Nestled among the soaring residential towers of Central – some of the most expensive real estate in the world – sits an oasis of green, a time-capsule of sorts, where for more than 160 years people have prayed and lived.
Most of the busy types that pass here on Shelley Street’s Mid-Levels escalator, heads down, eyes on smartphones, scarcely know Jamia Mosque and its humble dwellings exist – but it is where self-made millionaire Kerm Din was born and raised.
Din stands at the top of the settlement’s staircase entry, in the same courtyard he played in with his six brothers and two sisters. As he looks at the small ferns pushing through the cracks of the old stone wall beside him, he remarks on how little has changed: “Everything looks the same to me after many years.”
There aren’t many rags-to-riches tales in Hong Kong racing. The cost of a Jockey Club membership and buying and racing a horse ensures that. But Din, owner of Hong Kong racing’s new sensation Pakistan Star, doesn’t mind saying he grew up poor.
“We stayed in one room and a small dining room, and at that time we didn’t have a toilet. We had to come upstairs here to use the toilet, and sometimes had to line up. I won’t forget this place, and it really makes me think you have to look forward and [aspire to be] a sportsman or businessman,” he says. “It made me think, ‘I will work hard and am going to show my mum and dad I’m going to do something.’”
Din’s father Omar emigrated from Pakistan with little more than a suitcase midway through last century, married and settled in one of the makeshift apartments just below Mosque Street. “He would bet HK$30 each Sunday,” says Din of his early racing memories. “When he lost he would tell us and when he would win he would show us the ticket.”
The escalator’s smartphone zombies might be oblivious to the mosque, but have probably heard of Din’s horse after clips of Pakistan Star’s two dramatic come-from-behind wins went viral.
Din says his sister even heard about the horse’s exploits in London’s Chinatown. “She saw someone watching the replay and said, ‘That’s my brother’s horse,’ and she got a free meal, some duck and rice,” says a delighted Din.
Even in Pakistan, where betting on racing is illegal, blogs and news sites have picked up on the story of the slow-starting, fast-finishing thoroughbred carrying the Pakistan flag’s crescent moon on the distinctive green and white silks at Sha Tin.
Yet the fluent Cantonese-speaking Din is a proud Hongkonger and he is most proud of the affinity locals have struck with the charismatic galloper. “This horse represents the can-do spirit of Hong Kong” was the sentiment of one comment in Chinese on a popular YouTube video.
Din fully endorses the unofficial “public ownership” for his overnight sensation. “I want this horse to be a working class hero. I want everyone to enjoy him,” he says.
Perhaps the most transcendent aspect of racing is when a great horse becomes a symbol of hope – and even though it is still early days for Pakistan Star, Din too can see a little bit of the Hong Kong he loves in his horse, and of his own journey too.
“We started out in a small one-room apartment, and now I have a penthouse. We worked hard, that’s the main thing, we kept looking forward and working hard. Just like this horse, we started slow, but we caught up, pushed and never gave up.”
After leaving Shelley Street as a 20-year-old, Din worked for British pest control company Rentokil earning HK$450 per month before a natural entrepreneurial streak saw him break away and start his own business.
A contract with Macau casino magnate Stanley Ho Hung-sun – himself a high-profile horse owner at one time – helped Din go to another level financially.
“First I made my first HK$100, then I made my first HK$1,000, but then when I was around 25 I was lucky, I had an office in Alexandra House which belonged to Stanley. He liked me very much and he gave me all of his business. I did business with him for nearly 20 years and everything that belonged to Stanley Ho I had the pest control contract on.”
Din now lives in a twin-level apartment in Pok Fu Lam with harbour views – it’s only a 15-minute taxi ride to Shelley Street – probably less if he drives his Maserati or two-door Bentley convertible. Even so, he hasn’t lost the common touch and last Monday he revelled in the tradition of giving lai see packets stuffed with cash to staff at trainer Tony Cruz’s stable.
“If your friend trusts you and likes you, you have to be faithful to them. Respect people, don’t try to be too smart, just try to be nice – but then, if you get a little bit of money, try to treat people the same,” is how Din describes his business philosophy.
Din has been a Jockey Club member for more than 40 years and on his mantelpiece in Pok Fu Lam are photos of him with some of the greatest characters of the professional era; trainers Patrick Biancone and Lawrie Fownes, and jockeys Eric Legrix and Gerald Mosse.
But one picture reveals the connection from the amateur era that brought Din to place his horses with Cruz. “I knew Tony’s father Johnny – he was a great jockey – from a long time ago, so Tony is who I put my horses with now,” he said.
When Din went to the Hong Kong International Sale in March this year, Cruz gave him a single horse to bid on at the auction: Lot 14. It was a lazy-looking but well-proportioned son of Shamardal, the sire of Hong Kong’s last superstar Able Friend.
“It was jumping HK$500,000 per bid. Luckily, when they got to HK$6 million the underbidder must have thought, ‘I’m not going against this guy, he is crazy,’ so he stopped there ... I would have gone to HK$8 or HK$9 million. I wouldn’t have stopped, as I only wanted one lot, Lot 14.”
Din is concerned at Pakistan Star’s rapid rise through the grades – he has risen faster than Cruz’s former champion Silent Witness had at the same stage of his career – but says he has already had the thrill of a lifetime after the horse’s second start.
Usually after the last race of the day at Sha Tin there is a rush to the exits – save for the lucky punters to have backed a winner of course – yet on September 18 there was something different in the crowd’s reaction when Pakistan Star produced one of the most memorable performances ever seen at the track. They stayed, and it wasn’t just because most of them had bet on the overwhelming favourite.
After the roller-coaster experience of watching the HK$1.70 chance miss the start again, trail the field and then loop the field for a decisive win, the delirious spectators waited as Pakistan Star walked back to scale, and were still there five minutes later, after Din had completed interviews and walked through the crowd. There was one fan that stood out to Din in the public section as he leant over the rail waving a betting ticket. He reminded him of his father.
“This guy had only had HK$50 win and HK$50 place,” Din said. “But he said to me, ‘Tonight we are going to go out and have a great dinner.’ There was something so nice about the look on his face. It was something that money cannot buy, that feeling I had that day. They usually rush to the train there, but after this race they waited for me before they went and collected the money. To see all of those Hong Kong people laughing and clapping hands, it made me very, very happy.”