It’s a dog’s life

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Asia’s sole greyhound racing track has been given two years to either relocate or close down – many applaud the move given its reputed treatment of dogs and social impact while some say it should be conserved to diversify the city’s offerings Dressed in white shirts and trousers and donning brightly coloured vests, six men absent-mindedly walk their dogs with matching coloured attires around a sand circuit. “Look at number 2,” a mid-dle-aged woman tells her friends, pointing to a brown, loose-skinned greyhound with a ‘2’ on its yellow vest. “It looks like has skin disease.”As the discussion and the parade continue, a few specta-tors seize the opportunity to walk to a row of glass panels at the back, where some yawning staff are waiting for them to lay their bets – at least MOP10/HK$10 (US$1.25) – on the six greyhounds. One can imagine the 66 betting counters on both the upper and lower fl oors were once crowded with long queues but tonight they aren’t, with only seven in service: more than enough for the 40-odd spectators and gamblers present.As the time approaches 8:00 pm, spectators move to the fences, fi nding the best vintage point among hundreds of empty, dusty seats, or go to the air-conditioned restaurant to the right, while the six trainers heave the dogs into their num-bered boxes. A bell rings, a mechanical ‘rabbit’ made of poly-styrene and plastic bags sprints off, and the dogs bark fi ercely. Once the doors of the traps have opened, they chase the rabbit as quickly as possible, as if their very lives depended upon BY TONY LAIit – some will argue that they do. It’s just the start of a normal racing day at Yat Yuen Ca-nidrome, located in the densely populated northern district of Macau, which has been operational since the 1930’s and is now Asia’s one and only greyhound racing track. Ultimatum Among the 40 spectators and punters on a late July night, 32-year-old Ken Lo from Hong Kong was easily recognisea-ble as a tourist – either you are not greyhaired or you carry bags of almond cookies and food souvenirs. “Although I’ve visited Macau many times it’s my fi rst time here,” he said, in the company of his family. “My dad saw the news that it’s closing down so that’s why we said ‘Let’s come here and have a look’.”As Mr. Lo so rightly observes, the clock is ticking down on this racing track. After years of incessant criticism by ani-mal welfare groups across the globe and suffering from dwin-dling revenue the track’s operator, Macau (Yut Yuen) Canid-rome Co. Ltd., was served an ultimatum by the authorities in July to relocate within two years. In the context of scarce land resources in the territory, many say this means an end to the 80-plus year history of dog racing at a time Macau is aspir-ing to become a world-class tourism destination. Some argue it should be preserved somehow for the sake of diversifi ed entertainment offerings.The long-awaited decision on the Canidrome was an-nounced in a meeting between representatives of the venture and the local gaming operator, the Gaming Inspection and Co-ordination Bureau, on July 21. Holding the monopoly rights for greyhound racing in the city since 1963, the Ca-nidrome concession was to expire by the end of last year but the administration extended it for another twelve months as it had not fi gured out the next move at the time. In the meet-ing, the gaming regulator told the company that if it could not fi nd another location to move to by 21st July 2018, in ad-dition to improving the living conditions of the greyhounds, it was to be shut down. The Bureau stressed in a statement that the decision was made taking into consideration numer-ous socio-economic factors, namely how the dog track helps Macau become a World Centre of Tourism and Leisure, and helps diversify the local gaming industry. Limited contributionCarlos Siu Lam, associate professor of the Gaming Teaching and Research Centre at Macau Polytechnic Institute, says the facilities and offerings of the Canidrome have been outmod-ed for years, failing to impress a sizeable number of visitors, in particular the younger demographics. “Look; as an exam-ple, at horseracing in Singapore, where a lot of new elements are introduced; not only the older demographics visit the fa-cility but youths are also interested in the [event] as a type of entertainment,” said Prof. Siu.While the economic contribution by Canidrome pales in comparison with the casinos here, its historical and tourism value is not, however, low, the scholar said. “But its economic value doesn’t justify the size of land parcel it occupies… so maybe [we] should think of other means like a museum to preserve this memory.”Occupying a land area of about 43,000 square metres, the