A Week in Hong Kong and A Fresh Perspective on Horse Racing
December 15, 2015
We all know that feeling. You can tell when it’s happening and you know when it’s over. Life changing experiences can be positive, negative or sometimes a mix of both. Having had some time now to think about the events of the past week, I’m fairly confident that what I’ve felt, what just happened and where I’ve been, all add up to one of the most positive, life-changing experiences of my life.
At midnight last night, I was on a Boeing 777-300ER., staring out into the darkness. There was a small monitor in front of me, indicating we were somewhere in the sky between Adak and Anchorage. For the first time in eight days, I felt a sort of emptiness. But on this marathon flight from Hong Kong to New York, it also hit me that I’d experienced something that had totally changed me for the better. At that moment, I started writing.
Had I started typing at any other point in the week prior, I would’ve struggled to fully express my appreciation and gratitude for being able to make my first trip across the world for the Hong Kong International Races (HKIR). I had been in such a blissful haze that I had difficulty articulating the reasons for my glee, other than saying that the experience was “awesome”.
On the fourth day of the trip while watching workouts or “trackwork” at Sha Tin Racecourse, I used FaceTime to give two of my good friends in racing back in America a visual tour of the track. By the time I figured out how to use the iPhone technology (yeah, FaceTime stumped me), most of the horses were already done stretching their legs. There wasn’t much to see on that front.
During the course of the cell phone tour of the track that I was giving my friends, I flagged down Calum Madell and Harriet Fuller. Calum, who works for Timeform, and Harriet, an aspiring turf writer for The Sun in England, formed the British arm of the first ever social media team invited to the HKIR by the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC). The rest of the team was comprised of my colleagues at America’s Best Racing and half a dozen other passionate industry influencers from Canada to Japan.
On FaceTime, I introduced my friends back home to my new friends Calum and Harriet. Like myself, neither Calum nor Harriet had ever been to Hong Kong, much less the racing festival known as the “Turf World Championships”. That in mind, I asked them to describe briefly their impressions of racing in Hong Kong. Calum paused for a moment, looked up and confidently uttered one word: Organized.
Calum had chosen a nearly perfect word to describe what we’d seen to that point in our journey and what we’d see throughout the trip. Indeed, what we experienced was highly structured by our hosts at the HKJC and every single one of our needs was tended to with highest degree of care, before and during our trip. But beyond that, we also saw the abundance of attention paid to all of HKIR’s customers – from the general betting public to track VIP’s or “members” who pay tens of thousands of dollars for that title – and it was unlike anything I had ever experienced at a racetrack anywhere.
During facility tours at Sha Tin and Happy Valley, we got to see the results of every architectural decision, technological upgrade and marketing campaign undertaken by the HKJC over the past few years. By the time we were done, I could add a few more words to the list that started with organized: Meticulous, tasteful, mindful, dedicated, committed, savvy, accountable, creative and passionate.
To get a full feel for what I mean, it’s important to take a brief look at Hong Kong’s recent racing history. The HKJC, which operates as a charity, saw its total turnover drop from HK$92.3-billion (US$11.9-billion) in its 1996-1997 season to HK$60-billion (US$7.7-billion) less than a decade later in the 2005-2006 season. It was a major crisis and Hong Kong’s racing industry was at a crossroads. Facing a decision to either reinvest in what had become a failing product or close up shop, those in charge doubled down on racing and committed HK$6.3-billion for facility improvements.
While much of the initial investment was spent on infrastructure repairs and restoration, the exterior facelifts at both tracks have really taken shape in the past few years and the upgrades were clear to see during our visit. Most impressive, in terms of aesthetics, were the restaurants which ranged from casual cafeterias and noodle bars in the grandstand to upscale restaurants in member areas.
Each of the higher end dining spots brought to life Chinese cultural and historical motifs. Perhaps no restaurant stood out more than Provincial at Happy Valley, which features a series of dining rooms named after the horses of past Chinese emperors. Every restaurant, Provincial included, has its own rich blend of art, creative lighting, breathtaking views of the racecourse and comfortable seating. In fact, seating is something the HKJC takes very seriously and testing out each individual chair (literally having staff sit on them to make sure they’re just right) is regularly one of the more tedious exercises in facility quality maintenance.
