All Bets Are Off

A population of gambling enthusiasts plays bemused host to a series of equestrian events unrelated to racing or betting

Hong Kong Equestrian Olympics

Photos by Adam Minter

Most of the 18,000 seats at the 2008 Olympic equestrian venue in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin District rise for more than fifty rows atop two grandstands built from little more than steel scaffolding and sheet metal. On Tuesday night, these grandstands faced thirteen Chinese-themed jumps arrayed for the Team Eventing Finals, and two significantly shorter grandstands that rise less than twenty rows, to enclosed, air-conditioned private suites, and a dining room complete with white tablecloths that gleam through tinted windows. From that privileged perspective, some spectators commandeer not only the best views of the competition, but also an uninterrupted view of Hong Kong’s fifteen-odd-foot Olympic cauldron, sculpted in the shape of the 2008 Olympic torch.

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But if the suites have the best view of the arena, the grandstands have the best view of the context in which the event unfolds. From my seat forty-five rows above the arena floor, I not only had a clear view of the tablecloths, but, just beyond them, the warm-up arena, and, in the distance, the stables and the ghostly, looming presence of the empty 85,000-seat Sha Tin Racecourse. Owned and operated by the 124-year-old Hong Kong Jockey Club, it—like the Olympic venue—is merely one piece of a legal Hong Kong gambling monopoly that includes pari-mutuel betting, sports books, and lotteries, all made outrageously successful by this city’s infamous devotion to gaming. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to anyone with even the faintest familiarity with southern China’s gaming culture that the Jockey Club—which turned over in excess of US$12 billion in fiscal 2006-07 gaming revenues—is Hong Kong’s largest taxpayer.

Hong Kong Equestrian Olympics

I was seated next to a Hong Kong accountant, his wife, and their pre-teen daughter. None of them had never before attended an equestrian event that didn’t involve speed and betting, and early in the competition they confessed to me that they planned to stay only long enough to feel like they had attended an Olympic event. This approach had precedent: at 4 a.m. on the morning following Beijing’s Opening Ceremonies, excited Hong Kong horse racing fans—energized by the prior evening’s nationalist spectacle—began arriving, sleepless, for Sha Tin’s first Olympic event, scheduled for 8 a.m. That event was a team dressage competition, wherein riders demonstrate control over their horses in an exercise that some call “horse ballet,” and others—including most of the sleepless spectators at Sha Tin—called “boring.” According to the Hong Kong papers, two-thirds of the spectators had departed by 9 a.m. “My neighbor asked me if there’d be gambling booths,” the accountant told me, in a tone suggesting that he’d been wondering, too.

China’s passion for gambling is deep and long; evidence suggests that organized games of chance took place as far back as 4,000 years ago, during the Xia Dynasty. By the end of China’s imperial period, gambling had become a full-fledged commercial enterprise that involved government officials—corrupt and otherwise—and was especially concentrated in foreigner-dominated cities in South China. Unknowingly, the British tapped into this passion when, shortly after taking control of Hong Kong Island in 1841, they began draining wetlands to make way for a racetrack. In 1884, the Jockey Club was founded there, drawing its elite membership from Hong Kong’s British aristocrats and merchants. In 1959, the Club was renamed the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, an appellation it would retain until 1996, one year before Hong Kong was returned to China. When the handover did happen, Deng Xiaoping knew better than to interfere with the city’s favorite pastime. “Dancing and horse racing will continue,” he promised.

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And more or less, they have, though the club’s revenues have declined of late in the face of growing competition from illegal off-shore gamers, and—more significantly—the expanded casino gaming business in next-door-neighbor Macau, which recently surpassed Las Vegas to become the world’s most lucrative gambling town. Thus, in 2005, when Beijing belatedly realized that the international equestrian community had no intention of sending its best horses into Mainland China’s uncertain veterinary environment, the Hong Kong Jockey Club volunteered to serve as host, partly in hopes of raising its declining international profile.

But if the Jockey Club feels the need to draw itself closer to Beijing (it recently opened a posh Clubhouse in the capital city), Hong Kong’s native British and Chinese residents—and its die-hard horse fans—feel less so. At Tuesday’s competition, spectators were encouraged to bring portable radios and headphones that they could tune to expert commentary being broadcast into the stadium in Cantonese and English. Mandarin Chinese, despite being China’s official language, was only heard, along with French and English, on the public address system, as required by the IOC.

Hong Kong Equestrian Olympics

Of course, none of this was on the mind of the largely Hong Kong Chinese audience up in row forty-five. As the competition started, most of the spectators seemed more intent on taking pictures of the action than on actually watching it. But over the course of the first hour, as the quality of the horses and riders improved, the crowd grew more enthusiastic, clapping for successful jumps, and groaning at dropped rails. Despite entreaties from the announcers, spectators insisted on loudly cheering and using flash bulbs, even after it was apparent (to the riders and radio commentators, at least) that they were distracting the horses. “This is better than the first day,” the accountant assured me as he dialed up his neighbor on his cell phone, and then switched into excited Cantonese.