Racing: Dettori joins idols in Happy Valley frenzy

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THE GUNS blazed over Happy Valley last night; the darkness removed by an electric storm of flash bulbs. The senses told you that something different was happening in the former colony.

They have raced in this enclave for over 150 years, but this weekend Hong Kong seriously shoulders its way into global racing for the first time. On Sunday Sha Tin, the course on the mainland New Territories, hosts the International series of races. This consists of four contests bearing pounds 2.5m in prize-money, including the Hong Kong Cup, afforded, for the first time, Group One status.

Last night was the opening ceremony at Happy Valley, the original racecourse on Hong Kong Island. It was a fusion of East meeting West, neon blending with sport and, in such circumstances, it was appropriate that the International Jockeys' Challenge should be won by Frankie Dettori.

Dettori has done as much for racing, and himself, as anyone in the 1990s and, as the millennium closes, past misdemeanours have been forgotten in these parts. The memory of the minor drugs offence which once prevented his access to Hong Kong has long since been swept under the carpet.

The high that mattered last night was the altitude of his dismount. The audience warmed to Dettori's celebrations alongside his vanquished opponents, Olivier Peslier and Kieren Fallon. Indeed, from the moment a fusillade announced proceedings, the jockeys' every moment was followed by lenses.

Fallon struck in the first leg aboard Success Magic, Dettori was on target in the third and final leg on Prodigy, with Peslier taking the race in between. But it was Dettori, who had to survive an objection against his winner, that took the championship by registering more points from his beaten horses.

Fallon has a contract to ride in Hong Kong this winter and his experience of the track was underlined when he landed a treble on the night, his other wins coming with Braveheart and Commander Charlie.

There seemed little professional antagonism between the combatants, but it is, of course, not difficult to be on good terms with yourself when you are a small athlete here. For invited riders this is the new Klondike. Jockeys are feted in this territory like no other. If there is one seat in a top restaurant remaining it will go to a jockey in preference to a movie star.

Riders here can make themselves, and others, a lot of money. "You can earn more in one winter in Hong Kong than you can in five or six years in England," Fallon says. And he is our champion jockey.

If money makes the world go round then this little realm spins with centrifugal force. There is probably no betting shop in Britain which has not been frequented by a Chinese punter and this is not a habit they pick up on their travels.

The serious players have not strayed, though, and they ensure that the Hong Kong Jockey Club is an enormously successful organisation.

Bookmaking is illegal here and the pari-mutuel set-up is enough to make Tote proponents elsewhere weep. There is pool betting on course at Happy Valley and Sha Tin, telephone accounts, 125 off-course betting branches and 82,000 Customer Input Terminals (CITS), hand-held betting devices that are used in conjunction with mobile phones.

The turnover generated is fabulous. The HKJC is a non-profit-making organisation. Last year they donated over HK$1bn (over pounds 80m) to charity. This makes it the largest charity donor in Hong Kong and one of the biggest in the world.

The most popular bet is the Quinella (a dual forecast) and the most speculative the Triple Trio - the conundrum of providing the first, second and third in any order in three designated races. It's not easy, but at least you don't have to work again. Last year two punters got it to a HK$5 bet (60p) and collected about pounds 6m each. It must have been a struggle to get it home.

This is a strange environment even for some of our more bloated participants, so heaven knows what it means to the travelling artisans. It is a warm sensation to be in the company of men of the North like Eric Alston and David Nicholls. Both are represented in the sprint - a race for Orient Expresses - by Tedburrow and Rudi's Pet respectively.

There is, however, an acclimatisation problem in the Tedburrow camp. The seven-year- old travelled over most satisfactorily but his trainer was confined to quarters for 48 hours with jet lag. Rehabilitation, though, has almost been completed and there would be no greater sight than Alston doffing his trademark feathered hat on Sunday in front of the popping bulbs.