Happy Valley nights

Happy Valley races are staged most Wednesday evenings through the Hong Kong horse racing season, which runs through 88 meetings from September to July. The track is a hub for gamblers, both small-time and big. It is also a place where the city’s rich rub shoulders within off-limits luxury boxes; and it is a draw for expatriates and tourists seeking a novelty night of unchecked booze, chat and a flutter. Horse racing has dominated Happy Valley since the racecourse was officially laid out in 1845, three years after Britain secured Hong Kong Island in the Treaty of Nanking. The colonial authorities moved out the local inhabitants of Wong Nai Chung, drained the land and commenced their sport. The Valley was the only race track in Hong Kong until the larger Sha Tin Racecourse opened in 1978. Up until then, all of Hong Kong’s horses had been homed and trained in Happy Valley, kept in high-rise stables on Shan Kwong Road. Horses would walk down the hill to the racecourse and back each morning for exercise – wearing “slippers” to muffle the clip-clop of hooves – and again on race days. Nowadays, they are driven the 24km from their stables in Sha Tin on spacious horse floats. The Hong Kong Jockey Club owns the track, having been its steward since its own inception in 1884.

Traffic flow is busy on Wednesday nights in Happy Valley. Most race-goers arrive by tram or taxi, some stopping off in the area’s bars and restaurants before making their way to the racecourse.

Race-goers walk the route that horses in the past would have taken to the racecourse, down Wong Nai Chung Road, along the race track’s south western wall towards the public entrance.

Public entry to the racecourse is HK$10 and is strictly for those aged 18 or over. But the Hong Kong Jockey Club is a private members’ club and most of the venue’s restaurants, bars and boxes are exclusive to members. There are 9,100 Racing Member subscriptions, costing HK$150,000 up front plus an HK$850 monthly fee. Full members pay a HK$600,000 joining fee and HK$2,200 per month, while Mainland members pay RMB400,000 and RMB1,800 monthly. Only HKJC members are eligible to stable and race a horse on the Hong Kong circuit and require a permit to do so.

Each Happy Valley fixture consists of eight races – occasionally nine. The course is famously tight in circumference – only 1450 metres – and so each race has a maximum of 12 runners. The track stages races at 1000, 1200, 1650, 1800 and 2200 metres. Hong Kong’s jockeys aim to ride in as many races on the card as possible. They meet their mount’s owner(s) pre-race and receive instruction from the horse’s trainer in the parade ring before the “mount up” bell sounds.

Happy Valley’s high-rise skyline is world famous in horse racing circles and so are its gamblers. The Hong Kong Jockey Club reaped turnover of HK$124.2 billion in the 2017/18 season. That was a 5.8% increase on the previous season. The Club, a not-for-profit organisation, retained HK$5.4 billion of that as operating costs, and paid HK$13 billion to the Hong Kong SAR government in betting duty. The Department of Health’s Centre for Health Protection estimates that 90% of Hong Kong men have engaged in gambling.

Jockey Keith Yeung makes some adjustments to his leathers before heading out to race. Thoroughbred race horses can hit speeds around 40mph, and, at Happy Valley, they race in tight quarters, sometimes dangerously close together as the riders attempt to gain an edge. Yeung was born and raised in Hong Kong and advanced through the HKJC apprentice jockeys’ school to become a fully credited jockey. Hong Kong has about 25 jockeys riding the circuit at any given time. A little more than half are home grown riders but they traditionally have struggled to compete against big-name expatriate jockeys.

According to Hong Kong Jockey Club figures, 701,000 people attended Happy Valley Racecourse in 2017/18. The venue had an average attendance of about 18,400 – its capacity is closer to 50,000. The core of its attendees are middle aged or senior citizens who pore over the form sheets before placing bets on each race.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club has, in the past decade, made efforts to draw a more youthful crowd. At the far end of the track from the pre-race parade ring, close to the public entrance, is the Beer Garden. That section of the concourse features pop-up bars and live music to draw a more youthful element. The Beer Garden is the domain of a large proportion of tourists and expats. It remains to be seen whether the Club’s plan to draw a younger crowd into the sport long term is working.

Expatriates with big jugs of beer in hand are a common site in Happy Valley’s Beer Garden.

Horses line up in allotted barriers. The gates open all at once, ensuring a fair start. Most horses will load without any issues but some dislike the tight confines and can be reluctant to enter. Stalls handlers – most in Hong Kong are also track work riders and grooms – ensure that the horses load into the starting gates safely.

As soon as the race is on, the starting gate is wheeled off the course and the track’s maintenance crew works hurriedly to ensure that the turf is in good condition before the horses swing around for a second pass.

Horses and riders blur past at full gallop towards the yellow arch of the winning post. Hong Kong has about 1200 race horses stabled at Sha Tin, split between 21 trainers. Hong Kong racing turned professional in 1971 and that meant that only thoroughbreds were allowed to race. For most of Hong Kong’s history prior to that, the races were staged using “China ponies”.

The night wears on and the Beer Garden begins to thin out as people head towards the exit.

Hong Kong’s three-time champion jockey, the Brazilian sensation Joao Moreira, slips the saddle off a beaten horse. Each jockey is weighed before and after a race to make sure every horse carries the correct allotted weight within a frame of 133lb down to 113lb. The jockey’s allowable weight includes the saddle, stirrups and girths, the straps that fasten the saddle beneath the horse’s belly. A saddle can weigh as little as eight ounces.

Racing ends at around 11pm and a long line of trams wait outside the public entrance to trundle race-goers home. Hong Kong’s tram system was established in 1904 and runs between Kennedy Town on the west side of Hong Kong Island and Shau Kei Wan in the east. The Happy Valley branch loops off the main route and skirts the racecourse one-way around Wong Nai Chung Road.