Horse racing finds a home in Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- A row of high-rise apartments overlook the illuminated backstretch of the 153-year-old track in the heart of the city. Filling the infield of the undulating, 7-furlong grass course are five soccer fields, two tennis courts, a roller-hockey rink and a jogging path. If there's a racetrack anywhere that resembles Happy Valley, no one knows where it is.

Imagine a track in the middle of New York's Times Square and you're getting the picture. Appropriately, the 12-story Times Square shopping mall looms over the first turn on the clockwise, asymmetrical layout. At 12:45 a.m. on Jan. 1, the first stakes of the next 1,000 years, the Millennium Cup, will go off at the Valley. The field will run past a 10-story sign of multicolored lights saying "Times Square 2000. Yeah."

Jockey Shane Sellers grew up in Louisiana's Cajun country, where racing has been part of the culture for centuries. His visit to Hong Kong was a revelation, because there's nothing like this down on the bayou.

"I was very impressed with Happy Valley," he said. "Here is this beautiful track, right in the middle of the city, with tall, brightly lit buildings all around."

On a warm December night, 25,412 fans packed the nine-story grandstand to watch a seven-race program filled with maidens and animals that would be claimers or allowance types in North America. More than 9,000 others watched via simulcast at Hong Kong's other track, Sha Tin.

The second annual International Jockeys Championship, which included Frankie
Dettori, Olivier Peslier, Michael Kinane and Sellers, boosted the attendance, but the riding stars had little to do with the total betting handle of approximately $124 million (U.S.). Actually, that's about 4 percent below average for a card in a manic metropolis where they're crazy about horses. Hong Kong, the southeastern China port where East meets West, bills itself as the City of Life. City of Action is more like it. This small
place loves to live large.

Happy Valley is an odd name for a track built upon land that once was a malaria-infested swamp. Then again, Death Valley lacks commercial potential, and so does Mosquito Downs. Many victims of the biting bugs rest in the old cemeteries across the four-lane road behind the nine-level grandstand. These unfortunate souls are among the few bodies at rest in a vertical city with a passion for accumulating, consuming and spending. Few pastimes are more popular than investing in short-term equine futures.

Hong Kong, which means "fragrant island," is on the same latitude as Honolulu. Its 6.8 million residents are jammed into only 685 square miles, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. A five-minute ferry ride north of Hong Kong island, where Happy Valley is located, is the Kowloon peninsula, which runs into the New Territories, which share the southeastern border of mainland China. There also are 260 outlying islands, many of them uninhabited.

The British, who ran Hong Kong from 1841 until it became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China on July 1, 1997, staged the first race meeting at Happy Valley in 1846. Over the years it has become one of the most venerated sports sites in the Far East. In 1978, Sha Tin (meaning "sand field") was opened on reclaimed land in the New Territories.

"Both racecourses are among the best in the world," said Kinane, an Irishman who rides half the year in Hong Kong. "They lack for nothing. Happy Valley is pretty tight, and you're very aware of the crowd because it's right on top of you. I enjoy it. It gets your heart pumping."

All of the international events are held at state-of-the-art Sha Tin, whose 1 3/16-mile grass course encircles an all-weather surface. Like Happy Valley, races are run clockwise amid a unique backdrop. The view of Sha Tin's long backstretch includes nearby mountains and 14 high-rises.

"Sha Tin is a classic track with easy turns," said Basil Marcus, a South African who has ridden full-time in Hong Kong since 1990. "It's a very fair track. There are very few hard-luck stories there."

Racing is conducted only twice a week, on Wednesday evening at Happy Valley and on Saturday or Sunday afternoon at Sha Tin. Last year the average crowd at Sha Tin was 33,000; for Happy Valley, it was 23,000. Fans cheer as passionately as English soccer followers but are far better behaved.

"Racing in Hong Kong is more exciting than anywhere else in the world," Marcus said.
"There are a limited number of races and a limited number of horses, so that makes each race very special indeed."

The season runs from mid-September until late June, with a hiatus forced by summer's brutal heat and humidity. "Both horses and humans need a break," said Paulus S. Lee, Director of Finance and Central Services for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Ninety percent of the races are handicaps, which draw competitive, full fields of 12 to 14. Rarely are a favorite's odds below 2-1, and exotic payoffs can be huge. The minimum bet is $10 HK (about $1.25 U.S.), so the little fish can swim with the big ones in mutuel pools that average $129 million (U.S.) per meeting. Besides on-track play, 125 OTBs and 778,000 telephone accounts make millions change hands and keep hundreds
employed. Of the Jockey Club's more than 4,000 full-time employees, about 10 percent work in betting services.

According to the financial report by the auditing firm of Price Waterhouse, the HKJC returns 82 percent of the handle to bettors and gives 13 percent to the government, keeping only 4 percent for operating expenses and reinvestment and donating 1 percent to charities. Among the Jockey Club's varied creations are Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, based on the MIT concept, an 18-hole golf course, and the Jockey Club Centre for Positive Aging to treat patients with Alzheimer's Disease.

Last year the HKJC gave more than $137 million (U.S.) to hospitals and education and paid about $1.5 billion (U.S.) in taxes, more than 10.5 percent of Hong Kong's assessment.

"Having one entity provide that much of a government's taxes is amazing," Lee said. "Besides that, we try to do something for the community with the betting money."

Another aim has been to gain recognition for Hong Kong on racing's world stage.

"Our racing is not top-class, compared to England, France and the United States," Lee said, "but we're working hard trying to get it to that point."

The Hong Kong International Races on Dec. 12 at Sha Tin were a spectacular success, drawing 27 horses from eight foreign countries -- France (6), England (8), the United States (2), Australia (3), New Zealand (2), Dubai (3 ), Japan (2) and Ireland -- who took on the local thoroughbreds in a four-race, $3.76 million (U.S.) mini-Breeders' Cup.

The Europeans dominated with three victories by Breeders' Cup also-rans, France's Jim and Tonic (Cup) and Borgia (Vase) and England's Docksider (Mile), after Hong Kong-based Fairy King Prawn got a prolonged ovation for taking the $681,580 Sprint, the world's richest 5-furlong race. The 1ΒΌ-mile Cup offered a purse of $1.286 million (U.S.) for the first Group I event ever run in Hong Kong.

A winner on the undercard was named Asia Rising, which could have been the theme for a hazy, cloudy afternoon when a nine-race card drew 57,909 and an astonishing $158 million (U.S.) was bet. Plans to upgrade International day are in the works, and more stars will come a long way to chase big money.

"The days when you could bring a Group 2 horse to win a Hong Kong International race are long past," England-based jockey Frankie Dettori said. "Now you need a world-class Group I horse."

Although gambling remains illegal in mainland China, the Big Red Machine wisely has kept its hands off Hong Kong's economy and its racing, adhering to a "One Country, Two Systems" policy since the 1997 handover.

Communists like money, too, even if it comes from a shrine to unbridled capitalism. If Confucius never said this, he should have: Never slaughter a cash cow.