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Racetrack Says Goodbye to All That

Tradition: A symbol of permanence for 150 years, Happy Valley is scheduled to get its first Chinese boss this spring. It's also getting a face-lift.

February 04, 1996|JOHN LEICESTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HONG KONG — The turf glitters under floodlights like a pool of emerald. Hemmed in by high-rise buildings, this breathtakingly beautiful racetrack refreshes the eye like a sunny day.

Nestled in the heart of Hong Kong Island, Happy Valley is a field of dreams for this gambling-mad British colony and a comforting symbol of permanence in Hong Kong's ever-changing cityscape of concrete and steel.

What will become of the 150-year-old racecourse when Hong Kong reverts to China's domain in 1997?

Happy Valley also is home to the 111-year-old Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, once a bastion of the colonial era, now readying for the takeover.

The ban on women entering its men-only "quiet room" has already been lifted. In April, the club that wouldn't have Chinese as members until 1926 is getting its first Chinese boss. And in July, a year before the colony reverts to Chinese rule, the club will shed "Royal" from its title.

"We like to think that we . . . preserve a nice way of doing things," says Maj. Gen. Guy Watkins, the club's outgoing chief executive, "but we also try to move with the times."

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In his precise manner, the impeccably groomed British ex-army general confesses to sadness at losing his club, losing the "Royal," but says the changes (including a multimillion-dollar revamp of Happy Valley) are "just progress."

He expressed particular pleasure that the club has managed to reform "without having any upsets, without people saying, 'Oh, the place has gone to the dogs.' "

Whether you're at the track or watching it on TV, Wednesday is race day for most of the year. As night falls, thousands of race fans clog roads to the track. They come to bet, to relax, to be seen.

In the stands, the roar of the crowd drowns out the din of the city. Class divisions fade as rich and poor, old and young, Chinese and expatriate, concentrate on picking winners. The air tastes of earth and turf, instead of the city's usual choking smoke.

Some rate Happy Valley as the best arena-style track in the world. Its meets are about as close as Hong Kong gets to Britain's Ascot, although without the royalty and bizarre hats.

Women in designer suits rub shoulders with macho men screaming obscenities at horses. A trendy young woman, her hair dyed and her bag coated with stickers of Hong Kong movie stars, studiously places her bets, frostily ignoring the young man trying to pick her up.

Superstition also plays a role. Some gamblers like to sit in the same seat, and consider it unlucky to be tapped on the shoulder.

The colony has more than two dozen race sheets and many more newspapers offering regular racing coverage. The Jockey Club has nearly five times more members than Hong Kong's three largest political parties combined.

Rather than compete with the racing, the producers of a recent theater play, "Move Over, Mrs. Markham," took Wednesdays off. In 1991, the government rescheduled the start of the racing season to avoid clashing with an election.

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Why such passion?

"The racecourses are dramatic and the racing is exciting," says Watkins. And besides, he says, tiny, crowded Hong Kong does not have much scope for other sports.

But racing correspondent Robin Parke, who hasn't skipped a race in 25 years, has the short answer: "Gambling."

Gambling is a Hong Kong passion, and its only legal form is horse racing.

The Jockey Club, which holds a monopoly over betting in Hong Kong, offers exotic wagers whereby people who correctly predict a series of races are rewarded from a pool that can total millions.

In May, one man won 24 million Hong Kong dollars with a $5 bet, the equivalent in U.S. money of winning $3.1 million with a 64-cent bet.

Turnover in the 1994-1995 season of 69 race meetings was a staggering $9.35 billion--or about $1,500 for each of Hong Kong's 6 million people.

On June 11, the last meet of the season, bets totaled $216 million--well over double the amount staked on Britain's Grand National.

On morning subways, laborers in blue jeans and brokers in suits pore over race sheets. Stopped at red lights, taxi drivers spread racing guides across the steering wheel.

So when the horses finally come pounding down the track, they vent a tension that has built up all week.

The thunder of hoofs and spectators' yells throw up a wall of sound, climaxing at the winning post with showers of ripped-up losing betting slips.

"Racing stimulates the adrenaline," enthused Benson Lee, a businessman who owns three horses. "It's marvelous."

The Jockey Club plows its profits into community projects such as building public hospitals, schools, parks and Hong Kong's first public golf course.

"People do say, 'Well, I lost at the races, but at least it's not going to someone's back pocket,' " Watkins says.

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Indeed, the Jockey Club's spending on public welfare is often cited as a reason why Hong Kong can afford to keep its taxes low.

Watkins' replacement will be Lawrence Wong, a Taiwan-based auto industry executive picked not for his knowledge of the nags but for his skill at managing the club's financial empire.

The club also is helping develop horse racing in China. It helped set up a racetrack in Canton modeled on its other Hong Kong track at Shatin and is working on an equestrian center in Shanghai that could evolve into a racetrack. Club officials also visited a course under construction on the Chinese island province of Hainan, Watkins said.

China has promised to preserve Hong Kong's way of life after 1997, and Watkins seems confident that the pledge will be honored. Besides, he says, any official who tried to tamper with Hong Kong's racing "would find they were unpopular."

Senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has been quoted as saying that in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, "Dances will continue to be danced and horses will continue to race."

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