I lived and travelled in China for two years during the mid-1980s. It was a fascinating time to be in that country—after decades of isolation, China finally was opening its doors to the West. Evident everywhere, though, was an almost total lack of regard for animal welfare. From Kashgar in the west, where I saw shop after shop selling pelts from endangered snow leopards; to the live animal markets and bizarre snake restaurant in Guangzhou; to the debate about opening a dog restaurant in the hotel where I lived, concern for the lot of animals was far off the Chinese radar. A more recent campaign to wipe out rabies by the wholesale killing of every dog, pet or otherwise, in some Chinese cities suggests that the sentiment hasn’t changed much.

With this background, I viewed with some trepidation a recent fact-finding visit to Kentucky by Chinese officials looking to revive horse racing in the Middle Kingdon. Horse racing is thriving in Hong Kong, where the industry is fueled by an insatiable appetite for gambling. On a recent day at Sha Tin, a sprawling racetrack complex in Kowloon, for example, the $2.5-million Hong Kong Cup and several other million-dollar-plus races were run.

Horse racing also was a popular pastime in China for many years. During the 1930s, Shanghai boasted one of the largest race tracks in the world, the outlines of which still can be seen in the layout of a public park in the city. Organized horse racing died in 1949, though, when the Communists took over the country and prohibited betting. Members of the Chinese delegation, who hope to jump start racing with a track and college-level equine program in Wuhan Province, came to Kentucky as the guests of Lexington horseman Dr. Gary Knapp, breeder of Big Brown. The delegates visited Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and Fasig-Tipton, and sampled educational programs including the Kentucky Equine Management Internship Program and the North American Racing Academy.

No one wants to discourage what could be a lucrative commercial outlet for Thoroughbreds, but let’s hope the Chinese learned during their visit that horses should be treated as more than a commodity.

One glimmer of hope is a report from the Animal Legal Defense Fund that the Chinese government is drafting the nation’s first comprehensive set of animal welfare laws. The laws reportedly address "wildlife, farmed animals, companion animals, animals used for labor and in research," and contain "guidelines for disease prevention and medical care for animals." The wheels of government turn as slowly in China as here, however, and final approval, if it comes, is not expected for several years.

Welfare Update: On the home front, the New York Racing Association recently adopted a stringent policy aimed at discouraging owners and trainers who compete at state tracks from selling horses to slaughter. According to a December 10, 2009 press release, any owner or trainer who directly or indirectly sells a horse for slaughter will permanently forfeit his or her stalls at all New York tracks. A similar policy at Suffolk Downs resulted in the banishment of five people from the Boston track in late 2008.