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Horse Power

Thoroughbred racing reigns supreme in Hong Kong, a city that worships the sport both on and off the track
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

Wednesday night is racing night in Hong Kong. It ranks as a hallowed evening for more than 100,000 gambling-crazed horse-racing fanatics who will spend a few hours wagering upwards of $88 million—a sum that is not unheard of around here. Over the course of a racing season, more money is bet on horses, per capita, in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world. The unbridled action unfolds inside a floodlit racetrack known as Happy Valley.

This oddly named arena, with a capacity in excess of 55,000, is a temple of chance where nine well-timed bets, carefully placed, in a single night can instantly turn flat-broke gamblers into multimillionaires. The rags-to-riches magic is achieved via a holy grail of wagering known as the Triple Trio.

It requires a game horse-racing aficionado to prognosticate the first three finishers in each of three designated races. Because the wager's pool of money rolls over whenever someone fails to select all nine finishers, the jackpot on a good night could be life-changing. As much as $18 million has been taken down on one win; however, to hit the correct nine selections, the winners—a team of computer-assisted players—placed 900,000 different bets.

Never mind that the odds of outright guessing your way to the money is a staggering long shot; the sheer possibility of bringing down so much for so little is impossibly alluring. Especially in a luck-obsessed culture where fortuitously digited license plates and cell phone numbers get auctioned off for $10,000 or more.

One of the world's few truly urban racetracks, Happy Valley is built on what had once been a swamp, right in the heart of Hong Kong. Situated just beyond the city's super bustling, neon-drenched, business-intensive Central district, the stadium puts racing right in the middle of people's lives. Residential skyscrapers ring the track in the manner of cloud-grazing redwoods; the thousands of tiny lit-up apartment windows shimmer like a low-slung sky full of stars behind the backstretch.

It's all punctuated by a stadium full of Chinese gamblers, who live and die with each thrust of equine power on the home stretch. Cheers and boos rumble across the stands like the aural equivalent of a tsunami, and gambling on horses is so integral to the culture that, it's been said, stock trading and crime both spike in the off-season.

"Racing in Hong Kong is different from anywhere else in the world; reporting on it is like reporting on the NBA in the States; everyone cares about it," says Alan Aitken, turf correspondent for the South China Morning Post, the city's premier English-language newspaper. "There's huge betting, and that obviously makes it interesting. But beyond that, everything is important and very microscopic in detail. When jockeys feud or divorce, it gets written about in the newspaper here." Even minor infractions, such as a recent accusation that star rider Robbie Fradd had made offensive comments, feel as consequential as international incidents between world superpowers.

One driver of the hyped-up interest, according to top horse owner Arthur da Silva, is the simple fact that racing is the only game in town: "The fans here are very ardent because they love to gamble and because we have few other kinds of entertainment. There are no Broadway shows, no casinos, and the football here is so horrendous that people bet on European football instead of the local version."

For Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's chief executive officer, what goes on at Happy Valley is a perfect reflection of Hong Kong itself, a love-it-or-hate-it city that oozes highly compressed intensity. "Racing is competitive, success-oriented, and about money," he says, ticking off the stark similarities. To succeed at the horse game and in Hong Kong generally, he adds, "You have to be fast, you cannot be lazy, you have to work. Speed, competition and money—those are the things that Hong Kong is all about."

A few races into a busy Wednesday night at Happy Valley, there is no better place to be than the private box of Ronald Arculli.

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