This article first appeared in the Nov 2009 (pre-launch) and Jan/Feb 2010 issues of World Gaming magazine.
Horse racing is part of the life blood of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is going from strength to strength, overseeing the most impressive racing industry in the world.
Racing is a huge part of Hong Kong. It might have been the British that developed the industry but it has since taken on a life of its own. For someone that hasn't experienced racing in Hong Kong it's hard to explain just what an incredible institution it has become. There are parts of the Middle East that might equal the vast sums of money and national importance placed on the sport but it would be almost impossible to match the history and cultural impact of what Hong Kong racing means to its population. It is well regulated and impeccably run by its incredible governing body the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Through good governance it has nurtured an industry that has continued to flourish over the years. The racing industry has faced hurdles in the past which it has jumped over without breaking stride
America might have its Kentucky Derby and England has its Grand National Steeple Chase, but do they compete? Both are large, time honoured events but they only reach a certain percentage of the population. Getting a little closer is 'the race that stops the nation' the Melbourne Cup in Australia. Every year on the first Tuesday of November the entire nation turns its attention towards the two mile Cup run at Flemington. Lunches and sweepstakes are held across all sections of the community and its importance on the Australian sporting and cultural calendar is undeniable. The Cup is part of a carnival that runs over four days which is incredibly well supported and generates a lot of international interest. It is however, mainly focused on the one race. In comparison Hong Kong just has a better product as it doesn't rely on one big race or even carnivals of racing to prop up the rest of its racing calendar. Every race at every meeting is important and there is no place on earth that embraces the thoroughbred racing industry like Hong Kong.
Sha Tin racecourse is the relatively new home of the Hong Kong racing industry. This course hosts many of the world's greatest races, including the Hong Kong Triple Crown, the Hong Kong Derby, and the Hong Kong Cup, Vase, Mile and Sprint. Built in 1978 the course hosts an incredible 474 races during the racing season which is mainly held on Saturday afternoons from September to June.
It's not just the racing that is impressive at Sha Tin; this is a facility that puts the rest of the racing world to shame. Sha Tin has two grandstands and a capacity of 85,000 and the track features a turf surface (1560m) and an all weather surface (1899m). The Sha Tin venue has room for 1,260 horses, which are housed in 23 stables. The course also features facilities for training and preparing horses, including an equine hospital, swimming pool, riverside gallop, and racing laboratory.
One of the major attractions of Sha Tin racecourse is the Parade Ring, the only one of its kind which features a retractable roof. Over 1,400 patrons can sit or stand in the four balconies and study the horses pre-race. The track is also home to the world's longest Diamond Vision television screen, which measures an enormous 11.2m x 66.4m. This means that no matter where you are at the course you will never miss that close finish. Sha Tin provides the race-going public with a huge variety of food and beverage outlets and there are many world class hotels near the course, including the Hyatt Regency.
The second horse racing track in Hong Kong is the Happy Valley racecourse. Happy Valley is located on the northern part of Hong Kong Island, and is surrounded by sky scrapers and the famous tramline loop. This offers a totally different feel to that of its newer big brother but the experience is no less enthralling. Generally races at Happy Valley are run on Wednesday evenings and occasionally weekends.
The racecourse was completed in 1846 to entertain the British population living in Hong Kong at the time. Before the track was built, as with a lot of Hong Kong Island, the area was mainly swamp and marshland, and although not ideal ground for building a race track, it was the only flat ground available for horse racing. The venue first hosted night racing in 1973 and it was an instant hit with the locals becoming a regular attraction in the area. Like Sha Tin, Happy Valley has been revolutionised and was re-built in 1995. As a result it now matches other world class racing venues where punters pack the stands and the atmosphere is thrilling.
The Happy Valley track is also the infamous site of one of Hong Kong's greatest disasters. In February 1918 there was a fire at the race track, which reportedly took the lives of 590 people. That infamous event will always be remembered as one of Hong Kong's darkest days.
Both of these world class venues are operated by the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), who oversee all betting on horse racing and soccer in Hong Kong, as well as the Mark Six lottery. Founded in 1884 the HKJC is a not-for-profit organisation renowned for donating an average of US$130 million annually to charities over the last ten years.
For Hong Kong's relatively small population of 7 million, the love for gambling on the horses is unrivalled. Annually, over HK$10 billion of revenue is taken by the HKJC from the two race tracks in Hong Kong. On an average race day, more than HK$200 million is wagered and approximately 10 percent of the population maintains an active telephone betting account.
Membership to the Hong Kong Jockey Club is considered very prestigious, and there are a number of different types of memberships available which can be used at both Sha Tin and Happy Valley. Members have access to luxurious facilities including the world renowned clubhouses, dining facilities, leisure facilities and of course, the best spots to admire the horses up close.
World Gaming magazine will keep you up to date on all of the exciting racing that the HKJC offers. You can also check out the HKJC web site at www.hkjc.com.