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Hong Kong’s night races gallop on… without the fans

Hong Kong’s night races gallop on… without the fans

But during the coronavirus pandemic, the day of the race seems quite different.
When the bell rings and the horses detach themselves from the starting gates, there is a strange silence where there is generally cheering and shouting.
There are no crowds of spectators. Only staff, coaches, jockeys, owners and club officials are allowed on site.

Without the usual roar of the stands, I can clearly hear the horses’ hooves hammering the grass track while the jockeys howl to point them.

This is what social distancing looks like during races.

“It’s surreal,” concedes Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, while we overlook the empty stands.

“But if you look at the importance of horse racing in Hong Kong, where 30% of the adult population follows horse racing, where we have 1.5 million racing fans and every Wednesday night we have at least seven to eight hundred thousand people who are now still sitting in front of the television and feeling entertained.

“And that is why we think it is important to continue the tradition and to continue horse racing.”

Hong Kong's night races gallop on... without the fans
Hong Kong’s night races gallop on… without the fans

A changing landscape

The COVID-19 epidemic has transformed the sport landscape in the Asia-Pacific region.

Due to coronavirus issues, the Hong Kong and Singapore stages of the World Rugby Sevens series have been delayed until October. Formula 1 canceled the Australian Grand Prix and rescheduled its races in Bahrain, China and Vietnam. Formula E races, golf and tennis were also lost.

But in Hong Kong, racing is galloping with strict precautions in place.

Everyone is subject to a temperature control before entry, face masks are mandatory and the course is regularly disinfected.

In late February, a member of the Hong Kong Jockey Club who used his clubhouse tested positive for the virus. The Happy Valley clubhouse, located approximately one mile from the race course, was closed for two weeks.
READ: Kentucky Derby postponed to September due to coronavirus outbreak

“Entertained and employed”

The club’s off-course betting agencies remain closed, but locals can still place their bets online.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club has a government monopoly on games of chance. It indicates that up to 700,000 people use online channels to place their bets. This represents almost 10% of the city’s total population.

Its weekly horse racing meeting is one of the city’s biggest producers of money. The turnover of the last “Happy Wednesday” without fans in the stands was nearly 145 million dollars (1.1 billion HKD), against 162 million dollars (1.3 billion HKD) a year ago year. The club says the difference is due to the drop in cash customers who prefer to place their bets in one of its 100 off-piste betting centers.

When the Hong Kong Jockey Club contributes 1.3% to Hong Kong’s GDP, there is literally a lot to do on the races. But South China Morning Post race editor Tom Biddington said the decision to continue racing during the epidemic went beyond the results.

“One of the other important aspects is to entertain and keep employees,” says Biddington.

“(The Hong Kong Jockey Club) is Hong Kong’s biggest taxpayer. It employs more than 20,000 people. It has 700,000 fans in terms of betting accounts and it does a lot. It’s not just a matter of money. ”

Hong Kong's night races gallop on... without the fans
Hong Kong’s night races gallop on… without the fans

As a sport, running is in a unique position as it can continue behind closed doors and, in so doing, become a symbol for a city that has been fighting the virus since January.

“It is the uniqueness of Hong Kong and its resilience to face and overcome difficulties,” says Engelbrecht-Bresges.

“And it’s a Hong Kong spirit. And the Hong Kong race is a symbol of Hong Kong.”

COVID-2019 could ward off roaring spectators. But every Wednesday in the city, the races continue and the bettors continue to bet.

Crowd or no crowd, the Happy Valley ritual since 1973 continues.

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