Backing the wrong horse

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


Like an old record stuck in its groove, the government has put out the same old tired argument for not allowing fans to bet on last week's Barclays Asia Trophy final between Chelsea and Aston Villa at Hong Kong Stadium. The decision stemmed from the fact the all-English Premier League clash was part of a tournament in which a Hong Kong team was participating.

League champions Kitchee, pretty in pink, were playing another Premier League team, Blackburn Rovers. Because of this, the existing licence for football betting issued by the government to the Hong Kong Jockey Club prevented them, the licensee, from accepting bets.

Amy Tam, a senior information officer with the Home Affairs Bureau, said whether or not to allow gambling on matches involving local teams required a thorough discussion in the community. 'Whilst legalising it might help combat illegal gambling activities, many people in our community would be concerned about the influence this might have on our youth, the new gambling opportunities that would be made available to the public, and its effect on the integrity of the local football scene,' Tam said.

This misguided stance has resulted in millions of dollars being lost in revenue. Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges estimated that more than 130 overseas bookies, including most major offshore and online bookmakers in the region, had opened betting pools to cash in on Hong Kong's inertia.

Engelbrecht-Bresges nailed it in his blog when he referred to 'a top match the whole world can bet on - except in Hong Kong'. He also said neither of the two reasons why the government banned the Jockey Club from accepting bets on matches involving Hong Kong teams - integrity concerns and insufficient public interest - were applicable. This was an international event held under the umbrella of the English Premier League and as far as public interest was concerned, the fact that tickets went like hotcakes long before the event should have been enough proof.

By and large, betting is in the life blood of Hong Kong. I have seen punters at race meetings gambling on cards in-between races. Every day crowds flock outside shop windows to see which way their stocks and shares are moving.

In this light, it is crazy that a responsible body like the Jockey Club isn't given the licence to take bets while every cheap bookie rubs his hands in glee. It was after years of persuasion that the government finally allowed the Jockey Club to take bets on football. Before the 2006 World Cup, it was estimated illegal soccer gambling turnover was HK$60 billion.

We have finally addressed that by allowing betting on soccer - at least for games without Hong Kong involvement. But there is still a long way to go in today's cyber world.

Online gaming is the biggest threat to the Jockey Club. Last Saturday's final was an example of what happens almost every week during the horse racing season and with football (overseas matches including the EPL).

Despite being the sole provider of horse racing, football betting and lotteries in this town, the Jockey Club is feeling the heat from outside raiders who are only too willing to grab a piece of the pie. The competition, as Engelbrecht-Bresges said, 'is just a mouse click away'.

It's a shame our single largest taxpayer which provides nearly 7 per cent of the government's annual revenue - HK$12.8 billion last year - is operating with one arm tied behind its back.

The government is afraid to give the Jockey Club more rein because of the vociferous anti-gambling lobby, including religious bodies. Without the Jockey Club's largesse, everyone would have to pay more in taxes. Our rates are among the lowest in the world because of the Jockey Club revenue.

Whether it is right or wrong to gamble is a moral issue and one which each individual has to grapple with. Just taking an anti-gambling stance doesn't mean the menace will disappear. Nor can we forget the money given to charity by the Jockey Club. Every year, more than a billion dollars goes to various institutions.

By reasoning that no betting should occur on matches involving a Hong Kong team, and in this instance 'matches' included the whole tournament, the government has proved their logic is flawed.

As Engelbrecht-Bresges pointed out, the local punter shouldn't be allowed to bet on the World Cup as Hong Kong takes part - or did - in the qualifying process. Does this mean the man on the street will not be allowed to bet on the 2014 World Cup?

Let's be a bit more sensible. Let's not bite the hand that feeds us, and help it instead. People will bet, one way or the other, so let them do it legally and help society, too.