While racing jurisdictions worldwide have shifted to racing without spectators, as in Australia or at limited tracks in the U.S., or suspending racing altogether as coronavirus spreads, Hong Kong has continued to compete behind closed doors without interruption since January, before the World Health Organization categorized this as a pandemic.
Tom Biddington, racing editor for the South China Morning Post, the largest English newspaper in Hong Kong, said officials’ “bubble of safety” has allowed Sha Tin Racecourse to press on in the tightly packed city of 7.5 million.
“Everyone associated with racing is safe and protected,” said Biddington, who outlined the precautions taken by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Everyone on track premises undergoes temperature checks when entering the facility, and all employees wear masks, with the only exception the jockeys when they race. All are told to limit exposure outside of the track and wash hands frequently.
Currently, there is a travel ban in place. Anyone who leaves Hong Kong must self-isolate for 14 days. This resulted in a few riders axing plans to ride on Dubai World Cup night — a program that since was canceled anyway.
“The Hong Kong Jockey Club has the buy-in of all the participants, and it is in their best interest to keep racing and keep their livelihoods going,” Biddington said. “If they want to continue, that means doing the right thing. That may mean making sacrifices, such as limiting interactions away from the track.”
U.S. tracks advancing safety protocols as well
Tracks in the U.S. also have adjusted to the pandemic by adding additional safety protocols and checks. In New York, NYRA has instituted standard health assessments and temperature checks for access to Belmont Park and closed grounds to ship-in horses, among other safety protocols implemented. Gulfstream, Keeneland, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita and Golden Gate have restricted access and implemented safety protocols as well.
On Friday, racing at Santa Anita was halted because of an order from the LA County Department of Health, but the racing situation at Santa Anita remains fluid.
Hong Kong Handle remains strong
In Hong Kong, as a result of continued racing, betting from off-track sources has continued, “a huge result for racing,” Biddington said. He said handle — called turnover in Hong Kong — is down only 10% for a circuit known for its large crowds.
With 700,000 online accounts open, Hong Kong averages a whopping HK$1.1 billion ($142 million) on Wednesday nights and HK$1.3 billion ($168 million) on Sundays.
Racing is ingrained in the culture, and the Hong Kong Jockey Club is the city’s No. 1 taxpayer, which means it has significant government support. The HKJC pays 75 percent of takeout as a tax to the government, and with the remaining 25%, it is still a leader in charities and other key components of society.
Having soldiered through SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong Jockey Club were quick to react to the outbreak, as Hong Kong borders China. Early on, the Hong Kong Jockey Club enforced a partial lockout for the Lunar Holiday racing, reducing crowds to only 8,000 from the typical 60,000 to 80,000.
Soon after, adjustments were made to allow only key personnel, staff and owners on track, a system in place since February. These limitations, in conjunction with the other precautions, satisfy the government requirements for keeping racing open.
However, Biddington cautioned that if a jockey or trainer tests positive, racing could be shut down for at least 14 days. Recently, jockey Keity Yeung was sick and tested, but fortunately he came back negative.
All these precautions have led to what Biddington called a “new normal” that’s working for Hong Kong — and set an early standard for U.S. tracks to follow.