It’s a pleasantly mild Wednesday evening in late May. There are 10 races on the evening card and while the Thoroughbreds racing this evening are hardly world class, most rated no higher than 80, the grandstands are full while the food and drink moves steadily.
So too does the wagering, with bets being recorded at sites throughout the venue by both men and women, some dressed in costumes that seem to have come from an episode of the “The Jetsons”, and There are horse mascots dressed in appropriate silks. The atmosphere seems more circus than racing meet.
Welcome to Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong, and a full night of fun, wagering and, yes, horse racing, all under the auspices of the exalted Hong Kong Jockey Club.
As renowned travel writer Jan Morris, who penned the definitive 1985 travelogue-cum-cultural atlas of the former British colony, summarized: “They used to say the colony was ruled by the Jockey Club, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and the Governor—in that order.”
The HK Jockey Club has been a fixture in the former colony, which reverted to The People’s Republic of China in 1997, for 133 years. It is ostensibly a not-for-profit organization operating the sixth largest foundation in the world according to its most recent annual report, just behind The Ford Foundation, and donated $500 million to a broad array of Hong Kong community, health and educational services in 2014. Since its founding in 1884, the then-ruling British aristocracy, prominent merchants and important members of Hong Kong Society all have been eager members. One indication of its influence is the fact that the HKJC has over 22,000 full and part-time employees, making it one of the largest employers in Hong Kong.
The traditional race facility at Happy Valley, where the Club’s longstanding offices are located, and the newer facility at Sha Tin in the New Territories, are state of the art and opulent keeping with Hong Kong’s reputation for wealth and very conspicuous consumption.
However, while old and gilded, the Club’s race meets are neither stodgy nor classist. The formula is simple: A pleasant venue plus great inexpensive local food and drink, plus horses and wagering all assisted by a young and vibrant staff, which adds up to a not-to-be-missed event in a town with no shortage of competing events to occupy time and money.
A glance at the stands demonstrates how well it all works. Hong Kong residents’ interest in racing spans both generations and genders. In 2016 there were 83 race meets and wagering topped $35 billion (USD), with 84% of that returned as purse money. Over two million people filled the stands over the past four seasons. They range from the dandiest of the Hong Kong upper crust and expatriates, to the same folks you would share a hand strap with on the Metro or sit with on one of the famous Star ferries that shuttle across Victoria Harbor.
To appeal to a broad swath of racegoers, there are “pink” features like Ladies Purse Day at Sha Tin, and race nights at Happy Valley that celebrate everything from Easter to Oktoberfest to Christmas. There is even a Digital Night with virtual reality racing demonstrations and another dedicated to James Bond displaying the cars used in the Bond films. Of course, everyone dresses to suit the occasions. In addition to its charitable efforts, the HK Jockey Club sponsors programs for youth throughout Hong Kong to encourage boys and girls alike to take up love of the sport when they turn 18, the legal betting age.
Rightly or wrongly, horse racing in the U.S. has gained the reputation as being largely an “old guy’s” sport. Aside from the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races, it is rarely broadcast on network television. Several famous American racecourses have closed over the past two decades or have been forced to diversify and include events like popular music concerts. Those that remain play host to ever-more-empty stands even though “the handle”—the amount being wagered—sometimes rises, the result of the increasing popularity of off-track and online betting.
In the 1950s, America was blessed with a rising middle class with increasing disposable incomes and increasing amounts of leisure time. The two spectator sports that increased in popularity in that era were boxing and horse racing. Baseball may still have reigned as The National Pastime, but the stands at Yankee Stadium were not dotted with the tuxedoed celebrities that lit up ringside at Madison Square Garden, or the grandstand at Belmont. And while the Super Bowl has become something akin to a national holiday, it was the Kentucky Derby that closed down the country every first Saturday in May in an era where professional football players often held Monday-to-Friday day jobs. Surely the popularity of wagering was part of the reason, but growing incomes and greater leisure time surely played a part.
Asia’s growing interest in the Sport of Kings is not limited to Hong Kong. Japan has long been home to some of the largest purses in racing and to superior racehorses bred from Kentucky bloodlines on famous stud farms on the northern island of Hokkaido, then trained for international success by running uphill on frozen snow-covered mountainsides. Likewise, Seoul is an increasingly popular destination for racing connections and fans of both racing and other equestrian sports, while the Singapore Turf Club recently celebrated its 170th anniversary.
