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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.

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.

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."

This is part of a broader plan that is designed to bring in younger fans who lack the financial wherewithal to own individual horses. Additionally, Engelbrecht-Bresges is working toward creating software that will ease the handicapping curve for neophytes and increase the dynamism of racing for everyone else. And the recent opening of Adrenaline, a trackside nightclub (complete with cool music, energy drink cocktails and an outdoor area that overlooks the turf), is clearly a grab at younger horseplayers. But Engelbrecht-Bresges's most ambitious hope of all is to attract the international market.

Right now the betting pool in Hong Kong is closed to outsiders. Engelbrecht-Bresges wants to change that. "At some point China will hopefully be a great market, but for the nearer future I see us branching out into other countries," he says. "Each government would get a fee, each operator would get a fee and we would get a fee. Plus, our pools would grow tremendously."

Closer to home, there is talk of a rebate system, which would refund percentages of losses to the biggest players (in order to compete against illegal bookies who've already instituted such programs), and Engelbrecht-Bresges hopes that one day minors will be allowed to attend races (without being permitted to bet). Looking toward the future and considering loads of competition for the attention of young people, he believes that this could be the Jockey Club's most important marketing gambit. "You need to create an affinity for racing," he says, emphasizing that it's all about the love of a sport rather than its gambling component. "And nothing does it like hearing the sound of live animals running down the track." He hesitates for a beat, as if summoning those thundering hooves into his head, before adding, "It gives you an attachment in a way that gambling machines cannot compete with."

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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