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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

(continued from page 1)

Tall, lean and thoughtful, Arculli is the chairman of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (one of the city's stock exchanges), a partner in a prestigious law firm and a successful horse owner (his most acclaimed runner, River Verdon, stands out as Hong Kong's only Triple Crown champion). At the time this article was being reported, he was also chairman of the nonprofit Jockey Club, which serves as a locus of power in Hong Kong, generates nine percent of the city's tax revenue and ranks as one of Asia's largest charitable donors. It was by dint of that title that he was the proud possessor of the ritziest private box in Happy Valley.

Inside the box, beneath crystal chandeliers, surrounded by framed photos of his favorite horses, Arculli entertains friends and enjoys the races. "In some ways I grew up here in Happy Valley; my maternal grandfather was a keen horse person," he says in what is most certainly an understatement. Standing at the edge of a doorway that leads out to a private viewing stand that overlooks the homestretch, he adds, "Racing in Hong Kong is a wonderful social event; you come here, meet friends, have a bit of a bet if you want to. People feel good when they win, but they're also OK when they lose. They know that our profits go to charity. So that makes everyone feel a little better."

The box is as big as a suite at the Peninsula hotel and outfitted with a long buffet full of Chinese, Japanese and Western delicacies: freshly made sushi, steamed grouper, perfectly tender baby lamb chops. Everything in the room, from the decor to the food to the private-school accents of the guests, underscores a sense of elitism that runs through horse racing at Happy Valley. In the United States, tracks are generally considered slightly seedy and fairly suspect. Not so in Hong Kong, where getting a full membership with the Jockey Club is similar to being accepted at Augusta National. And because there are only 1,200 horses in Hong Kong's racing pool, it is considered especially prestigious to have your own thoroughbred. As Arculli puts it, "I won't say that horse owners are the créme de la créme of society, but they definitely represent the higher levels of society."

Just as the fourth race approaches—the first of the Triple Trio on tonight's slate—Arculli gets into a jocular conversation with a friend about the new Porsche he's waiting on. A gambling buddy of his offers pointers on Macau and a British-born blonde is touting the advantages of living in Hong Kong's upscale enclave known as Stanley. With post time just minutes away, I am contemplating which horses to bet on. Frankly, I haven't a clue. So I'm going to play them as if they're lottery numbers and hope to get supremely lucky.

I make this notion public and am mercifully saved by a man with a thick German accent, a fair complexion and a tight grin. "I think we can do a little better than that," he says.

The man turns out to be the previously mentioned Engelbrecht-Bresges, top gun of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and a stone-cold horse-racing expert. He's been involved with thoroughbreds his entire adult life, so he knows what he's doing. He rattles off a bunch of numbers to go for. I dutifully make my way to the nearest betting window and am trailed, more or less, by every other male in Arculli's box. Apparently the advantages of watching races alongside the chairman do not end with an all-you-can-eat sushi dinner.

This point is underscored a little later when Engelbrecht-Bresges' first three picks handily cross the finish line in win, place and show fashion. He acts modest but is clearly pleased with himself as we all cheer the winners. So now I'm one-third of the way toward what will surely be a six-figure score—even when you factor in that I'll be sharing my racing windfall with at least a few others. As the next race begins, I'm contemplating Harvard educations for my kids, a Porsche that'll match Arculli's and repeat visits to the chairman's box.

Then, like most seemingly easy money, the Triple Trio becomes elusive. We don't win the middle contest. Nevertheless, Engelbrecht-Bresges manages to hit two out of three and his third horse finishes in fourth place. His picks tonight won't make me rich, but I am still taking home some cash.

Emotionally shifting myself from big-money race winner to inquiring journalist, I ask him how he does it. Engelbrecht-Bresges ticks off an easier-than-it-sounds primer for making money at the races: "Initially, considering past performance, I look at the kind of going [that is, track condition] a horse prefers along with the speed of the race and whether or not the pace will favor him. I look at odds. I find a horse with value, rather than the horse that everybody else is betting on. Then I pick one horse that will most likely finish between first and third, and I next find a second horse that complements him. Horse racing is a game of information and skill. Turn it into a numbers game and you will get the proper bet."

Early the next morning, I take a cab from my hotel near Happy Valley to Hong Kong's other racetrack, Sha Tin, which is located in what was once the countryside but is now a bustling suburb. It's also where nearly all of the 56 jockeys who race in Hong Kong live, in a development of institutional-looking apartment buildings owned by the Jockey Club and situated adjacent to the track. This is convenient for top riders such as Doug Whyte, a surprisingly tall but whippet-thin South African who thrilled the local horse world by winning more than 100 races in both the 2004 and 2006 seasons. An avid cigar smoker, he's fresh from a series of practice rides around the track and grateful for the Montecristo No. 2 I press into his hand.

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