First taste of HK's sport of kings whets the appetite
'What sports do they have in Hong Kong?' was often put to me when people heard I was leaving the UK for greener pastures. 'I think they're quite keen on horse racing,' I would reply. Turns out they are very keen.
I probably couldn't have picked a better meeting to get broken in. Despite having been here for less than a fortnight, I knew it was a big deal. The set-up at Sha Tin is more impressive than the rickety grandstand at Down Royal in Northern Ireland, the only other time I have been to the races, and I struggled not to bump into people as I gawped at the soaring stands, shiny restaurants and betting machines, row after row of them. Flashing my badge, I wandered into the parade ring to see what the commotion was. It was the opening ceremony, and a chance for VIPs (and me) to inspect some of the world's best jockeys. Some were larking about, others understandably looked nervous. Even I recognised Frankie Dettori.
I ask a Jockey Club steward to sum up Hong Kong racing. 'Have you got 24 hours?' he joked, before filling me in on the way the Club works, and the good work it does with the immense amount of money it makes. It would be a slight consolation that at least my losses weren't buying some shady character a new Jag.
A kindly lady filled out my first slip and said two words no bookie has ever said to me: 'good luck'. At the finish line I speak to an Aussie who was on Dettori in the Vase. It's Jerry's first visit and he sums up Sha Tin as 'world class - the Melbourne Cup is obviously big, but the facilities here are the best I've ever seen', he says.
Jerry should know: he's a bookmaker. His friend Greg, from Vancouver, adds: 'I tell people in Canada and the US, 'you gotta come over here' - we're standing on the finish line for four Group One races, world-class racing. It's like the Breeders' Cup, but you would never get so close to the action.'
Before race five I examine my picks in the ring. I don't know my fetlock from my hindquarters, but can tell these are magnificent animals, the power and grace of the likes of JJ The Jet Plane a wonder to see. Some are skittish, but last year's horse of the year, Sacred Kingdom, has a blas?'been there, done that' air. I back neither.
I head up to the owners' box to see the race. The patrons have polished off their lobster and the wives enjoy dessert while the men smoke fat cigars on the balcony. No doubt they're playing for larger stakes than my HK$120. It's a grey day, but the view stretching out over the hills and high-rises is not diminished. The horses enter the last 300 metres with a long roar from the grandstand, which reaches a crescendo at the finish before falling abruptly as they cross the line.
Down in the 'commoners' area, locals study the form with incredible intensity. It's clear this is serious business. Most are wearing the free baseball cap they got on arrival, 'designed by acclaimed actor Jim Chim', according to the programme. He shouldn't give up the day job.
On the hard yellow benches in the grandstand, people are tucking into cuttlefish in a plastic bag. The floor is littered with slips and butts and everyone seems to have the same race-form paper. They look up from it to watch the favourite roll home in the sixth, then it's back to the research. I should take some lessons, as my hunch-based method is not paying off - Paco Boy running the Mile slightly faster than I could have done.
I stroll into the Jockey Club box for a change of scene, a waiter in pristine white handing me a cold beer. It's very civilised, guests being introduced and business cards exchanged. The networking advantages of being in the inner sanctum are obvious. 'Are you winning?' asks one man. 'No, I had to borrow this shirt a minute ago,' his friend jokes. Another tells perhaps a fellow member of his board: 'If No1 doesn't come in, I'll have to ask the company for a loan.'
I might have to do that myself, as Dettori fails to deliver in the Cup .
'There are very few things in Hong Kong that the people can participate in as a body, and racing is one of them,' the steward told me. I now know what he means. I'll be back.