My interlocutor was right. The horses, I've discovered, did not come from Japan or even just across the border from China: they were noble steeds of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The Japanese had rounded the horses up and thought they'd make a useful addition to the pomp and ceremony of the Japanese Occupation of this British colony that had just celebrated its 100th birthday.
But round them up they certainly had to do, according to one of Hong Kong's best jockeys, Canadian Benny Proulx. He described the mayhem on 15th December, the night the Japanese bombed Happy Valley:
Here among the bursting bombs a hundred or so race horses were running wild in the streets. The near-by Jockey Club's stables had been badly bombed and the horses had escaped. They thundered through the avenues, swirled around me, stopping, turning sideways, running back, as bombs and shells burst among them with spouts of dark debris and shrapnel. Blood on their silky coats, straks of blood in their wide staring eyes, heads high in panic, they ran a futile race with death. A horse would suddenly slip and fall, another would balance himself, bewildered and helpless on three legs. Many lay dead in the littered streets.Perhaps, I'd offer, the horse had become deaf from the bombing, and no longer therefore reacted to stimuli like bombs going off.
One stood trembling, still bridled, and with the reins hanging limply from his mouth. I went up to him, but he seemed not to notice me. I started to unbridle him. Fifty feet away, a small shell burst with a high crack of noise and I instinctively ducked my head, but the horse stood motionless. Tossing the bridle away, I lingered for a moment stroking the sweaty back. I left him finally, but as I turned the corner of the next block I glanced back. He still stood there, quite motionless, head down among the rest of the panicky herd - a creature frightened into insanity, but so beautiful that it seemed no bomb could touch him.
There was a dearth of horses though, despite Japan's best efforts to keep racing going during the War years, but according to author Austin Coates it was rigged and dishonest. Eventually they resorted to wooden horses, which didn't exactly set the Hong Kong public's imagination alight. Finally, 4 months before the end of the war, they cancelled racing altogether in April 1945.