HONG KONG — A night of horse racing at Hong Kong’s iconic Happy Valley Racecourse was canceled just hours before post time on Wednesday over the potential “imminent threat” to the safety of jockeys, horses and bettors, racing authorities said.
The extremely popular Wednesday night races — which draw a mix of Cantonese bettors and beer-swilling expats — had until now been largely unhurt by the unrest roiling the former British colony. But officials decided to cancel the night of racing when protesters began seizing on reports that a horse part-owned by one of Hong Kong’s most polarizing figures, the pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho, was set to race on Wednesday evening.
“Our concerns are tied to potential social unrest in the vicinity tonight,” a Hong Kong Jockey Club spokesperson said in a statement, citing “the very real threat of a disturbance or possible violence” at the racecourse and potential disruptions to public transportation in the area.
Also on Wednesday, the Hong Kong government canceled the annual fireworks for the celebration of China’s National Day, marking the founding of People’s Republic of China. The Oct. 1 holiday is expected to draw big protests in the city.
The colonial-era sport is so emblematic of the city that China’s late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, promised that after Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, “horses will still run, stocks will still sizzle, dancers will still dance.”
But the three months of pro-democracy protests have brought increasing disruptions to the transit system, spilled over into sleepy residential neighborhoods and even descended into street brawls and fistfights between civilians.
Mr. Ho, the target of the protesters’ ire, has long been known for his unforgiving view of pro-democracy figures and protesters. In July, a video showed him shaking hands with a group of men believed to have beaten protesters with sticks and metal bars in an attack the same day that injured at least 45 people. He had denied any connection to the attackers.
Mr. Ho’s district office was later destroyed and his mother’s grave was defaced. Last Saturday, a fire broke out at the same office.
In recent days, he urged his supporters to turn out Saturday to take down the so-called Lennon Walls across the city — vibrant mosaics of pro-democracy messages and artwork. In response, protesters have rallied for citywide demonstrations against Mr. Ho that same day.
The cancellation of the night of racing is another blow to an engine of Hong Kong’s economy — the races and heavy betting on them help generate money for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which finances charities and projects around the city. The city’s overall economy has been slammed since protests began in June, weighing on the retail and tourism sector in particular.