And, then, there is the No-Longer-Sleeping Dragon, China. If a young and rising middle class helped fuel racing’s rise in “Leave It To Beaver” America, a similar dynamic is playing out in Asia, most notably Mainland China.
International level horse racing in China is relatively new, though horse racing has been popular in Shanghai since colonial days. Its renewal in the Mainland began in 2014 with the establishment of a partnership between The Meydan Group in Dubai and the municipal government of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwestern China. The “Garden City” is one of the largest in China, and holds a United Nation’s Environmental Foundation “Outstanding Green City” Award. Chengdu is a popular tourist destination and home of the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, the formal name for the best place in China to visit the beloved furry giants.
Borrowing on its eco-tourism reputation, quite a rarity in a heavily polluted country, an annual meet is now sponsored at Jinma Lake Racecourse in the very green suburban Wenjiang district of the city. Horses and trainers from the Dubai Racing Club, as well as jockeys from the UAE and other countries, journey to Chengdu for a one-day international-quality meet following the Dubai World Cup that marks the close of the racing season in the United Arab Emirates.
“We think this is an exciting development that will help define the future of racing in China,” asserts Meydan Group Chairman Saeed H Al Tayer. “We hope this will nurture the growth and development of the sport in both China and the UAE.”
To aid in that development, Chinese jockeys were invited this year to a 10-day training session in Dubai and were guests at the Super Saturday meet that serves as the final tune-up for horses competing on Dubai World Cup day races.
“This was an excellent opportunity to learn from the trainers and jockeys in Dubai,” said a thrilled jockey Ma Linkia. “The quality of the horses there is so high.”
The visit also served as an opportunity to pass along advice on the care and treatment of world-class horses and to educate Chinese visitors on regulations regarding quarantine and drugs, the latter forbidden for use in Dubai.
The most recent edition of the meet on April 2 featured the Chengdu Dubai International Cup (CDIC) sponsored by ubiquitous equestrian sponsor Longines.
“In recent years, there has been tremendous new growth in China’s equestrian scene,” notes Longines President Walter von Kanel. “It’s an exciting time for modern equestrian sports in this country and the Chengdu Dubai International Cup is a prime example being the first event organized in mainland China to feature international caliber horses.”
Another wrinkle added was the jockey challenge. In a format borrowed from the Meydan Masters jockey competition that began the Dubai World Cup Carnival, two teams of jockeys, five riders from China and ten visiting international jockeys draw horses and race for points in two of the five turf races on the card.
Before this year’s race day, a public signing event was also added. Argentinian rider Jesus Rosales was among those taking part.
“It was a really busy signing event,” said a pleased Rosales. “It was really great to see local fans engaging horse racing with so much interest.”
French trainer Erwan Charpy brought several runners to the meet and thinks both the local jockeys and the racecourse management are doing well.
“When the Chinese jockeys came to our stables, we had them ride our horses according to our instructions of what we wanted them to do with the horses.” explained Charpy. “The track is very good this year,” he continued. “I can see there has been a lot of effort to maintain it and it looks to be in immaculate condition.”
But Dubai is not alone in furthering development of the sport on the Mainland. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is completing a $3 billion training complex, the Conghua Training Centre, in the southern province of Guangzhou. Jointly sponsored by the Club and the China Horse Industry Association, the facility will be able to house as many as 1,500 horses when it opens in 2018, allowing the 500 former Hong Kong races horses retired to the Mainland to be rehomed. In addition to training, the facility will have the potential to become a fully operation racecourse. It is the first venture outside its Hong Kong home for the HKJC.
The essential ideas are to help sow the seeds of a successful breeding industry and elevate the level of veterinary care to international standards.
“Racing is a selection process for breeding,” says HKJC Chief Executive Officer Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. “A firm foundation built on a sound stud book, doping control, and horse welfare is critical for the long-term development of the industry, from breeding through to sporting competition.”
Attracted by population, popularity and potential, Chinese interest and influence in racing and equestrian sport generally are sure to grow, helping place The Middle Kingdom at the center of the Sport of Kings.