A day at the races is a Hong Kong tradition. Whether it is well-dressed millionaires clustering in the Owners' Box to watch their expensive thoroughbreds being led into the winner's enclosure or exuberant shirt-sleeved crowds cheering home the favourite as it pounds down the straight, racing is a joy that brings together people of all backgrounds. That is as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th, when newly arrived Chinese settlers were converted into instant - and swiftly knowledgeable - fans of the sport. Racing is the great Hong Kong pastime, and Hong Kong Jockey Club officials are taking steps to ensure that the sport adapts and caters to modern tastes while retaining the glamour, excitement and thrills which for 150 years have drawn people trackside. In recent years, tens of millions of dollars have been spent revamping facilities, making conditions more user-friendly, comfortable and welcoming, not only for the club's 23,000 members but also for the public. Up to 80,000 people pack the stands at Sha Tin for a large meeting; the aim is to make sure the facilities allow patrons to have fun. Lounges and restaurants built into the stands are popular venues for friends to meet when they go racing. Rows of comfortable chairs in front of hundreds of television screens give everyone a view of the action and help serious punters track the changing odds before each race. The aim, says Club chairman Ronald Arculli, is to help people enjoy a day at the races with maximum comfort. That ambition extends far from the two racecourses. In the 115 off-course betting branches around the city, fans instantly get the latest information. It comes to refurbished centres seamlessly through the latest audiovisual technology. 'It conveys literally the sensational experience of race-going to audiences throughout Hong Kong,' says chief executive Lawrence Wong Chi-kong, who has instituted wide-ranging changes in how people can enjoy the sport. Punting and watching the races in an off-course betting branch almost matches the excitement of being at the track. 'They are no longer merely somewhere to place a bet. They have comfortable seating and a friendly atmosphere,' Mr Wong says. 'Our aim is to deliver an exemplary standard of service.' This is done through computer and television technology which is the most modern in the world. There are many initiatives aimed at making racing more enjoyable for all. Not everyone knows how to lay a bet. To teach novices the procedures, designated 'beginners' areas' will be at the racecourses from this season. 'Racing DJs' will show people how to place a bet and explain the basics of selecting horses. 'This will help them to enjoy the racing experience more,' Mr Arculli says. 'We will be giving people a lot more information aimed at beginners' level. We already provide a lot of information for seasoned fans.' And there will also be special areas for mainland visitors, where 'ambassadors' will explain the ABCs of racing. It is not only Hong Kong residents who enjoy watching the horses. Increasingly, tourists find a day at the track is an integral part of their stay in the city. Overseas visitors can enjoy the sophistication and spectacular atmosphere of evening races at Happy Valley or the world-class facilities at Sha Tin, regarded as the best racetrack in the world. In conjunction with the travel industry, the club offers various packages that include deluxe dining or a simple tour. Thousands of visitors and Hong Kong residents at the tracks see horse racing of a calibre that is hard to equal. The club did not achieve this success overnight. It was the culmination of many decades of toil, determination and imagination. In 1970, Peter Williams, later to become chairman of the Board of Stewards, proposed looking into introducing professional racing. This was a major change; until then the club had been operating amateur races. The following year the club went professional, hiring overseas trainers and inviting prominent foreign jockeys. Meanwhile, it started a scheme to train local enthusiasts who were recruited as apprentices. Two decades later, this initiative resulted in what was regarded universally as a lucrative and admired international racing centre. Today, standards of Hong Kong's international races are fast approaching the highest benchmarks of the world's best practice. The health and wealth of Hong Kong racing is generated by punters. Patrons laid bets of $65 billion last year through the club totalisator. Betting duty from those wagers constituted 11 per cent of the government's annual income. The club also provided $1 billion to charity. Although racing enthusiasts cheer trackside throughout the ten-month season, last December's Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin was the crowning glory in the annals of the city's racing. Many foreign visitors described it as the finest day of horse racing they had experienced anywhere. The magnificent end-of-year extravaganza showcases the best thoroughbreds from around the world competing for $56 million in prize money. It is held every December, with plenty of fanfare opening the maiden event in 1987. In 1998, it was decided that four races (1,000 metres, 1,600 metres, 2,000 metres and 2,400 metres) would be run on international day. Prizemoney for the international events leapt from $20 million across three races to $54 million for four events in the space of four years. The club's ambition to elevate the international day meeting into a universally recognised turf world championship has been achieved. Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, Club executive director of racing, says that it is aiming to 'intensify globalisation'. 'The aim is to strategically position Hong Kong racing for the future,' he says. 'We want to present the best possible sport of horse racing for our customers.' The international meeting is now the third-richest single day of horse racing anywhere in the world. Socialites and world racing identities help cram the Sha Tin stands for the glamorous international meeting. But that special weekend remains very much a Hong Kong event, just as every Jockey Club meeting is a holiday for the city's race fans.