Racing: Punters find blessings in eastern tradition: Stakes are sky high at Sha Tin where the intense popularity of backing horses blends with an ancient culture: Erich Boehm reports from Hong Kong where three British runners compete this weekend

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IT IS A bright Sunday afternoon and a crowd of nearly 50,000 are braving the heat at Sha Tin racecourse in Hong Kong. In the winner's circle, in the wake of a pounds 72,000 Class One race, stand a delighted

local owner, an Australian jockey and a British-bred gelding. Bagpipes, courtesy of the 10th Princess Mary's Own Gurkha Rifles, are heard through the stands and a platoon of Hakka women in black-veiled sun hats plod by, replacing the divots on the track.

A large fountain cascades in the inner field. The fountain is more than incidental - flowing water is good fung shui.

To an outsider, it is an exotic scene; to the punters, old news. This is horseracing Hong Kong-style; popular, lucrative, multi-cultural. It is a race day like any other. The Nepali bagpipers are only occasionally at Sha Tin, but the Hakka are always here. Women from this 'lost tribe' of China have worked for the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club since its inception in 1884. And fung shui? Well that is eternal.

Fung shui - meaning 'wind and water' - is an ancient quasi-science which could be described as designing by magic. Its well-paid practitioners are consulted by virtually every business in Hong Kong. For racing, this can mean anything from divining a track layout which will not upset the 'spirits of nature', to the use of a six-sided mirror or bat gwa to deflect 'bad emanations' away from the stables. The Jockey Club recently sought similar advice on the expansion of Happy Valley, Hong Kong's other track. Ensuring good fung shui there is not an easy task, the entire area sits on what was once a malaria-infested swamp.

According to Maj Gen Guy Watkins, the Jockey Club's chief executive, everyone who works in Hong Kong's racing industry respects fung shui - or at least indulges those who do: 'We would not do anything to offend the sensibilities of our staff as regards to Chinese culture and Chinese tradition. So we consulted a fung shui man as to whether what we were doing would be good not just for horse racing per se but also for the Happy Valley area. Our plan for the park, the buildings, the new trees, are in accordance with what the fung shui man thought would be best. Some of the advice might be called superstition but a lot of it is sensible and pragmatic.'

But it does have its twists. Earlier this year, Hong Kong's Chinese media reported on an illegal gambling den that was deemed to have bad fung shui. It had become a very popular place to strike a bet, because it was thought the proprietor would be prone to lose.

But that is just part of the picture. The Jockey Club holds a bai shan ceremony at the start of every season. Conducted by Taoist priests, a bai shan involves chanting and the burning of joss sticks, designed to frighten away evil spirits. An extra bai shan was needed in 1984 after two serious accidents. At Sha Tin, the jockey Brian Taylor fell from his horse, Silver Star, and later died in hospital. A couple of months later, at the same spot, Phillipe Paquet was crippled in a similar fall. He, too, had been riding Silver Star.

Watkins said: 'The priests held a service in the jockey's changing room and then a blessing of the race-track afterwards. I would not call it superstition - it's prayer, it's religion.'

A typical Hong Kong punter, however, is more interested in gambling than religion. The figures are staggering. For a single meeting, total betting turnover can reach the equivalent of pounds 80m. Over a season, more than pounds 5bn. Of this, 20 per cent is profit. Tax on that profit accounts for 10 per cent of the Hong Kong government's annual income. The Jockey Club re-invests its cut, minus operating expenses, back into the community - funding everything from education and culture to helping the homeless. Last year, that pay-out came to over pounds 100m.

The Jockey Club also takes good care of its own. Winnings are generous, the lifestyle is luxurious and the facilities at both Sha Tin and Happy Valley are nothing if not excellent. Even the horses get their own jacuzzi.

(Photograph omitted)