It’s not hard to earn the ire of a Hong Kong racing crowd, but at least they don’t get physical. A high-profile jockey being beaten on an odds-on favourite or something as simple as the horses being late into the parade ring brings a low-toned and familiar hum from the mostly male patrons at Sha Tin and Happy Valley.
And that’s not booing you hear, it’s a hearty “diu…”, one of the most commonly used Cantonese swear words. Luckily for Douglas Whyte and company, foul language is usually all that is hurled across the fence and the behaviour of Chinese punters compares pretty favourably on a world scale, if some recent racetrack riots are any indication.
Last Sunday the final three races at Clairwood, near Durban, were abandoned when angry punters protested and officials admitted they “couldn’t guarantee the safety of jockeys and horses”.
Horses that are expected to win and don’t are the cause for most racetrack protestations and this time it was hotpot My Sanctuary being impeded by a faulty starting gate that was the catalyst for the uproar. My Sanctuary was third across the line and local rules state horses finishing in the first three cannot be declared non-runners.
Twice this year notoriously combustible Indian race fans have lost the plot. In January, at the Bangalore Turf Club, violence erupted when the day’s feature event was disqualified – “… chairs were hurled and 12 television sets broken, leading to cancellation of three races,” reported the Bangalore Mirror.
A month later in Mumbai, British jockey Martin Dwyer was reportedly “nearly lynched” after he was beaten on6-to-4 favourite Ice Age in the last event at Mahalaxmi racecourse.
Stewards caved in and Ice Age was declared a non-runner, but a large portion of the crowd continued to vent their anger until late in the evening, demanding an explanation from stewards.
Punters at Happy Valley are well-behaved, given how freely the liquor flows into the over-sized steins in the Beer Garden. If you packed 15,000-plus patrons and plied them with booze at a similarly sized western track there would be trouble, beaten favourites or not. Given the extraordinary amount of money on the line in Hong Kong, it’s a credit to the rule makers that they don’t feel the need to storm the weighing room.
But 11 years ago at Happy Valley things were close to tipping over the edge and the lightning rod for the mass emotional outburst was not surprisingly Douglas Whyte.
This time it was the favourite winning on protest that puzzlingly sparked the protest, colleague Alan Aitken reporting at the time: “For five minutes, fans booed and jeered from all around the Happy Valley amphitheatre, many of them with hand gestures of thumbs down for the decision and the heckling began anew when Whyte emerged to mount up on Magic Hands, a stablemate to Exceptional, in the next race almost 20 minutes later.”
The crowd’s displeasure continued through to the following weekend’s meeting at Sha Tin where Whyte was again roundly booed.
The love-hate relationship between punters and Whyte is a fascinating one. It’s hard to imagine a more consistent competitor than the Durban Demon, but maybe his remarkable record over the years has created a mythical aura of invincibility and that’s why his supporters get up in arms when things don’t go his way.
Is he so reliable that punters have come to expect perfection? No other jockey seems to get the same attention, but then again no one else rides as many favourites.
At least no furniture gets thrown and the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s chief steward isn’t forced to stare down an angry mob when Whyte goes under in the Jockey Challenge.
As much as the Sha Tin punters love to vent their frustrations vocally, perhaps the free caps handed out on big race days seem to have a pacifying effect on the fans – once the caps are safely on their heads that is.
The only actual physical violence seems to be directed at one another: when someone steals another punter’s lucky seat, or when there isn’t enough free hats to go around.
In 2005, two great Chinese traditions came crashing together in a perfect storm of public disorder: the love of giveaways and obsession with the “sure win” odds-on fancy. Twenty-one people were injured in a stampede at Sha Tin as they attempted to get their hands on some commemorative Silent Witness caps.
But at least law enforcement authorities didn’t have to worry about ramifications for the rider of Silent Witness, Felix Coetzee. The champion sprinter did the right thing that day – he delivered his delirious favourite backers HK$10.50 for every HK$10 outlayed and everyone, bar those trampled trying to get a hat, went home happy.