Travel 

Horse racing has a 150-year history in Hong Kong

Meridian Writers’ Group

HONG KONG–Horse racing in Hong Kong goes back more than 150 years, and while tourists bargain for designer bags or digital gadgets, residents are found at the racetrack. Visitors who go to the track as well can rub shoulders with a wide range of local society, and unlike with shopping expeditions, the trip may pay for itself.

Two tour companies make it easy for the casual visitor or first time race-goer, offering almost identical horse-racing trips. The best choice is the Wednesday-night trip to see theatrically floodlit racing at the historic Happy Valley course on Hong Kong Island, where horses first raced in 1846.

The small group is whisked through the crowds to a side entrance and up to a members’ level box on the 8th floor with a fine view of the whole course. If one steps out of its air-conditioned comfort to the muggy tropical air of the balcony it would be possible hang-glide off the edge on the updraft of excitement from the crowd at track level.

The lush green space of the course is surrounded by a cluster of towers, which seem to lean over it as if they have a stake in the races, too. The jockeys’ clownish silks blaze beneath the floodlights and a giant video display on the far side of the track provides close-ups and replays. Screens of stock exchange complexity tell the latest odds for 11 different wagers including the combination bets most favoured by the Chinese, with names such as "quinella" and "quinella place," all willingly decoded by tellers at a private betting counter.

Tour group members can go down to the floodlit parade ring to mix with the crowds making small bets, and for a glimpse of those who’ve wagered rather more on the purchase of a horse – an average of HK$1.6 million ($270,000) a year. They stand next to the large brass bell and give last words of encouragement to their jockeys who are still mostly Westerners, many of them rising stars from the U.K., South Africa or Australia. The horses pace past, snorting as if some internal engine is being revved up.

As displays at an excellent free museum at the club explain, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 interrupted supplies of Mongolian ponies through mainland China and started the import of horses from Australia. In 1971 the club began to import Arabs, and the days of the gentleman owner-rider came to an end as racing went professional. The skeleton of Silver Lining, the first horse to win HK$1 million ($170,000) in prize money is on display, and visitors can mount a mechanical horse used in jockey training.

Back up in the box, a generous buffet of local and Western dishes keeps guests oscillating between a view of the foie gras and one of the finish line. The upper floors consume 30,000 lobsters and half a million oysters a season, while downstairs 135,000 bowls of wonton soup disappear.

Many a British expatriate departing in 1997 said Hong Kong would go to the dogs. They were nearly right.

ACCESS

Horse-racing tours can be booked through the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

For information on travel in Hong Kong visit the Hong Kong Tourism Board website at www.discoverhongkong.com .

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