Hong Kong race meeting cancelled over protest fears

Hong Kong (AFP) –


Gambling-mad Hong Kong has cancelled a horse racing event just hours before its start over fears anti-government protesters might disrupt a race featuring a mount part-owned by a controversial pro-Beijing lawmaker.

Frequently violent demonstrations featuring hundreds of thousands of protesters have raged in Hong Kong for more than three months, but this is the first time officials have cancelled a race meeting because of their action.

Massive income from around 80 race days per year has made the Hong Kong Jockey Club the city's largest taxpayer, swelling government coffers by more than HK$10 billion annually.

The club also donates millions to charities and has been responsible for building schools, hospitals and parks.

The first race at Wednesday night's meeting at the famed Happy Valley track in the heart of the city was to feature a horse named Hong Kong Bet, partly owned by lawmaker Junius Ho Kwan-yiu.

Ho has been highly critical of the anti-government movement and sparked outrage when he was filmed cosying up to alleged triad gangsters who beat up protesters in a pro-Beijing village near the China border.

A Jockey Club spokesman said the meeting was being scratched to "preserve the security and safety of people and horses", adding it was the first cancellation for any reason other than weather since Hong Kong's handover from British rule to China in 1997.

"Our concerns are tied to potential social unrest in the vicinity tonight, the very real threat of a disturbance or possible violence," said a statement from the club.

Racing was introduced to the former British colony in the 19th century and survived Hong Kong's handover to China -- even though gambling is officially banned on the mainland.

The non-profit Hong Kong Jockey Club is the only legal betting outfit in the city and runs two racecourses, as well as dozens of off-site betting shops, under a government licence.

Earlier Wednesday, users of the Reddit-like forum LIHKG and message app Telegram called for "support" for Ho's horse.

Ho, frequently outspoken on social media platforms, has so far not commented on the scrapped meeting.

Authorities have already announced the cancellation of a fireworks display to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of China on October 1 for "public safety" reasons.