ASCOT it was not. Yet a day at the races in Beijing has its rewards. There was no smoked salmon or Pimms but there were ladies with extravagant hats, and with Pekinese lapdogs. And the car park was full of Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and the odd red sports car. Yesterday was the inaugural 'King of the Horses Cup' and the grandstand was packed with punters. In keeping with the policy of deepening reforms and opening to the outside world, the organisers are experimenting - from this month, you can place bets as long as you don't call it gambling. As such the Xiang Village Beijing Race course occupies dubious ground somewhere between Marx and the Marx Brothers. A slogan urges punters to 'Observe the instructions of the central Government outlawing gambling'. Yet inside the grandstand, red-cheeked village girls sat behind counters operating newly-imported computers. There you can place bets for 20 yuan (HK$18.64) - or more. 'I do not call this gambling, it is just fun because the Government does not allow gambling in China,' explained track official, Sun Banglie. He runs a company making equestrian equipment and capitalising on the growing fad for horse-riding. There are more than a dozen riding clubs around Beijing. In one race, horses - and riders - belonged to various government media units including Chinese Central Television, the Beijing Daily and the Science and Technology Daily. The track was opened three years ago but investors, the Beijing United Motor Works, are still learning how to run it commercially. Memoirs written by former diplomats in the late 1920s and 1930s recount how a race track outside Beijing was used by the foreign community but it disappeared long ago. Now clubs have brought in riders and horses from Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and other parts of the country with a tradition for breeding and racing horses. And yesterday, jockeys as young as 13 paraded in dazzling silk colours with jodhpurs and high boots. Problems with the starting gate delayed several races for more than an hour, but nobody minded too much. Once the race is about to begin, punters rush to place a bet - or 'try to guess which horse will come first' as the clerk put it. The odds are then calculated on an electronic board depending on how many 'guesses' are made. 'One day it might be like Hong Kong but not yet,' said Mr Sun. But companies, especially those from Hong Kong, prominently sponsored races. Inside the 'room for honoured guests', excitement grew as the first race reached an end. Everyone shouted, drowning out the commentator, and waved their copies of free newspaper, Bookmaking Knowhow. The sport of kings is truly just for fun, at least for now.