In Hong Kong, 'International' Goes Beyond Racing

As Thoroughbreds from around the world made their final preparations for the Dec. 11 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races, international eyes also were focused on the World Trade Organization ministerial conference set to begin in downtown Hong Kong two days later.

The event, the focus of which will be global trade discussions, is expected to draw thousands of protesters to the area around the convention center in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong. The convention center is linked by an elevated walkway to the Renaissance Harbour View hotel, which serves as the press center for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The morning of Dec. 10, security personnel manned the hotel lobby. Anyone who enters the Renaissance Harbour View must walk through metal detectors and empty their pockets of all belongings, though things appeared to go rather smoothly.

A day earlier, police in Wan Chai began setting up plastic barricades for traffic-control purposes. The WTO conference could draw more than 20,000 people--participants, protesters, and journalists. Attendees were expected in the area as early as Dec. 11.

A front-page headline in the Dec. 10 edition of the South China Morning Post read: "Police fear mayhem on opening day." Law enforcement officials said they expect peaceful protests but were preparing for the worst because protesters will be in proximity to the convention site.

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong Jockey Club official told the newspaper reports that protesters may attempt to disturb the major racing event at Sha Tin racecourse were unfounded. Sha Tin is located about 25 minutes north of downtown Hong Kong in the New Territories.

Wilson Cheng Kwok-ming, a spokesman for the Jockey Club, told the Morning Post it's well known the racing organization supports many local charities and therefore wouldn't be a target. "The bottom line is we are a charitable organization that supports Hong Kong life," he told the newspaper. "Everyone is aware of this in Hong Kong, including the protesters."

Indeed, the non-profit Jockey Club is Hong Kong's single-largest taxpayer at HK$12.3 billion ($1.57 billion) in the most recent year, HK$8.3 billion (about $1 billion) of that amount from horse race wagering. It's also Hong Kong's most significant benefactor with more than HK$1 billion that goes to more than 100 charity and community projects through the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, according to an annual report.

Cheng also told the newspaper the Jockey Club had no plans to heighten security at Sha Tin, the sprawling, modern facility that will host the four International Races worth HK$46 million (almost $6 million) plus five other stakes valued at HK$750,000 to HK$1.6 million.

The WTO conference and the International Races have received extensive coverage in the Morning Post, which offers in-depth day-to-day reports on Thoroughbred racing. The Dec. 9 edition, for instance, featured three full pages of coverage that included eight stories, full entries for all nine races on the Sha Tin program, and past performances for four of the races that comprise the "early triple trio" and the "double trio" wagers on the program.

Though the WTO conference has nothing to do with racing, the WTO itself does have ties to the pari-mutuel industry through a ruling earlier this year that United States law on offshore gambling is in violation of WTO commitments. The ruling was based on a conflict between the U.S. and Antigua.

The WTO gave the U.S. until April 3, 2006 to comply with its commitments; the National Thoroughbred Racing Association said it must protect the pari-mutuel's industry right to Internet wagering (account betting) given its growth in recent years.

On the track at Sha Tin the morning of Dec. 11, Ecurie Wildenstein's Westerner, who won the Cartier Award as champion stayer in Europe, looked the part as he galloped around the dirt track. Westerner, a 6-year-old Danehill horse, is the probable favorite for the HK$14-million Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase at 2,400 meters on the turf even though he has excelled at 3,100 meters to 4,000 meters.

Cathay Pacific airlines, sponsor of the International Races for the second year, has been a major force leading up to the event with extensive advertising placements in the local media and at related events. Interestingly, a more than half-page color ad for the sponsored event at Sha Tin appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of the Morning Post opposite a full-page photo essay on security preparations for the WTO conference.