Howard Wright reports on one aspect of the April 6 Dubai International Cup day in China that could be of worldwide importance.
Whether the recent landmark fixture staged by Dubai-based racecourse operator Meydan in Chengdu, southwestern China, proves to be a once-a-year curiosity or the prelude to more regular horse racing in the upwardly mobile province of Wenjiang, the complex operation has already achieved one outcome of huge and more general significance.
Transporting around 100 staff and officials from the Meydan Group, Dubai Racing Club (DRC) and Emirates Racing Authority (ERA) to Jinma Lake Racecourse was relatively easy, at least when compared with the task of shipping 48 Thoroughbred racehorses from the Gulf and back again.
China has always been regarded as offering a one-way ticket for equine competitors and breeding stock – until now. Dubai decided to take a different approach when Meydan agreed, in partnership with the Guangsha Group, one of China’s largest conglomerates, and the Chengdu government, to put on an entire race meeting in Wenjiang.
Frank Gabriel, who left his post as chief executive of the Dubai Racing Club shortly after stage managing the event to join The New York Racing Association, explained: “We had one mission going to China: That we could bring the horses and take them home.
“There was an original idea to leave the horses, because that seems to be the only way to deal with China and everyone has followed that route, but we decided the way we wanted to go was to take the horses back to the UAE. To achieve it, we put an obstacle in our way, but we were able to jump over it.”
Never one to stray near hyperbole, Gabriel makes the process sound simple, and its achievement will have raised the eyebrows of those who have endured tortuous journeys to satisfy demanding quarantine regulations in order to enter Dubai, as South African trainer Mike de Kock explained in an article on this site last month.
When pressed, Gabriel put his finger on the key element of the process: “The first obstacle was to have quarantine protocols in place to bring in international horses,” he said.
Last year’s initial attempt failed, after a group of 75 horses trained locally in Dubai had been put into serious pre-season work, health-checked and regularly tested in quarantine, with a view to being shipped out to show their paces at Wenjiang’s 2013 China Equestrian Festival. To the frustration of connections, who were denied the horses’ services in the early weeks of the new season, the exercise was aborted because the necessary protocols were not secured.
However, negotiations continued and the most crucial part of the jigsaw was fitted into place to enable a new race date to be set, just eight days after the Dubai World Cup fixture at Meydan.
Dr. Anthony Kettle, a DRC veterinary officer who was responsible for implementation as head of import and export of horses for the ERA and in charge of quarantine for the DRC, takes up the story.
“A set of protocols to protect both the horses and the countries was devised,” Kettle explained. “The industry partners in Dubai and Chengdu agreed a two-week pre-export quarantine, and tests ensured that only healthy horses were exported. The whole process was overseen by officials from both China and UAE ministries.
“In the meantime, extensive preparations over many months were made to receive and care for the horses while in China,” he said. “The horses themselves underwent extensive training for the event, as well as healthcare monitoring prior to and during the quarantine itself.
“The monitoring programme did not end with the transport of horses to China, but was maintained during their time in China and return to Dubai.
“Twice daily temperature and health records were kept and there was daily veterinary supervision. It was a perfect example of facilitating the temporary movement of racehorses through co-operation.”
Dr. Kettle added: “It was a programme designed to ensure that only healthy horses were moved between Dubai and China and that their health status did not change during the process. It was a remarkable achievement, brought about by the tireless efforts of all those involved.”
In the event, only one horse failed to make the starting gate in Wenjiang, being slightly below par on the day through the effects of travel. The rest competed successfully and safely, in front of a curious but appreciative crowd, and the whole batch were back in Dubai within 48 hours of the raceday, heading for another 14 days in quarantine and a summer break.
With the precedent set, attention now turns to the deliberations of a new body, the International Horse Sports Confederation (IHSC), established by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) and the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), which has FEI president Princess Haya of Jordan – wife of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed – as president, and IFHA chairman Louis Romanet as vice-president.
IHSC members met for the first time last month, before the Chengdu venture, and agreed a list of four priorities to “ensure the highest standards of welfare for the horse.” They include “cooperation with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to facilitate the international movement of horses through the adoption of the concept of the ‘high-health high-performance horses (HHP)’.”
Dr. Kettle, secretary of the IFHA’s international movement of horses committee, is closely involved in the liaison between the IMHC, IFHA, and OIE. He explained that the HHP project seeks to extend the existing concept of a sub-population of competition horses.
“The concept of treating a special class of horses differently from others is not new,” Kettle said. It has been agreed and used for many years by the European Union, which accepts registered horses from 28 countries, relying on a purebred passport from international sports organisations, for example the FEI, and the opinion that a registered horse will be kept under better conditions than a non-registered horse.
“Equally, the HHP concept already exists for high-performance racehorses, as the EU has a special certificate for horses competing in races in a select number of countries – Australia, Canada, U.S., Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and the UAE.
“All we’re trying to do through the OIE-IFHA-FEI proposal is to extend this in a set of harmonised conditions that will produce a win-win-win solution for governments, horse connections, and the horse.”
The next stage for debate comes on May 6 at the Asian Racing Conference in Hong Kong with a special session on the movement of horses. Dr. Kettle is one of the speakers and, armed with evidence from the Dubai-Chengdu experience, his words will carry special significance.