The pandemic years have been rich with surreal imagery. Vacant office space where once there was none, silent schools once brimming with students, public transport with few passengers, empty or closed stadiums, theatres and other entertainment venues, a population that kept its distance and remains masked to this day. The list goes on, but the second day of the Year of the Rabbit recalled an image that no one ever imagined they would see in the turf capital of Hong Kong – horse racing held behind closed doors without trackside punters as an anti-infection measure. The punters have been back for a while, but Tuesday’s Lunar New Year meeting at Sha Tin underlined how surreal their previous absence was. Nearly 80,000 people clicked the turnstiles at Sha Tin, plus more than 5,000 at the Happy Valley video meeting – the biggest turnout since the 2019, pre-pandemic Lunar New Year meeting. More telling about how the Lunar New Year ignited the enthusiasm with which Hongkongers embraced the return to normality is that the Jockey Club reports a betting turnover of HK$2.06 billion (US$265 million), the biggest since a pre-handover meeting in June 1997. The crowd was bigger than that for the international races last month. “The atmosphere was really fantastic,” said club chief executive officer Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. “It brought back what we always felt – that Lunar New Year is a very special race meeting.” It is not to encourage gambling to say how welcome it was to see the crowds return. The reality is that racing is one of the city’s favourite pastimes. It is not only synonymous with its life and culture, but a visit to Sha Tin, or Happy Valley races, is a highlight of many tourists’ Hong Kong experience. Lunar New Year races mean biggest turnover for Hong Kong Jockey Club since 1997 For locals, it is a feel-good factor to boost the spirits as the city strives to revive its economy. Evidence of that is to be found in the presence of newcomers who joined the crowd to soak up the atmosphere. Typical was 24-year-old Stephanie Ma who said she wanted to try her luck and get a sense of what new year was like at the racecourse. She said the reopening of temples and a thriving horse racing industry gave her hope that the city was catching up with other destinations that reopened sooner. Let us hope it is a sure bet.