Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hong Kong 2: The Race Track Experience

The beer garden at Happy Valley

Critics, consultants and industry insiders in US horse racing agonize over how to make race-going a fan-friendly, exciting experience, one that newcomers will enjoy and want to repeat. In Hong Kong, they've figured out how to do that. True, the circumstances are different, and Hong Kong racing doesn't face the kind of competition from other spectator sports and gambling options that tracks in the US face, but, nonetheless, perhaps there's something to be learned from looking at how it's done elsewhere.

This is the second of three reports based on several visits to each of the Hong Kong race tracks. Yesterday's dealt with the economics of Hong Kong racing. Tomorrow's will deal with care of horses, medication rules, and equine retirement.

Happy Valley

The urban racetrack is an unprepossessing species in America. Aqueduct, Hawthorne, Pimlico. Blighted neighborhoods, wind whistling through near-empty stands, a few thousand patrons whose median age is deceased.

Not so in Hong Kong. Happy Valley, the in-town racecourse that runs on Wednesday evenings, is close to the center of the city, a short walk from a major subway stop, in an upscale neighborhood, with the track surrounded by expensive high-rises. And going to the races, with 30,000 or more fellow racing fans, is fun.

As for the track itself, think Aqueduct on steroids. No, not that kind of steroids; Hong Kong has just about the tightest drug rules in the world. But take an urban race track with a mid-week meeting, fill it with 30,000 or more people, build the stands 8 stories high, surround the track with skyscraper apartment buildings, throw in a beer garden for the expatriates, and you have Happy Valley. It's Hong Kong's second track, home to mid-week night racing, mostly for average-quality horses, and with few of the top-quality stakes that are mostly run at the other Hong Kong track, Sha Tin, out in the New Territories.

While visiting Hong Kong, we've seen both extremes of the accommodations at Happy Valley. Thanks to Bill Nader and Anny Kwan, we enjoyed the luxury of the Hong Kong Jockey Club's executive box high up in the members' stand (aka club house, but in fact so much more), with a serious buffet and excellent wine. The huge members' stand has a wide variety of restaurants, lounges and viewing areas; ours was but one of many. And on another visit, we paid our HK$10 (about US$1.25) grandstand admission and watched the races from the commotion of the stretch-side beer garden, where a fully costumed Santa Claus was standing at the rail yelling his heart out for Number 5, and from the balcony just off the food court on the second floor. Two nights of good, competitive racing, with full fields -- Hong Kong averages 12.4 horses per race, compared to just under 8 at most of the major US tracks -- and lots of good betting opportunities.

The betting menu at the Hong Kong tracks is a bit more extensive than at most US tracks. All races offer win and place (i.e., 1st, 2nd or 3rd) betting, plus quiniellas and "place quiniellas" (pick any two of the top 3 horses) and trifectas (called "tierce" in Hong Kong). No exacta or superfecta betting, but quiniella-type bets on the top 3 in any order ("trio") and the top 4 in any order ("First 4"). The biggest single-race pool (which is typically the exacta pool in the US) is the trio.

Rolling doubles and Pick 3 bets are also available, with consolation payoffs if you hit the first leg (or first two in the Pick 3) and finish second in the last leg. The big high-payoff exotics are the double trio (hit the trio in two consecutive races) and, especially, the triple trio (hit it in three consecutive races). The latter builds up a jackpot, much like the Pick Six at US tracks. It's not easy to get the three top finishers three races in a row, when the average field size is more than 12; as of the end of Tuesday's race card, the Triple Trio jackpot was over HK$14 million (almost US$2 million). There's also a Pick Six, which pays off if you get either the first or second-place horse in six consecutive races, with a bonus for getting all six winners; that bonus, as of Tuesday, was over HK$10 million.

The Happy Valley walking ring is on the apron, rather than behind the track, allowing lots of grandstand patrons -- at least those who aren't enthralled by the beer garden festivities -- to get a last look before placing their bets. In contrast to Sha Tin, though, the HK$10 racetrackers don't have the chance for seats on the finish line; that's clubhouse, or, in HK parlance, members' stand, territory.

Down the stretch at Sha Tin

Sha Tin

If Happy Valley is Aqueduct on steroids, then Sha Tin, out in the New Territories north of Kowloon, is a combination of Belmont, Churchill Downs and Santa Anita, done better. Mountains in the background, a la Santa Anita, stands eight stories high, a la Churchill, and a dedicated race track train, a la Belmont (though the one to Sha Tin was a lot more crowded, even on a relatively off day). The Sha Tin facility holds 80,000 or more, with excellent unreserved seating and remarkable restaurant facilities for those willing to pay a bit more. The high-rise stands offer great views of the track from the balconies, and the infield tote board is long enough to show lots more payoff and pool data than is typical at most US tracks.

For Hong Kong's big racing day, the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races on December 11th, we watched from the "Champions' Circle," set up for the day with a lavish buffet, lots of TV monitors, and easy access to the balconies facing the track and the walking ring behind the stands. A spectacular day of racing, from which American race track executives could learn. Take care of your foreign visitors, make a show of awarding the trophies, and, perhaps most impressive, have lots of helpful, friendly customer-service folks all over the track to help out the once-a-year visitors and, perhaps, turn them into regular racegoers.

Customer service is generally more friendly in Hong Kong than, say, in New York, but the Hong Kong Jockey Club puts a lot of time and effort into service, both at the track and in maintaining contact with its customers. Even by Hong Kong standards, it does well. Whether at the betting windows in the Champions Circle or at the (somewhat primitive-feeling) betting machines in the grandstand, there was always a mutuels information person within reach for the confused tourist. Try finding either of those (the friendly information person or the tourist) at Aqueduct in February.

And the information available to the serious bettor is significantly more complete at the Hong Kong tracks than in the US. The Jockey Club web site and most of the newspapers' racing sections include reports on horses that have bled in workouts or races and on horses that turned up lame or with other injuries. That contrasts with the general lack of explanation for a layoff that's found in the Daily Racing Form or track programs in the US. Equipment changes and  additions are also more comprehensively reported. In the US, the only equipment generally reported in the Form are blinkers and front bandages. In Hong Kong, there's also notification of, among other things, shadow rolls, figure-eight nosebands, the horse's weight (not just the assigned jockey weight) and a fair number of other equipment issues that may or may not make a difference, but certainly project an air of complete transparency.

The Form doesn't show as many prior races as in the US, and there's no precise equivalent of Beyer Speed Figures or the Ragozin or Thorograph Sheets for figure players, but in all other respects, the information provided to the Hong Kong bettor (at least the English-speaking variety; I can't comment on what's available in Chinese, but it certainly looked co-extensive with the English version) seems more thorough and complete than in the US.

As for medication notes, that's easy. None allowed. More on that tomorrow.

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