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After a billion-dollar betting binge bordering on the absurd at Happy Valley last week, now we get a good fortune-inspired day of compulsive gambling at the Chinese New Year meeting on Tuesday. But the rest of the world’s punters could soon get a chance to dip their toes into Hong Kong’s famously deep betting pools as well, with new rules seemingly opening the floodgates to the long-trumpeted “commingling”.
On its own HK$1.126 billion (or US$145 million) is a figure that is hard to comprehend, but that’s how much was bet in total at last Wednesday’s mundane fixture at Happy Valley, the most for a midweek fixture in more than a decade.
They were just run-of-the-mill races too; the standard was equivalent to a winter metropolitan meeting in Melbourne or Sydney, maybe even worse. Add that to the HK$1.286 billion (US$166 million) bet on 10 races at Sha Tin last Sunday, and you’re starting to get an idea of the scope.
That’s more than US$300 million in two days. It’s hard to make comparisons with other countries because it isn’t like-for-like, as Hong Kong’s tote-only monopoly is the envy of every bookmaker-leeched racing jurisdiction in the world. But let’s compare them anyway because it is fun and to get some idea of the scale of betting here.
In Australia, over six days of the 2011 Sydney carnival, the NSW-based Tabcorp’s handle was around US$242 million - so Hong Kong does considerably more business in two very average race days than the whole of a Sydney autumn carnival. And Hong Kong punters splurged more on last year’s Singapore Gold Cup than was bet by the locals, and bet the most of anyone on the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
But yearly turnover totals perhaps provide the best perspective on why Hong Kong is the pound-for-pound king when it comes to betting numbers.
Hong Kong moved past the US in total value of bets in a calendar year for the first time in 2011 – around US$11 billion to US$10.7 billion in America. But it’s the number of individual races it took to get there that is stunning: Hong Kong’s 769 annual races dwarfed by the 45,253 races run in the US.
Based on the numbers in the comprehensive Australian Racing Fact book, only Japan, Australia and France turn over more in total (Great Britain does not provide an estimate, but its government figures suggest it’s behind Hong Kong) – but no one does more business per race than the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the exciting and compelling Home Affairs Bureau’s announcement (bet that’s not written often) last week, a decision that seems to clearly open the way for “commingling”.
For the uninitiated, what is commingling? Sharing a 160-square-foot apartment in Chungking Mansions with three illegal immigrants?
No, it basically means allowing gamblers from different jurisdictions to bet into Hong Kong’s parameutual pools, and vice versa.
The big bosses at the Hong Kong Jockey Club had long bemoaned a taxation issue that was holding them back from commingling and now it’s about to happen. But the head honchos at Sports Road are puzzlingly playing down the significance of this announcement, besides years of intense lobbying to get the bill approved.
Maybe they don’t want to jinx it before it is given an iron clad, 100 per cent seal of approval – after all, there have been a few long odds-on favourites bite the dust this season out on the track. Or maybe there are still hoops to jump through and there are most certainly myriad technical aspects to pore over and business deals to broker before it becomes a reality next season. Whatever the case, the reaction has been decidedly muted.
Let’s take a leap into optimism and talk about what might happen if the HKJC gets its wish; at this end, perhaps not much in terms of an increase in turnover. But Sha Tin on a Sunday and Happy Valley on a Wednesday night would certainly be a much more attractive betting proposition to the big players.
While simulcast betting (Hong Kong wagering on overseas events) won’t be increased in frequency, it will certainly have a game-changing effect when the money lands overseas.
The off-shore bets nearly match the home tote hold already on races like the Blue Diamond and Golden Slipper, so the opinions of the impulsive punters in a Wan Chai or Kowloon betting shop will have a market-shaping influence on the odds of the big races. Maybe there’ll be some inequities and overs to mop up for the professionals after the “uneducated” overseas cash goes on.
And how long before Australian race clubs start bowing to the turnover beast and try to best place themselves in a position to maximise exposure in the Far East. The three-hour difference to eastern standard time works OK, but money talks and could a late afternoon starting time for the Golden Slipper deliver a few more million into the coffers? It’s all speculation for now, but on Tuesday outsiders can witness what happens when Hong Kong has a proper bet.
The handle will far exceed the last two meetings as the festive atmosphere engulfs the masses. Watching the Sha Tin tote board spin and lights flash, mixed with the intense energy in the air, has an almost nauseating effect at times – and the biggest crowd of the season, over 70,000, only adds to the buzz.
The locals have a pathological predisposition to punting, but the Chinese New Year period pushes them over the edge. The Lunar New Year is a time for renewal – and win, lose or draw, a bit of a gamble just gets the energy moving and good luck flowing. Most Chinese households will have a game of mahjong sometime over the holiday period.
So while foreign punters can watch the madness from afar on Tuesday, and bet into their kiddie pools at home, let’s hope next season they can jump in the deep end with the locals.