Still in the midst of renovations (the “Racecourse Master Plan” which was launched in 2009 is now in its third and final phase and due to be complete in 2017-2018 season), the HKJC is enjoying the fruits of its labor. Last year, total turnover soared to HK$107.9-billion (US$13.9-billion), reminiscent of what might’ve been thought of as the halcyon days of the early to mid 1990’s. On Sunday, the Hong Kong International Races, the third richest day of racing in the world (behind only the Breeders’ Cup and Dubai World Cup) drew a record crowd of 85,552 and handle was HK$1.44-billion – only slightly less than last year’s record of HK$1.46-billion.
When it comes to customer service, the one thing that struck me both at Happy Valley, which hosts weekly racing on Wednesday evening geared toward younger and more casual race goers, and at Sha Tin, the more grown-up, Sunday afternoon track which hosts the HKIR, is that the player never feels alone on an island. On posters, placards on tables and on monitors all over the tracks, there’s information explaining the options on the tracks elaborate wagering menu.
There were still more than a few occasions when members of our 12-person social media team found ourselves staring blankly at a betting slip and wondering if we’d made the wager we’d actually intended on. At least personally, whenever I had a moment like that, staff at the track (of which there appeared to be about 100 to 1 compared to the tracks I’m used to back home) instinctively gravitated toward me and asked if they could be of any assistance. This happened to me on the VIP terrace overlooking the track at Happy Valley with the same regularity as it did in the general grandstand near the famous beer garden where 20-somethings come to see and be seen on a weekly basis.
It was in those moments in which I could’ve just stopped betting – when I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing it correctly – that one track employee after another made it clear to me that they wanted my business. I wasn’t a burden to them. It might have just been indicative of a broader cultural emphasis on customer service in Hong Kong but it always felt like workers at the track had the answersI needed and they took pride in sharing those answers.
Once I had gotten a better grasp on how to fill out a standard betting card (which gets presented to a teller or can be dropped into a machine just like a standard lottery ticket that one might fill out at a gas station), I began to explore the most exotic of exotic wagering options on the betting menu. Some of those options included:
Quinella: Essentially, a boxed exacta.
Quinella Place: Exacta that pays when two selected horses finish in any two of the top three positions. For example, if you were to play a 3/6 quinella place, you’d get paid if the 3 won and the 6 finished third, or if neither of them won but they still finished second and third.
Tierce and Trio: The former is a straight trifecta and the latter is a boxed trifecta.
Double Trio: Selecting winning trifectas in back to back races. It’s not as daunting as it might sound. I’ll explain momentarily when we dive into fractional betting options.
Triple Trio: Winning trifectas in three consecutive races.
First Four: Boxed superfecta, or top four finishers.
Six Up: A place pick 6 that pays to all tickets with winning or runner-up horses in six consecutive races, with a bonus for selecting all six winners.
As a seasoned horseplayer who likes to dabble in exotic wagering, I found the Hong Kong wagering menu appealing for three reasons that I think would also be of interest to new bettors: Low minimums, fractional wagering and consolations.
All exotic wagering is offered for a minimum bet of HK$10, or roughly US$1.30. You can also cap your wager at HK$100 (US$13) when making a fractional wager, which is especially handy when you play the double and triple trios. With fractional wagering, you can cap your bets with a fixed wager amount (HK$100 being the most common amount I used), while still covering all possible outcomes (boxing multiple horses) by buying a smaller percentage of your ticket.
For example, if I were to play the “six up” using multiple horses in each leg, let’s say going 2x1x3x2x2x2, there would be 48 possible outcomes. Multiplied by the HK$10 base amount, the ticket would cost HK$480 or US$62. That same ticket in most American pick 6 pools (generally set as a $2 minimum bet) would cost $96 but wait, there’s more. In Hong Kong, you can cap wagers like the Six Up, Double Trio and Triple Trio at HK$100. So, using the ticket above as our example, you’d essentially be allowed to buy about 20% of the $480 ticket for just $100. If the ticket were to hit, you’d still collect – albeit at the same reduced percentage of investment (a fifth of the winning payout amount in this instance).
