One event that has remained operational during the pandemic is Hong Kong’s regular set of horse races, which started in the 1840s and have a fanatical following in the gambling-obsessed city, serving as a barometer of stability and prosperity. “Horses will still run, stocks will still sizzle, dancers will still dance,” the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously promised prior to Britain’s handover of Hong Kong in 1997, as a way to placate those nervous about Beijing’s impending rule. Last year, 2.2 million people attended races, placing bets worth $16.1 billion, according to figures from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which oversees the territory’s races. The club is Hong Kong’s largest taxpayer, and the city’s newspapers see a 30 percent boost in sales before race day as bettors scour the guides for tips, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the chief executive of the club, told me.
Like much of Hong Kong, the jockey club learned from the city’s experience with the SARS epidemic in 2003. Following that outbreak, the club formed a pandemic response team, which was activated shortly after news of a mystery virus originating in Wuhan began to surface at the beginning of the year. In the weeks that followed, the club closed its offtrack betting sites that dot the city and limited attendance at its Chinese New Year race, its most popular annual event, to about 8,000 people, less than a tenth of the usual number of spectators. Further restrictions put in place by the government led to what Engelbrecht-Bresges described as a “ghost meeting,” with no fans and only a skeleton staff in attendance.
Many of the jockey club’s employees live near its racecourse in the outlying area of Sha Tin, one of two tracks it owns and operates in the city. The club implemented strict procedures for entry and exit to its sites, and instituted temperature checks.