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Fear drives Jockey Club to cancel Christmas, but where is the line?

Employees are asked to go above and beyond government restrictions to ensure racing continues as a fourth wave of the pandemic tightens its grip on Hong Kong

There is not a lot of festive cheer among the Hong Kong racing community at the moment after the Jockey Club effectively cancelled Christmas.

On Monday, chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges wrote to all licensed persons and employees in the “racing bubble” requesting them to “not take part in any social gatherings with persons who are not part of your permanent household”. Bah humbug.

With the fourth wave of the pandemic continuing to tighten its grip on the city and rumours of the government threatening to shut down all non-essential activities, the Jockey Club clearly decided no risks could be taken “during the next critical weeks”.

The ability to keep the sport clean of infection – and the perception of it – provides a key plank of the Jockey Club’s bid to keep racing going.

While the Jockey Club already had its riders and, to a lesser extent, its trainers under a tight rein, this is the most extreme move officials have made in relation to control of its employees, so the fear of the sport being put on hold has to be very real.

“We are under extensive scrutiny and any incidents could bring racing to a stop,” Engelbrecht-Bresges wrote.

It is a tough pill to swallow, particularly coming a week after the conclusion of the Hong Kong International Races.

Since the start of the season, the focus of everyone involved has been about getting through the HK$95 million event successfully.

All the Covid-19 tests, all the control on movements, all the extra requirements to ensure it went ahead were accepted as individuals (generally) put the industry ahead of their own interests.

But the strain of that takes a toll and what the Jockey Club has now asked of its employees goes far beyond the restrictions put in place by the Hong Kong government. Isolating jockeys is one thing, forcing hundreds of staff on the fringes to do the same is another.

It is easy for people to point at all the money at stake as the only motivation required to keep going – and there is a lot of truth to that – but at some point quality of life comes into play.

It has been an arduous haul for those within the inner circle. This pandemic first hit Hong Kong in late January, most were stuck here for the off-season and haven’t seen family and friends who are not based in the city for a long time. People living in Jockey Club flats haven’t been allowed visitors for months at a time.

The majority will suck it up and continue to do the right thing – no one wants to be responsible for bringing down a multibillion-dollar industry – but pressure is mounting.

Zac Purton gave the best insight on Wednesday night during an interview with a Jockey Club television journalist.

After coming off a huge week – the Australian had won the International Jockeys’ Championship, Hong Kong’s richest race and had just enjoyed a four-timer at Happy Valley – he was asked how he would celebrate the windfall with his family.

For someone who had enjoyed just about as good a week as possible on a professional level, the answer was short – and telling.

“Well, the Jockey Club is not letting us out of the compound at the moment, so I’m not going to be able to spend it in a hurry,” Purton said.

That was before the latest clampdown. Money, happiness – there is some sort of saying about it.

Just minutes before Purton said his piece, Engelbrecht-Bresges was asked about the natural letdown after HKIR and how all involved would respond after such a big effort to make it happen during these unprecedented times.

“I’m worried – how long can people put up with this level of tension? You have to release it at some point but we can’t at the moment,” Engelbrecht-Bresges told the Post. “We have a little bit of a reduction to the external complications but I foresee that for the next four weeks we will have to stay in this mode. Therefore we cannot relax.

“This is probably a little bit harder to keep going because they are just normal races, but the team is professional. I think there are more challenges to come.”

Those challenges are here.

It is a conundrum for officials because options are limited. Things in Hong Kong are not getting better in the short-term so they just have to push on.

Pressing pause is not realistic – there is too much at stake, for everyone. Sunday’s meeting held a tick over HK$1.5 billion in turnover. The government collected HK$140 million of that, while the Jockey Club retained HK$65 million and a chunk goes to charity.

There are in excess of 20,000 Jockey Club employees and over 1,400 horses who need to be looked after and, just as importantly, the sport is an escape for however many millions of people around the world at a time when most are stuck at home.

Because while it might be challenging for those at the coalface of Hong Kong racing, there are plenty of others doing it much tougher.

The Jockey Club has done an exceptional job to not lose a single meeting since the start of Covid-19 but there are still more mountains to climb.

This letter and these requests tread into very murky territory about what is acceptable for an employer to demand of an employee.

“We know we have been asking for a lot,” Engelbrecht-Bresges wrote.

Given the unprecedented nature of what everyone is facing, most will probably have a grumble before ultimately doing as told, but there wouldn’t want to be too many more “requests” like this.

It’s hard to tell where the line is any more – and that is very dangerous.

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