AT LEAST TWICE a week, 46-year-old Tam Ling pulls on his cream jockey breeches and black leather boots, slides his fire-red and pink-starred racing silks over his head and adjusts his goggles under the peak of his cap. He climbs aboard, clasps a whip in one hand and the leather reins in the other. The starting gates fly open. And they're off. Crouching in the stirrups, he rocks his mount vigorously and beats it soundly with the whip. Behind him, a crowd of 20 or so have gathered, giggling and whispering. 'Sheung, sheung, sheung,' some of them shout. 'Go, go, go.' As the finish line approaches, he's neck-and-neck with another runner, but Tam's horse grabs it in the final few strides. Tam punches the air and flashes a ubiquitous 'V for victory' sign. Tam rides three of his 10 mounts to victory on this particular day. In his enthusiasm, he sometimes whips them so hard he damages the hide. 'Don't beat the horses any more, you have damaged them all,' Nelson Tse Jong, senior supervisor of Mongkok's Cyber City video-game arcade, has told him. Tam is one of a number of fans of the electronic horse-racing game, but by wearing his jockey attire at the arcade, he takes his enthusiasm to a higher level than most. And when he's not wearing his silks and entertaining the regulars at the arcade in Sai Yeung Choi Street, Tam spends every race day at Hong Kong's real tracks, where he has become a well-known fixture in his boots, helmet and goggles and whip. 'I'm not obsessed with it,' Tam says, unconvincingly. 'Going to the racecourse is just my interest. I can communicate with the jockeys. They are sportsmen and I'm just a fan. My relationship with the jockeys is like that of singers and their fans.' For Tam, what keeps him coming back is simple. 'I was nobody before, now I have some fame,' he says. 'I wanted to make a name for myself. I am very happy now. People used to look down on me; now they care about me.' Tam was raised in Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei, with three brothers and a sister. At the age of five he was struck down with meningitis. 'I was sick and almost died,' he says. 'My mother said to my father that I wouldn't get better and suggested giving me away. They put me outside the door of the mortuary of Kwong Wah Hospital. Later, my father had a change of heart and went back to take me home.' Tam eventually recovered, but the illness took its toll. 'I guess it changed my life,' he says. 'I could have been very tall, but my illness made me very small. It also affected my learning ability. I found it difficult to learn things.' Tam was bullied at school and found it difficult to make friends. 'People took advantage of me, and only came to find me when they needed my help,' he says. 'But when I asked them for help, they ignored me.' Tam quit school at 13 and worked at odd jobs. Tragically, his parents died in the late 1980s, and Tam lived a lonely life in a tiny Shekkipmei public housing flat. He started going to the track regularly about four years ago when the economic downturn resulted in his casual work - in factories or construction sites - drying up. These days he takes what little casual work there is and lives off handouts from his brothers to augment a $1,600 monthly social security payment. At one race meeting, he managed to speak to a jockey. Then Tam took to hanging around the jockeys' changing rooms after races and before long most of the riders got to know him and began throwing him the ocassional souvenir. Today, Tam has 16 whips, 20 pairs of goggles, three skull caps, three pairs of boots and red silks given to him by French jockey Eric Saint-Martin. Not surprisingly, he's often mistaken for a real jockey. 'Some people asked me which race I'll be in and whether I had any tips,' Tam says. 'But now they all know I'm just imitating a jockey.' Tam has built quite a following at the tracks, where his various nicknames include 'Crazy Horse' and 'Horse King'. According to Hong Kong Jockey Club public affairs officer Tina Lau, Tam has become an 'unofficial icon' of the sport. 'I found him weird in the beginning,' she says. 'Later I realised he just loves racing.' The club's security director, Timothy McNally, adds: 'We're very happy he has such a great enthusiasm and interest in racing, and are glad to have a loyal supporter. He comes to every race, he is a good racing fan. His enthusiasm will bring more people to the game.' Tam knows many people consider him a little odd. But for him, his new interest gives life meaning. 'The racecourses are my second home,' he says. 'I know so many people, from jockey club staff to security guards, and I have lots of friends. I am very happy there. At home, I am alone and feel lonely, and I just sleep all the time.' It is a warm Wednesday evening at Happy Valley racecourse, and Tam has just changed into the dirt-flecked, racing breeches that used to belong to Saint-Martin and the black riding boots seven-time champion Basil Marcus once wore. In his hand is a whip, of course. He's not wearing his silk jersey today. It was given to him by Saint-Martin and he only wears it when the horses of the colour's owner, Lo Ying-bin, are running. Nevertheless, a cluster of Western men seem rather amused by the sight. Other racing enthusiasts such as track regulars Kelvin Ng, an accounts clerk, and Andy Li Lik-hang, a warehouse worker, chat with him about the form. Soon the first race starts and Tam climbs up on the fence. As the field thunders past, he cracks his whip in the air to cheer them on. Tam says he treats racing as entertainment, and it appears he provides as much as he derives. He bets on the races, but only modestly. 'Sometimes I don't bet at all, and other times I'll put $10 to $50 on a race and only bet more if I win,' he says. After the races, Tam runs off to talk to trainers and jockeys. 'He has a lot of fans,' says South African jockey Weichong Marwing. 'I get a lot of support from him, he always cheers you and it makes you feel good when you win,' says Australian jockey Michael Cahill. Then jockey Craig Williams, another Aussie, walks out and puts his arm around Tam's shoulders. 'You can be a stand-in jockey when the season's over,' he says, kindly. In a way, Tam is. When the real jockeys took a break from racing in Hong Kong, Tam still got his leg over regularly at Cyber City and even finds time to mount the electronic horses at a Guangzhou arcade when he visits his eldest brother in the closed season. Tam is thrilled with the new season's start. 'I will certainly go [to Happy Valley] tomorrow,' Tam says on the phone from Cyber City on the eve of last Sunday's season opener at Sha Tin. 'I feel very excited. I am very happy to see the jockeys, I can say hello and talk to them. 'I would love to be a real jockey, but I know it's impossible,' he says. 'I'm over the age limit.' But has a more attainable wish. 'I want to find a job, but it is difficult, no one hires me,' Tam adds. 'I'd love to work in the jockey club as a mafoo.' He is often reminded of the disability he suffered from his childhood illness when he applies for jobs, a process he finds difficult and often discriminatory. 'People always say I am small and slow,' Tam says. But twice a week during the racing season, at Sha Tin and Happy Valley, and at full gallop in Cyber City or an arcade in Guangzhou, Tam is no longer small and slow. Tam is the Horse King.