Friday, December 30, 2011

Hong Kong 3: Drug Rules and Horse Care

When it comes to drug use, Hong Kong is one of the strictest racing jurisdictions in the world. No medications are allowed. Period. And some drugs -- Lasix, for example -- can't even be used in training.

At the same time, Hong Kong is among the most transparent jurisdictions regarding the physical condition of horses entered in races. The Hong Kong Jockey Club's web site has a link to complete veterinary information for every horse entered in every race, and in far more detail than is available to US bettors. For example, a look at Sunday's upcoming card at Sha Tin shows reports on which horses showed up lame after a race, which had fevers, which showed mucus or traces of blood in the trachea, which ones had fractured bones, which ones had suspensory injuries, and much more. I'm not sure whether all that information would actually help a bettor, though I find it valuable in explaining layoff lines, but it can't hurt.

Hong Kong, of course, has many inherent advantages over the US when it comes to regulating drugs. As I mentioned in the first of these posts, the Hong Kong Jockey Club is racing's sole regulator, enforcer, operator, and virtually sole employer. All the vets work for the Jockey Club, as do all the grooms. No trainers with private vets to make everyone suspicious. That makes things a lot easier to police. And the HKJC's drug testing lab, with a professional staff of 40, is a match for just about any of the labs in the US. Given the small number of racing days, Hong Kong almost certainly tests a higher proportion of horses than any US jurisdiction. It's not just the winners and a few random horses from each race that are tested, but also any horse that, in the opinion of the stewards, fails to perform to expectations.

Another advantage Hong Kong has in being able to ensure clean racing is that it screens horses before they can be imported into the jurisdiction. Once a member of the Jockey Club wins the annual lottery giving him or her the right to import a horse, that owner has to secure the Jockey Club's approval for the actual import. That screening process keeps out unsound horses and tends to insure a homogeneous, competitive supply of horses in the barns.

A further advantage is that older horses have a guaranteed retirement option; they don't have to be held together with drugs and tape while they slide down the claiming ladder. The Jockey Club requires each owner to post a HK$40,000 (US$5,000) deposit when the owner imports a horse. If the owner can arrange a confirmed retirement placing for the horse, the deposit is refunded. If not, the Jockey Club adds some of its own funds and itself arranges for retraining of the horse and finding a new career for it in China. In some cases, the Jockey Club will pay as much as another HK$80,000 on top of the owner's deposit. It's a great plan, and not just because it has the ancillary effect of reducing drug use in older horses. The US could do well to emulate such a plan, with mandatory contributions toward retirement by each thoroughbred's breeder and each subsequent owner.

Still, even with all these advantages, Hong Kong race horses aren't paragons of health. The incidence of actual bleeding during or immediately after a race is very high by world standards -- 4.6 per 1,000 runners. That compares to 2.0 per thousand in the US before widespread use of Lasix and only 0.7 per thousand currently. Dr. Brian Stewart of the Hong Kong Jockey Club attributes the high rate primarily to pollution and high humidity in an urban training environment. And, interestingly, there's less bleeding at the evening meetings at Happy Valley, when temperatures and humidity tend to be lower. Horses also tend to lose weight on the van trip over to Happy Valley from their barns at Sha Tin. I can understand that; I'm sure I lose weight just through stress and fear every time I take a long taxi ride in Hong Kong. Dr. Stewart's full report on bleeding at Hong Kong tracks can be found here.

Some of the pollution problem -- and Hong Kong is certainly a lot more polluted than New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, thanks both to too many cars on the road and to industrial pollution blowing over from China -- may be alleviated in a couple of years when the Jockey Club opens its Conghua training center in China, about three hours' drive from Hong Kong. The training center will have room for 400 horses, allowing them to be rotated out of the crowded racetrack training environment at Sha Tin, and will have a mile and a quarter turf course, a six-furlong uphill turf gallop and two synthetic training tracks, as well as swimming pools and turn-out paddocks. I can feel the envy of those who train even at Fair Hill or Saratoga, much less Belmont and Aqueduct.  In any event, getting horses out of Hong Kong for a part of each season should help the bleeding problem.

Part of the opposition to Lasix on the part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club is based on their vets' firm belief that Lasix is a masking agent for some other drugs. That's a belief that most US equine vets strongly reject; the US lab chiefs say that their testing has advanced to the point where Lasix is no longer effective in hiding other drug use. That's a scientific argument that I don't have the knowledge to have an opinion on, and one, I suspect, that will remain unresolved.

Could the US go to a racing environment that's as drug-free as Hong Kong's? Should it? After all, Hong Kong has an incidence of serious bleeding that's more than six times as high as that in the US. But those are questions for another day. For now, with only one or two more trips to the racetrack left before we return to New York, I'm just content to enjoy the high-quality racing and the spectacular customer service in Hong Kong.

See you at Aqueduct.

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