dog racing track took in MOP125 million in gross gaming revenue last year, plunging by nearly two-thirds from a peak of MOP340 million in 2010, government fi gures show. In the fi rst half of 2016, the gross gaming revenue from greyhound racing betting amounted to MOP46 million, accounting for a paltry 0.04 per cent of overall gaming revenue in the territory, or an amount that the city’s 30 plus casinos could generate in less than two hours. Tourism of fering “I consider the Canidrome an entertainment offering rather than a gaming facility,” said Ben Leng Sai Vai, vice-president 36AUGUST 2016of the Macau Travel Industry Council. “Visitors don’t really go there for betting but try to get a sense of what it is like, which is the remaining dog racing track left in Asia.” The track is still one of the frequent destinations on the itineraries of package tours to Macau, for which visitors have to pay an entrance fee of MOP10. “[Travel agencies] like to bring tour groups there on racing days if they stay in Macau for a relatively long period because there’s not much to do at night besides visiting the gaming resorts,” he said. Mr. Leng acknowledged that the visitation fi gure to the facility, however, has been on a downward slope in recent times due to fewer tour groups and an increasing number of casinos. The number of visitors coming to Macau on package tours plunged by 33.6 per cent year-on-year to 2.83 million in the fi rst fi ve months of 2016. “It will be a pity if it [the Canid-rome] is closed down,” he said. Its tourism value – the venue was selected by US maga-zine Time as one of the 25 Authentic Asian Experiences in 2009 – is also recognised by Ricardo Siu Chi Sen, associate professor in business economics at the University of Macau. “As a home-grown Macau resident, I think conserving the Ca-nidrome has a positive impact upon the diversifi ed develop-ment of the Macau gaming industry, given its rich history,” he remarked. If it could fi nd another location away from the neighbour-ing district and re-open with complementary facilities of re-tail and food and beverage, it would be a valuable offering for travellers to experience the local fl air, he said, stressing the importance of the operator improving its long-criticised management. Dogs’ hell The management of the Canidrome has indeed been ha-rangued for years; in particular, with regard to how the grey-hounds are treated. Local animal rights group Anima – the Society for the Protection of Animals (Macau) – estimates that more than 30 dogs are put down each month because they are either underperforming or injured. Following an export ban on dogs by Australia to Macau as the city could not comply with the Australian welfare stand-ards in 2013, a global campaign earlier this year demanded Ireland ban greyhound exports to the territory, too. Animals Australia campaign director Lyn White says conditions in the Canidrome are abhorrent. “The conditions are awful, it’s prison-like, barren cells – and, in fact, it really is like being exported to another country and put on death row,” she told Australian public broadcaster ABC earlier this year.Albano Martins, president of Anima, thinks it is good news that the venture will fi nally be closed as “there is no way for Canidrome to fi nd another area here to accommodate the activity.” But he, speaking to this magazine’s sister publica-tion Business Daily, slammed the authorities for granting two years’ grace period, saying: “This is a way for the government to keep their [Canidrome’s] face.”The animal activist is also concerned about the future of the dogs once the racing track has bid farewell, as he is wor-ried the operator would sell the animals to regions like Main-land China and Vietnam, where animal welfare standards are even lower than in Macau. The local gaming regulator only said in its statement that the Canidrome had to make proper arrangements for its staff and dogs if it was closing down. Barks and reeks Besides the living conditions of the dogs, the racing track has also been complained about for its noise and stench. Leong Heng Kao, president of the prominent General Un-ion of Neighbourhood Associations, welcomes the decision by the government because of the inconvenience the Canid-rome has brought to the residents of the northern district. “As there are more residents now living around the facility than in the past, [we] have received complaints from time to time about the noise . . . and concerns about hygiene in the area,” he said. Three affi liates of the Association conducted a survey last year, asking over 900 residents in the northern district their opinions on the Canidrome, fi nding that nearly 50 per cent of the respondents thought the track should be closed down or relocated. The barks of