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.