Thoroughbred racing reigns supreme in Hong Kong, a city that worships the sport both on and off the track
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007
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It is 8:30 a.m. and his morning workout (a six-day-per-week ritual) is winding down, but his day's labor is hardly over. As he does on most afternoons, Whyte will spend several hours reviewing strategies for upcoming races (a luxury for Hong Kong jockeys, who have only two meetings per week). "Jockeys who excel here," confirms Engelbrecht-Bresges, "are the ones who put in the time studying."
Whyte, who's raced in Singapore, England, Canada and Zimbabwe, is one of Hong Kong's premier jockeys, and it's afforded him a great life. He gets the rock star treatment around town, is often feted by horse owners and spends the off-season in Italy's Umbria region. "But it's tough here," he says, "and it gets very competitive between the jockeys." They're going up against one another for wins on the track and the best rides off the track. And their every move is monitored by swarming packs of reporters and paparazzi. "There is no friendliness once the gates open," says Whyte. "At stake is my livelihood, my job, my career. And this is the most competitive racing in the world. Ask any jockey. But when things are rolling, and you're healthy, this is the greatest job."
Especially when you go on some of the monster runs that Whyte has been blessed with in recent years. On two occasions he's ridden five winners in a single day, which may or may not be a record but is clearly sensational. "By the last race," he says, "you're flying so high and riding with so much confidence that a first-place finish feels like a formality." That sentiment goes for the fans as well; they cheer him on to the finish line not only because they're betting on his horse, but also because they care so much about racing that they want to witness history being made.
"You become a bit of an idol here and it puts extra pressure on you," he says. "Every time you step out onto the track, you feel like you're going onstage. There is a hell of a lot of adrenaline and excitement."
Exhilarating as a winning streak may be for a Hong Kong jockey, it's even better for a horse owner in a race-crazed city. Not only in terms of profits, which are considerable, but also in terms of status (or, as the Chinese put it, face), which really is the reason why most of them get involved with the expensive hobby of owning racehorses in the first place.
Just ask Arthur da Silva, a gregarious shipping magnate (he does so much business with Lufthansa airlines that the carrier named a plane after him). His horse, Silent Witness, seized Hong Kong's imagination for the better part of the 2004-2005 season, and that experience provided him with the ride of a lifetime. "Five days before a race, I couldn't work," he remembers. "I tried playing golf to get my mind off it. But I'd be biting my nails, feeling nervous as hell, and only experiencing relief when my horse was first to cross the finish line."
Silent Witness won his 17th race in a row that season, breaking the Hong Kong record as well as the North American mark set by the great thoroughbred Cigar. Fans showed up at the track wearing da Silva's colors (black with pale green stripes), the Jockey Club issued cash cards with the horse's image on it, and the South China Morning Post published a book entitled Silent Witness: The Spirit of Hong Kong. Though the celebrated horse has been temporarily sidelined with health problems, da Silva says, "Fans still stop me on the street and ask me to sign winning Silent Witness tickets. As for the other horse owners, they show a lot of respect when you have a winner like that. You have to realize that some people own horses and never get the chance to win." Indeed, according to front-running trainer Caspar Fownes, each season 70 percent of Hong Kong's horses here fail to win a single race.
For all the success that the Hong Kong Jockey Club enjoys, its financial numbers for horse racing are down by about one-third from their all-time peak, which came in the 2001—02 season. While racing in Hong Kong still ranks among the richest in the world with an annual handle of around $8 billion between its two tracks—"To keep things in perspective, it's a number that any racing association, anywhere around the globe, would be happy with," says the Post's Alan Aitken—there are worries about encroaching competition and further erosion. The concerns stem from online gambling, from the illegal bookies who thrive in Hong Kong, from Steve Wynn's new casino in nearby Macau and even from recently legalized soccer betting that the Jockey club itself oversees.
Engelbrecht-Bresges, who came to Hong Kong with dual backgrounds in business and horse racing, recognizes these looming threats. He's aiming to reverse the trend by gussying up the tracks' restaurants, improving facilities for his best customers and enhancing the racing and gambling experience. "We need to make racing so attractive to people that it will be prohibitively costly for the casinos to take them away," he says.
He hopes to initiate a plan that will expand opportunities for Jockey Club members to participate in horse ownership—and, thus, become more permanently engaged. It will involve breaking up horse prices into shares (starting at 100,000 Hong Kong dollars, which converts to around $13,000 U.S.) and allowing those shares to be traded like stock. "Trainers would be the equivalents of managing partners and the syndicate members will vote," he says. "It will strengthen the ownership base and allow more people to get involved."
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