Racing: Happy Valley - the racecourse where even losing punters collect winnings

Richard Edmondson reports on the unique way Hong Kong is fighting illegal betting
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The Independent Online

There is a fairy-tale quality about racing in Hong Kong - the promise of great riches, the heroic treatment of its winners - right down to the starry name they have for its original racecourse, Happy Valley.

Perhaps the globe's most atmospheric racecourse staged an international jockeys' challenge last night - an rather than the as there were similar events in Japan and Mauritius over the weekend - and the winner was Olivier Peslier, a man who has won the Derby and a man who spends his winters pulling in the chips all over the Orient.

But then all jockeys are winners in Hong Kong, where the little men earn a generous nine per cent of the prizemoney and are treated like film stars, almost Danny DeVito on horseback. It is a good place to be an owner too, a jurisdiction where rich folk queue up to be allowed to participate and can then make a profit from their pastime. The former colony has for long also been a paradigm of how racing should be run. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is the beneficiary of the oriental penchant for speculation which might go as far as betting on flies going up trousers. Revenues are such that the HKJC is the biggest taxpayer in town, the second largest charity donor after government. Yet there are some big, bad dragons that are threatening to ruin the Club's romantic vision.

As the lights twinkled last night on the huge domino towers that surround Happy Valley the thought occurred that one further push might the send the HKJC to the floor. The problems are twofold. At the beginning of last month the nearby jurisdiction of Macau overtook Las Vegas as the world's foremost gambling attraction. Macau's 23 casinos generated £301.8m in revenue for September, more than the 30 casinos in Nevada's desert resort. No longer is Macau waiting for crumbs from Hong Kong's table. It is beginning to take their reservations. That is where the young people seem to want to go.

Most pressing of all though is the impact of the illegal bookmakers, which has led the HKJC to play the bandits at their own game. Since the season began in September the Club has offered the same sort of concessions the giant punters can expect down the back streets. Even losers can be winners. As the countdown begins to Hong Kong's biggest race meeting of the year on Sunday and one in which Britain's supermare Ouija Board signs off, those prepared to give away fortunes in stakes can expect to be rewarded.

High rollers staking $HK10,000 (£654) with the HKJC will now get back $HK1,000 even if they lose. The multiples increase as the stakes get higher. Above $HK10,000 a 10th of the money is returned on losing bets. It is a strategy that is winning according to officials at Happy Valley. The relentless dwindling of turnover for much of the last decade has been reversed. Henry Chan Shing-kai, the executive director of betting, said the move was solely designed to make the Jockey Club more competitive with the illegal bookmaking market, which he estimates has a turnover ofbetween HK$50 billion and HK$60 billion a year on racing. The Jockey Club's horse racing turnover for 2005-06 was HK$60 billion, so HK$12 billion would be an increase of 20 per cent.

"By combating the discount offers made by illegal bookmakers, we believe that the rebate programme will effectively attract those customers targeted by the illegal market," Mr Chan said.

"We believe we can get back at least 10 to 20 per cent of the illegal market - and we hope it will be more. The most pressing thing is to try to claw back some of the money that is currently being bet with illegal bookmakers. This is our focus."

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