the dogs were what the residents were most concerned about, with 40 per cent saying they were af-fected by the noise, while nearly 35 per cent found the reek of excrement affected their lives, according to the survey. But it also showed nearly 40 per cent hoped the Canidrome could stay due to its unique offerings.Resident Mr. Cheung has been living across the street from the racing track for more than 20 years. “It’s annoy-ing when the dogs start barking in the early morning, like 6:00 am, during their morning practice,” says the man, in his orties. “I had trouble sleeping in the beginning with the noise but now I’m used to it.” Although it was good that the facility would fi nally move out or close down, he added “I might miss the noise . . . [as] it’s somehow part of my memory.”“I’ve read the news about the bad treatment of dogs but I don’t know – I’ve never been there except for Sports Day in secondary school,” said Jeffrey Lee, another resident in the region, in his twenties. Encircled by the dog racing track, the green turf inside can serve as a football fi eld or for track and fi eld competition. “My only memory [of the venue] is the poo and horrifi c stench,” he added; otherwise, he offered no opin-ion on the relocation or closure of the Canidrome. Stanley Ho’s empire In land-scarce Macau, there was a proposal in the past that Canidrome be combined with the horseracing track in Taipa, Macau Jockey Club, to conserve this tradition. But it is known that the horseracing track had previously rejected this initia-tive, citing the concerns of cross infection between two types of animals under the same roof. Macau Jockey Club has not responded to questions seeking comment.Both racing tracks are part of the business empire built by casino magnate Stanley Ho Hung Sun, founder of local gaming operator SJM Holdings Ltd. His fourth wife – legisla-tor Angela Leong On Kei – serves as an executive in all three companies.“The Jockey Club and Canidrome have both been strug-gling fi nancially in recent years due to fewer punters,” said a local gaming source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “With the new leadership in the government, [the Canidrome] probably knows its time is up – it hasn’t really done anything in the past two years to try to turn the business around.” Fi-nancial reports of the dog racing venture reveal it has seen its profi ts shrink over the past fi ve years; with the company recording profi ts of MOP4.8 million last year, down 82 per cent from MOP26.7 million in 2014 and 95.4 per cent from its MOP103.3 million take in 2011. When Fernando Chui Sai On was re-elected as the city’s Chief Executive for another fi ve years in 2014, he overhauled his cabinet, with only one offi cial remaining for the new term. “The past few incidents and the new policy initiativesundertaken by offi cials signal they’re trying to rectify some business practices here, in particular the gaming industry,” the source said, referring, among other incidents, to the arrest of Alan Reginald John Ho, nephew of Stanley Ho, in January 2015. Within a month of the inauguration of the fourth-term Macau Government offi ciated by Chinese President Xi Jin-ping – who said at the time the city should “strengthen and im-prove the regulation and supervision of the gaming industry” – the younger Ho was arrested, accused of running a prostitu-tion syndicate in a hotel. He was convicted in March but has now served his 13-month sentence. Rash decision The Canidrome has so far kept mum apart from a few re-marks made by Ms. Angela Leong. The executive director of the venture said in a statement distributed to local media out-lets that she “respected” the government’s decision but ques-tioned why the authorities only based it on a report about the importance and infl uence of the Canidrome by the University of Macau – which was not made public – and had not con-ducted any public consultation into its fate.She urged the administration to provide “adequate sup-port” on the relocation of the track, as well as the arrange-ment for its staff and dogs. She did not directly comment upon whether the Canidrome would continue operations after two years. The management also did not respond to questions seeking additional comment upon this story.As the 12 matches for the day wrapped up at nearly 11:00 pm, almost two-thirds of the spectators and gamblers had left, including Hong Kong visitors Ken Lo and his family. The staff at the betting counters discarded their red vests or jackets, and were eager to leave. “I don’t know what will happen as the company hasn’t said anything yet…what will happen will happen,” said a middle-aged female staff member, declining to be named, in a rush. “All I know is, I still have to work tomorrow: it’s an-other racing day.”