Whether that kind of bet suits every players style is irrelevant. What matters is that it gives the betting public, and particularly new players, a more budget friendly option while allowing them to secure maximum coverage when wagering into difficult exotic pools.
Another edge to the players comes in the form of consolations. On every multi-race wager, a consolation is paid off to runners-up in closeout legs. With both doubles and pick 3’s, the player gets paid if they make it to the last leg and their horse finishes second. Think about that. How many times have you been knocked out of a multi-race bet with your horse painfully finishing second in the closeout leg? Consolations, however small, take a little of the sting out of losses like that and afford the player more bullets with which to fire later on.
In terms of the double trio and triple trio, consolations are similarly offered if you can come with just first and second place finishers in the final leg of the sequence. So, essentially, to cash on a double trio, you have to hit a boxed trifecta in the first leg and an exacta in the second leg. That’s not all that difficult when you find a key horse or two, what they call a “banker” in Hong Kong, in each leg of the sequence along with a handful of other horses underneath.
Consolations played a huge part in the overall wagering success of our group this past week. On the advice of Pat Cummings, Executive Manager of Public Affairs for the HKJC who organized the social media trip, we decided to take a shot at the six up last Wednesday at Happy Valley. I relied heavily on Pat’s input, as well as picks from international handicapper Candice Hare and Andrew Hawkins of the South China Morning Post. Combining some of my selections and a few from the aforementioned Harriet Fuller, we came up with a group ticket that cost HK$2,592 (US$334).
The first leg featured an upset and it appeared as if we’d been knocked out right off the bat. The winning horse was not on our ticket. Luckily, the runner-up was a long shot added to our ticket late, on the advice of Harriet. If this were anywhere else I’ve ever gambled, our ticket would’ve been dead but since the Six Up offers a consolation for tickets with horses finishes first or second in all legs, we were still alive.
In two of the ensuing legs, we had the first and second place finishers which worked as multipliers, giving us four live tickets going into the last leg. If you haven’t seen it floating around social media, there’s a video that pretty well captures what happens next: We win, we go crazy and cash for nearly HK$36,000 in our first time ever playing the six up. Heck, most of us had never even bet at all on Hong Kong racing previously.
Adding to the thrill of victory was the fact that we weren’t taxed on our winnings. That means we took home every Hong Kong penny we earned. We were also told in advance that tipping at the track was prohibited. So, despite wanting to give back to about a dozen tellers and other staff that had spent the night answering our questions, we didn’t. Two of the men who had been especially helpful in showing me how to fill out the betting slips were smiling ear to ear and giving me high-fives as I cashed our ticket. We won, so they won. That’s certainly how it felt.
I know that I’ll be telling that story for years. I’ll also never forget the thrill of cashing my own personal biggest ticket of the weekend in the featured race of the weekend,the Hong Kong Cup. I was fortunate enough to pick 38-1 winner A Shin Hikari, who led from the break and held on to spring the upset. All week long, I told anyone who would listen that I liked him a lot and I got some strange looks. Fortunately, I stuck to my gut and bet HK$100 win/place and also hit one of the quinella place bets when one of my exacta horses held on for third. I cleared right around HK$7,000 on the race.
From a betting perspective, I found the whole process very convenient or, to quote Calum, organized. Wagering pools open at noon the day before race day and live odds for every race are easily attainable on track or on the HKJC website. In addition, the site also offers complete handicapping information, past performances and high-deffiniton replays — all for free.
There were so many more memories, like interviewing international superstar jockey Ryan Moore from England, as well as Hugh Bowman from Australia and Maxime Guyon from France. I’ll never forget the extravagance of the post or “barrier” draw at Sha Tin, the acrobats, food at the track and the HKIR Gala, the fireworks during and after the HKIR, and all the smiles and hugs shared with a group of 11 other racing fans who have strengthened my love and optimism about the great sport of horse racing.
There’s been this suffocating feeling of “people need to know about this” that I’ve carried with me for the past week. On the plane ride home, I couldn’t wait to land. I wanted to tell people about what I saw and how it felt. Ultimately, this was a life-changing experience for me but maybe it isn’t over. Maybe this is just the start. I feel renewed in many ways and hope that sharing the experience can spark the necessary creativity that results in the strengthening of our industry here at home.
– Dan Tordjman