A closer look at the Hong Kong model, breakdowns, Lasix

Hong Kong racing is frequently cited as a model for US racing to follow because race-day furosemide is not permitted and breakdown rates are among the lowest in the world. Joe Drape, the New York Times racing writer, once tweeted: “Not complex: In Hong Kong, over past 5 years, only 8 deaths among 45,000, 1 per 5,692 starters vs. 2.14 per 1,000 here. Why? No drugs..”

Is it really that simple? No, it never is, is it?

Drape’s “No drugs” answer to his own question is only part of the story, and the entire story is much more complex and nuanced than Drape lets on if he knows the nuts and bolts of racing in Hong Kong. First off, racing is highly regulated in Hong Kong, and horses are imported from other countries because a local breeding industry doesn’t exist there. Horse ownership is also limited to members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) and is as closely monitored as the runners that are imported.

Import requirements for horses are extraordinarily strict to protect the interests of the Jockey Club members, and most horses imported are geldings with a history of soundness of limb and wind. Before being allowed in, prospective imports are put through a series of rigorous veterinary examinations that would be unheard of here. The HKJC’s “The Veterinary Protocol for the Examination of Racehorses for Importation Into Hong Kong” lists, for example, a grading system for endoscopic exams for exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) that is specifically designed to keep “bleeders” out.  The EIPH ratings range from Grade 0 to Grade 4, with epistaxis, or bleeding through the nostrils, the worst rating after Grade 4. Horses that are graded Grade 0 must have “No blood detected in the pharynx, larynx, trachea or main stem bronchi,” while Grade 4 horses are those with “coalescing streams of blood covering more than 90% of the tracheal surface.” The HKJC will not allow the importation of any horse that has exhibited epistaxis, as well as those that are Grades 3-4, conditions only detectable through an endoscopic exam and the types that are treated by Lasix (Salix) here.

Similarly stringent examinations for musculoskeletal abnormalities, soft tissue issues, and internal organs are in place as well. In short, only the soundest specimens are imported, and they are raced on turf, not dirt—the primary racing surface in this country. Moreover, in Hong Kong few 2-year-old races are contested, the Hong Kong Derby is for 4-year-olds, and most of these imported horses have been allowed to mature and are older geldings. Intact horses and mares are rare because a breeding industry doesn’t exist for their future.

Hong Kong racing isn’t just about “No drugs,” it’s about an entirely different paradigm. Using the drugs/breakdown comparison alone with Hong Kong is a nifty camera trick to further an illusion and an agenda, but it’s not feasible to follow the Hong Kong model willy-nilly. Instead, we need to develop protocols here that are germane to US racing and breeding, and some of this involves examining medication, breeding stock, and track surfaces.

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8 thoughts on “A closer look at the Hong Kong model, breakdowns, Lasix”

  1. Great article! The best part is the author states “protocols here that are germane to US racing and breeding”

    As Nick Zito once said we are american we don’t run on turf and we don’t wanna learn how to run on turf.

    I think the biggest thing we could do is make it mandatory that the two-year old season cannot begin till September. We also have to increase the purses of older-horse races while keeping the purses of two-year old and three-year old races stagnant.

    We cannot violate the simple laws of economics and human nature yet expect to be successful.

  2. Great article Sid,
    Everybody mentions “agendas” in the lasix debate. It’s an overreaction to the new era of transparency that many of us welcome and believe long overdue in our sport. The best “dodge” to direct questions that we don’t want to answer, because of being exposed is to raise the topic of “agendas”. Its the current ploy but transparency will end it’s reign as well.

  3. When buying a reasonably priced horse in Australia we do similar Vet checks who wouldnt. But we regularly send bleeders to the US to race out their careers

    1. Greg:
      With all due respect, my point was that in regions that breed horses–US, Australia–the bulk of our racing prospects are purchased as yearlings or raised as homebreds. This is a different paradigm than that of HK, where they purchase racing stock and can vet a horse for EIPH. We cannot do the same with yearlings. This is one of the points of my post.
      Capiche?

  4. As somebody who has followed Hong Kong races for over a decade, I couldn’t agree more that they are not comparable at all. You mentioned numerous reasons why, as well as the fact, they have no claiming races. There’s some things American racing could incorporate from Hong Kong, but to say just copy the Hong Kong model is extremely naive and even a little bit ignorant. Kudos.

  5. By the way, for the sake of clarity, I should note that Joe Drape’s quoted tweet—“Not complex: In Hong Kong, over past 5 years, only 8 deaths among 45,000, 1 per 5,692 starters vs. 2.14 per 1,000 here. Why? No drugs..”—is not technically correct, either. Joe probably—almost certainly—misread a HKJC report that stated that “sudden deaths” in HK over a five year period were “8 incidents ~ 45,000″ or “one per 5,692 runners.” Sudden death, as opposed to catastrophic breakdowns from musculoskeletal causes, were defined as those deaths from EIPH (2), heart failure (5), and abdominal hemorrhage (1). The actual catastrophic deaths in HK are at 0.7 per 1000 starts—a figure much lower than the 1.5 per 1000 usually associated with US racing but far higher than the figure he quoted as such.

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