The odds may be stacked against success, but it's hard to resist a flutter at the races, Hong Kong's favourite pastime

Now I knew how a gladiator felt. Down next to the paddock, with the huge coliseum of the Jockey Club towering above me, and the high rises of Hong Kong looming all around, I faced the horses in the paddock, armed only with my form guide and a fairly stretched wallet. The crowds began to cheer as the horses were led out on to the track. Could I defeat the odds, single-handedly, and pick a winner?

The mind-boggling figures of racing in Hong Kong made my quest seem even harder. Hong Kong has the highest per capita betting on horses in the world, with an annual turnover of more than HK$80bn (£7.5bn). Huge crowds, sometimes as large as 90,000 for the Chinese New Year meeting, but on average 30,000, turn up to every race meeting. Each sees a betting turnover of approximately HK$1bn (£94m). My wallet suddenly felt even smaller and more insignificant.

There are two racetracks in Hong Kong: at Happy Valley on the island, and Sha Tin in the New Territories. Happy Valley is the older of the two. The first race was held there in 1846, as it was virtually the only flat land on Hong Kong Island. Almost the first thing the British did on arriving in Hong Kong in 1841 was to drain the fever ridden swamp of Wong Nei Chong, ironically renamed Happy Valley, to set up a racetrack.

Meetings at Happy Valley are normally held on a Wednesday evening, while weekend racing is held at Sha Tin racetrack. Hong Kong has grown up around the Happy Valley track, so now the lush green course is surrounded by high rise flats, and you occasionally glimpse the floodlit track if you head up the peak, through the jungle of buildings.

Despite the fact that that racing has been held there for such a long time, the facilities are very modern. The racetrack complex, which also houses a museum of racing (Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm, free entry), is huge, with restaurants and bars, and the large betting area that can hold 55,000 racegoers.

There are no bookies at the side of the racetrack, as the only way you can bet in Hong Kong is through the Hong Kong Jockey Club. You can do this at the course, through their 124 off-course betting branches throughout the Special Autonomous Region (SAR), or by mobile phone if you have an account (but not at the racetrack – peculiarly for Hong Kong, mobile phones are banned). Being Hong Kong, there are also several electronic methods for Jockey Club account holders to bet – including an electronic "smart card"; an input box that can be used at home; and a two-way messenger, like a sophisticated pager.

Hong Kong has the third highest betting turnover in the world after the US and Japan and the highest in the world by track. The only other legalised gambling in Hong Kong is the lottery, the Mark Six, also run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which stared in 1975.

Sha Tin is a much more modern racetrack. Opened in 1978, it is the home of the annual Hong Kong International Races, held in December, featuring the Hong Kong Cup, Hong Kong Sprint, Hong Kong Mile and the Hong Kong Vase. The Hong Kong Cup had a HK$18m (£1.7m) prize last year, making it the most valuable international 2,000m race to be run on turf, and one of the richest events in the world. The International Group One Audemars Piguet race is also held at Sha Tin in April. Another key race is the Hong Kong Derby, and racegoers also enjoy simulcast events such as the Grand National and the Melbourne Cup.

All horses that race in Hong Kong are stabled at Sha Tin, including those for the international events, which are quarantined there or at the Jockey Club's equestrian centre at Beas River. There are around 1,000 racehorses, most of which have come from Australia and New Zealand. When the horses retire, obviously still in their prime, some are sent to the Jockey Club's four riding schools (three public, one private) and others have been sent to Dalian on mainland China to work for China's Women's Mounted Police. Others have also been sent to the Guangdong Province Equestrian Team and the Beijing China Equestrian Association.

The top three jockeys, Douglas Whyte, Felix Coetzee and Weichong Marwing are all from South Africa, with other top jockeys coming from Australia and France, and there is a growing pool of local talent.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club, a not-for-profit organisation, has a long reputation for charitable donations. For the last 10 years they have given an average of HK$1bn (£94m) annually. This puts the Club on a par with the Rockefeller Foundation in the US. Club donations go to four key sectors: medical and health; education and training; sports, recreation and culture; and community services with funding distributed through its Charities Trust. Club funds built the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and HK$5bn (£472m) has been donated to higher education over the last decade.

In total, the Club supports 180 charities in Hong Kong. The Club contributes 10 per cent of the total tax revenues collected by the SAR government. Betting tax in Hong Kong is set at 14 per cent. It is estimated that tax would rise to over 20 per cent without the revenue from racing. The Hong Kong Jockey Club also supports many cultural projects – last year, for example, it gave HK$2m (£190,000) to restore the Hung Shing Temple at Kau Sai Village.

In Chinese culture it is considered good luck to give money to charity – therefore you can console yourself, when you lose, that your money is going to a good cause. However, I thought that all this good luck I was building up by losing so much, should have eventually resulted in at least one win. One man failed to beat the odds. A big thumbs down for my wallet, which fell empty to the floor.

 

The racing season lasts from September through to the end of June. If you have been in Hong Kong for fewer than 21 days (bring your passport with you) you can purchase a tourist badge. This costs HK$50 (£5) and can be bought from the racecourse on the day of racing at the Members' Main Entrance or designated off-course betting branches five days before the meet. The tickets guarantee you entry to the course and to the Member's Enclosure.

Hong Kong Jockey Club: 00 852 2966 8111 www.hongkongjockeyclub.com. For details of race day tours, call the Hong Kong Tourism Board on 00 852 2508 1234

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