Friday, July 15, 2005

Horseplay in Hong Kong and Beijing History

Stephen Vines has written an excellent editorial in today's Standard newspaper about the lack of debate about the value of staging the equestrian events in Hong Kong. It has already been noted in an insightful post by Simon on his blog back on the 12th that there is going to be a likely HK$500 million shortfall between the amount spent on the event and the income from it. Staging Olympics has always been a questionable proposition from an economic standpoint, as Athens discovered last year, but to stage a minor event of little interest to anyone except for a small number of fans surely makes it a very black and white equation that we should not, as Vines suggests, be slapping ourselves on the back over.

My question for pragmatic Hong Kong is this: why are we not solving this cash shortfall the Hong Kong way and simply grant the Hong Kong Jockey Club the monopoly rights to take bets on every event? Ha ha, I suspect my suggestion will not get much airplay. And anyway, who wants to bet on the dressage, possibly the most boring and pointless Olympic event of them all? This quote from Judy Schott, President of the Central Washington Dressage Society:

" Many riders are drawn to dressage because it provides a step-by-step training plan for their horses. The basics are learned in training level, and these basics are used as the building blocks for all other movements. The sport may appear boring, but appeals to people who enjoy studying a discipline that will be a lifetime quest. ItÂ’s impossible to describe; it has to be experienced!"

Thanks Judy, we admire your enthusiasm.

Anyway, this whole issue has arisen because it is said that Beijing is unsuitable for the equestrian events because they pose a health hazard to the animals. Supposing that it is because of the pollution in the air and water, is it not also hazardous to the human competitors? Leaving that aside for the moment, I will share with you an interesting fact I learned from Austin Coates' China Races, which I blogged about a few weeks ago.

You may wonder: all this money in racing in Hong Kong. Yet the members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club spend millions (if not billions) every year on buying new horses, or griffins, from Arabia, New Zealand, Australia or America. Why not set up a breeding facility here or somewhere in China? Well the answer is that the vegetation in China simply won't allow it. No grass will grow anywhere in China that has sufficient calcium to sustain the nutrition necessary for the strong bones of a racehorse. So they can't graze naturally on local grasses, because they'll simply go to seed. They need imported food as well as oats, which is why raising horses in China is totally unfeasible.

Yet it did not stop punters from buying and racing horses for 160 years in all of China's Treaty ports, as well as Beijing. To be specific, the animals raced were generally not horses per se, but rather were ponies from Mongolia, strangely called China ponies. Some British colonials had reservations about the ponies, as can be gathered from the 1894 guide to Hong Kong written by one civil servant named Bruce Shepherd, who commented that "the Chinaman, like his Chinese pony, is treacherous and has a murderous nature, and is not to be trusted." Nevertheless, they were the mainstay of racing all along the China coast for over a century and a half, providing entertainment for all races, whether Chinese, British, or otherwise.

Indeed, the races in Beijing were apparently the best attended of all, some meetings in fact gathering as many as 80,000 in one session, an attendance record unmatched for that era and probably even today. I shall close this blog with a few select quotes from Coates' excellent book about the races in Beijing, or Peking as it was known then to the Cantonese-friendly British:

"The races were [first] held on Thursday, 17 December 1863, on the Anting plain north of the city. All the Ministers, indeed everybody, turned up. Even a missionary was seen. He was in for a shock. The student-interpreters [of the British legation-Ed.] had become very bored with missionaries. One of them had had a horse named after him, Revd Mr. Mitchell, and it raced. Another was called Excommunicated and another Devil. To make it worse, Excommunicated won a race; his rival, well ahead, bolted within yards of the winning post.

But the most interesting feature of the meeting was the dense crowd of Chinese, Mongolians and Tibetans assembled near the winning post, deriving unlimited satisfaction from the riding and the speed of the horses and ponies. Once again in China...the magic of the races, their most extraordinary quality, had completed taken possession. At the following April meeting more than 50,000 people came, the largest gathering yet seen at a China race-meeting. Thus it continued, with ever more and more attending. As was said at the time, the crowds at the Peking races would be beyond the imagination of people in Europe and America. These were the largest race-meetings in the world....The vast throng surrounded [the track], yelling their heads off as the ponies passed, booing lustily at any pony dropping behind, the entire enormous human mass maintaining complete order. There was not a policeman in sight."

Coates impresses on the readers what a profound impact horse-racing had on the Chinese public when first introduced, and what huge numbers turned out for the meetings. Let it never be said again that Beijing never had equestrian events before, and couldn't have done it without Hong Kong's help!


I am sorry - I must add a bizarre story I have just received about a new form of robot camel racing in Qatar. I am sure that neither the members of the IOC nor the founders of racing on the China Coast would have approved.

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