Jenny Ortuoste, taken with a Nikon D60, basic lens.