Fanatical Hong Kong race fans will only stand to cheer home a winner, not for a national anthem
Politics and racing sit side by side in Hong Kong, but a standing order for March of the Volunteers at racetracks is a non-starter
Depending on how new laws are interpreted in Hong Kong, punters could face a three-year jail term for not standing during the Chinese national anthem when it is played at Sha Tin racecourse – good luck with that.
Here’s the hottest tip all season from the SCMP racing team – the crackdown on sitting down will meet its match when it comes to Sha Tin’s notoriously cynical racing fans.
It’s not that the average Sha Tin racegoer is all that politically minded one way or another – extreme indifference might be the best way to describe the attitudes of most to anything other than betting.
Politically minded, no. Single minded, yes.
That’s once they walk through the gates, of course. At home they might be a yellow umbrella-toting independence advocate, or, behind closed doors, a pro-Beijing booster, but at the track they are there for one thing, and one thing only, to bet and become lost in the wondrous world of finding a winner.
The racetrack has long been a sanctuary from the stresses of the outside world – that includes being a distraction from Hong Kong’s highly emotive political situation.
When March of the Volunteers is played at Sha Tin, which is only on a few days each season, an announcement is made requesting fans to rise from their seats.
Now, stand in the way and be prepared for a rocket – nobody gets in between a Sha Tin punter and their favourite pastime.
This is perhaps the toughest and most cantankerous crowd in world racing – and definitely the least sentimental. Paranoid and aggressive probably sums up the mood most days, especially when favourites are being rolled one after the other.
This is a group that, a few seasons back, booed vociferously because a horse that had died in the starting stalls was holding up proceedings.
For most having a serious bet, allegiance is sworn to whoever rode the last winner – with no exceptions.
South African Douglas Whyte won the championship for 13 straight seasons – in any other jurisdiction he would be forever a hero – but the masses seem to reserve a special and completely irrational bitterness for him.
On March 19 this year Brazilian “Magic Man” Joao Moreira rode five winners in a day, including the BMW Hong Kong Derby on Rapper Dragon, and his popularity was such that he probably could have started his own political movement.
Less than two months later Rapper Dragon was fatally injured during a race and the jockey was blamed for being beaten, then booed and abused from the stands.
On the rare occasions when politicians attend the races they get off lightly – the reaction is lukewarm, although former chief executive Leung Chun-ying had eggs thrown at him by a protester in 2016.
If CY had ridden a beaten favourite, then he would have really copped it.
In 1997, Deng Xiaoping famously said of the handover: “Horses will still run.”
It was taken to mean that life would go on as normal for Hongkongers and although the “sitting ban” might seem silly or trite, it does have a serious side to it.
I’m not sure where gamblers would fit in a Hong Kong version of Martin Niemoller’s famous poem First they came …, but given the sport of king’s lofty place among society’s elite and the Jockey Club’s status as the biggest taxpayer, it certainly wouldn’t be last – probably just after booksellers.
Trying to implement a “standing rule” at Sha Tin is asking for trouble. Why politicise a group of people that, if pushed, may start a protest movement of their own? We’d hate to see that anger directed at somebody other than the jockeys.
The good news – and we can hear the sighs of relief from our already besieged judiciary – is that the way Hong Kong’s top horses are looking in the lead-up to December’s international races, March of the Volunteers might not get played at all on December 10.
By the time the four Group One races are run on international day, the punters might have learned Japan’s anthem, Kimigayo, off by heart though – ironic given March of the Volunteers’ message of opposition to Japanese imperialism.
When Moreira won a record-setting eight races in March he shared the front page of the SCMP with Premier Li Keqiang, who warned that Hong Kong’s independence movement will “lead nowhere.”
That’s where politics and horse racing sit in Hong Kong – wedged side by side – comfortably so for now, but an attempt to dictate how the punters behave on a racecourse is a step too far.
While the Jockey Club is Hong Kong’s biggest taxpayer and charity, politics isn’t going to stay out of racing, but it would be better if politics stayed off the racecourse itself.