(Courtesy of http://www.fasttrack.hk)
By Hans Ebert
When Occupy Central turned into the Umbrella Movement and brought most of Hong Kong to a standstill last year, it was a smart move by its organisers never to cross the line and put a dent on the two race meetings held every week, thus incurring the wrath of local racing fans.
That said something about the importance placed on the sport here. It’s something intrinsically Hong Kong. It was also a message from local racing fans to the protesters, the politicians, the troublemakers, and even the friendly Mongkok triads: Go do what you need to do with your yellow umbrellas in the name of Democracy, but don’t mess about with our favourite pastime known as horse racing.
Yes, there’s the element of luck and risk involved in the sport, and how grinners are winners, but take horse racing away, especially on a weekend, and what’s there to do in Hong Kong? The cash-strapped can always pass the time by investing in another restaurant, fashion boutique, club or the latest Ferrari. Hong Kong, by the way, has the most numbers of Ferraris per capita in the world.
For those in a relationship, there are severe withdrawal symptoms without the sport. There’s a feeling of being trapped, especially when one is forced to go shopping, take in a movie, or cuddle and watch a cooking programme on BBC Lifestyle. It’s why during the off-season many of us plan our holidays so carefully- and usually take off to Australia, where there’s horse racing 24/7. That’s overkill, of course, and which is why, to us Hong Kong Belongers, there is nothing like horse racing, Hong Kong style.
For those of us who have grown up seeing the sport develop from those early days when Aussie jockey Peter Miers organised the show, and the revelation of the infamous Shanghai Syndicate to The Sting and arrows of outrageous misfortune of New Zealand party boy and compulsive punter Michael Bastion, friend and confidante to many expats in the racing fraternity- he supposedly jumped to his death when becoming King Midas in reverse- and Hong Kong racing become the Group 1 international event it is today- a United Nations of Racing with some of the greatest jockeys from around the world doing battle at Happy Valley and Shatin twice a week- shows what can be achieved with equal parts vision, determination, integrity and competitiveness. It’s all part of Hong Kong’s Can Do spirit. In Nike speak, it’s called Just Do It.
What a long, strange trip it’s been, Dr Hunter, and understanding its past makes appreciating horse racing’s present and future, and how far it’s travelled, all that more amazing. It’s not that dissimilar to what turned Hong Kong from a barren rock to being “Asia’s world city”.
Horse racing is a unique Made-In-Hong-Kong product and brand. If the Hong Kong Tourism Board needed something else to promote this city other than the Star Ferry, country parks, shopping, dim sum, and the Peak, it should be our horse racing experience- not just the horse racing, but, somehow, managing to bottle the great pride of ownership and investment we have in it, and those that make this happen- the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Here is the only racing club in the world that’s much more than a racing club because of everything its Charities Trust does, and gives back to the city. This might, at times, get lost in the shuffle, but the Jockey Club Charities Fund is the tie that binds. It’s what ensures horse racing in Hong Kong never becomes a one dimensional sport attracting only one dimensional people. It’s what makes the Hong Kong Chinese racing fan support the sport so rabidly as they have such a vested interest in it and how it financially benefits this city.
This week, like Joni Mitchell sang all those years ago how “We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” the horse racing world will, once again, descend on this city for the HKJC’s showcase event- Longines Hong Kong International Races- a red carpet event featuring the Best Of The Best jockeys, equine stars, trainers, and owners. If there are the Oscars and the Grammys and the Golden Globes, what we should have here soon are the Golden Hooves- and another Made-in-Hong-Kong brand for the world.
At a time when spiralling rents are seeing businesses close down, the “Happiness Index” bobbing up and down like a Yo Yo Ma, and political battle lines being drawn by the Haves and the Have Nots, what’s keeping Hong Kong together, for at least four hours during every race meeting, is coming together at Happy Valley and Shatin as one to cheer on our favourites and leave the bad fung shui and negative vibes behind.
After that last race has been run at Shatin on Sunday and the overseas guests have left, the memories of that day will live on. It will live on along with all the other memories of a sport that’s always starred a fascinating group of characters intertwined into the very fabric of Hong Kong history and society. That immense pride of ownership in Horse racing, Hong Kong style, will also continue. It’s part of our DNA.