Horse racing is incredibly popular here in Hong Kong. During the racing season (September through July), there are nearly 700 races at the two racetracks: Sha Tin and Happy Valley. If you can’t make it to the tracks, there are more than 100 off-course betting branches sprinkled throughout the city that make it convenient to place bets.
Races alternate between the two tracks, and this Wednesday they were located at Happy Valley. Surrounded by a wall of skyscrapers, the historic course in Happy Valley is the only racecourse in the world located in the heart of a metropolitan city. Wednesday evening races attract an average of 18,000 people.
I’d never been to a horse race, but I enjoy the thrill of gambling and wanted to give it a try. Besides, I’d recently purchased a large hat that should only be worn to a beach or a horse race (although I’d later find out that people in Hong Kong don’t wear hats to the races, and I was the ONLY one with a giant hat on).
Eight of my classmates also wanted to go to the races, so we took a bus to the Happy Valley Racetrack at 6:15pm. The bus ride was about 30 minutes, but our excitement intensified when we approached the Causeway Bay area and could see the floodlights radiating from the track.
The entry fee starts out at only $10HKD and there’s an option to use an Octopus Card to pay. The minimum entry fee only gives you access to the track level, but that’s where all the action really is. There’s a lot of food and beer stands, games, live music, and a great deal of mingling in this area.
We arrived just in time to scope out the track and place our bets for the first race. I had a strategy: bet on the horse with the best name.
I found a racing guide and scanned over the horses’ impressive names:
What a Heart
but my eyes stopped on #3 in the first race…
REALLY THE BEST.
How could I NOT choose a horse named “Really the Best”? I immediately went to the information desk to get a short lesson on horse betting. I learned how to fill out the slip, and bet that Really the Best would place among the top 3 positions in his race. The minimum bet was $10HKD, but I was feeling pretty good, so I bet $50 (about $7USD) and received a printed receipt.
I was too excited to have a seat in the stands, so I walked right up to the fence and watched from there. About 10 minutes before the race began, the horses were led out to the track to gallop around aimlessly and warm up. I was within a few feet of the massive animals and could see their muscles bulging with every step. When my horse pranced by, I gripped my ticket in one hand, giddily pointed at it with the other, and yelled, “Go, number three!” The jockey, Tommy Berry, gave me a thumbs up and made me feel even more confident of my bet.
After the warm-up, the horses were led into the starting gates. Before I could adjust my camera settings, the loud bell sounded and they were off! The thunder of the horses’ hooves and loud roars of the crowd were exhilarating, but the greatest thrill was cheering on Really The Best as he came around the track towards the finishing post. The race was over in just 1 minute and 41 seconds and Really the Best finished in first place!
I was overwhelmed with excitement and did a happy dance with my classmate, Benita, who had also bet on Really the Best (her favorite number is 3). We made a beeline for the payout window to collect our winnings, but were too early and told to wait until the results were official.
Instead of waiting at the payout window like a voracious animal, I decided to buy a celebratory beer. I rarely drink, but there was a stand offering a new frozen beer from Japan called Kirin Ichiban that looked refreshing. There was a lot of hype for the new beer, and several Japanese models wearing yukatas were applying temporary tattoos to a line of happy patrons. It looked promising, but I was a little disappointed to find that only the foam on top was frozen. Despite this, I still enjoyed my victory beer while I watched a few more races from the stands with my classmates.
After a couple of hours, I returned to the payout window to casually collect my winnings. On the way, the ground was littered with torn up betting slips – small reminders that there’s a downside to gambling and I was on the other side.