Saturday, May 3, 2003

Racing finds niche in least likely place

Louisville Courier-Journal

HONG KONG - It's a place where thoroughbred racing truly is the No. 1 sport, where on any given day its people will bet more on local races than the rest of the world wagers on the Kentucky Derby Day card.


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Hong Kong forms a most incongruous backdrop for the sport of kings.

For one thing, since 1997 it has had the unlikeliest of owners: the People's Republic of China, where gambling is forbidden. But the communist proprietors have kept a hands-off approach to the sport because betting provides 11.6 percent of all the tax revenue in Hong Kong, making it the single largest contributor at more than $1.3 billion per year.

This acreage-consuming sport has found its niche squeezed in among the 7 million inhabitants of a city where land is so precious that it is continuously reclaimed from the harbor and sea.

Hong Kong ranks No. 3 in the world in total betting at about $10 billion a year, trailing only Japan ($29.1 billion) and the United States ($14.5 billion), based on figures from 2001, the most recent available. But Japan's betting comes on 23,820 races a year, the United States' on 55,127 races. Hong Kong - with racing only one day a week for nine months at each of two tracks - had 674 races in 2001.

That means the United States averaged $264,000 in betting per race, Japan $1.2 million and Hong Kong a staggering $14.8 million.

"Apart from the excitement of horse racing itself, it's unquestionably the main sporting event here," said Ron Arculli, chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. "I'm convinced that the Hong Kong racing model is the best in the world."

The popularity of horse racing and the paucity of available land shape the very nature of the sport, making it vastly different from any of the world's other great racing centers.

Because there's no room for sprawling backsides, the total horse population is limited to 1,200. That's fewer than the number stabled at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. All horses have to be purchased from outside.

The jockey club maintains virtually dictatorial control over the sport. Not only does the club decide who can own, train and ride horses - only 26 trainers and 28 jockeys are currently permitted to work - but it also employs all of the veterinarians and blacksmiths.

With so much attention and so many betting dollars at stake, the regulations are strict and the scrutiny intense. The presence of any medication in a horse is forbidden - including bleeder medication, permitted in U.S. and Canadian racing - and racing officials claim to have the most cutting-edge tote system and security in the world.

It's a world far removed from the American racing scene, but those who have been there come away as fans.

"I loved it," said Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who stunned the racing world by leaving California to ride in Hong Kong in early 1995 but returned home to ride Thunder Gulch to victory in the Kentucky Derby.

"It was a whole new culture, whole new way of living. And the racing itself is so huge there. The crowds are amazing every day, and the money they bet, the enthusiasm the fans have is very refreshing."

Hong Kong's obsession with betting on horses traces to its dual heritage. The British - who ran Hong Kong from 1842 to 1997 - are passionate about the sport. The Asian culture is also noted for gambling, and as people flocked into Hong Kong from China, attendance at the races soared.

As an important Asian port and trade center, Hong Kong has a vibrant economy that provides ample discretionary income. Racing also benefits from having almost a monopoly on gambling. The only other legal form of gambling is the Mark Six lottery, which also is run by the jockey club. And there are no professional sports teams to siphon off interest.

Betting begins the day before at the 120 off-track sites and through wagering accounts. Bettors have almost 1 million phone-wagering accounts on racing. There also are about 150,000 users of various hand-held wireless wagering devices, ranging from specially programmed cell phones to two-way pagers.

The importance of those sophisticated betting systems has been demonstrated in the recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome - Hong Kong is one of the hardest-hit areas. According to the jockey club, attendance has dropped 14 percent to 22 percent since SARS, but betting overall is down only 4 percent.

Hong Kong is committed to clean racing to an extent some Americans might find overzealous.

The information technology staff alone is 400 strong; the security staff numbers 300. It is one of the strictest countries in monitoring jockeys for interference. And the detailed information provided to the public about horses' training and physical condition would boggle the minds of American horse players." Compared to the rest of the world, we're probably the straightest racing anywhere," said Dan O'Donnell, an Irish bloodstock agent based in Hong Kong who has been involved in racing throughout the world." You can get away with things in different parts of the world that you could never get away with here."

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