hongI’m not a gambler. I know nothing about horses. But I was drawn irresistibly to the track in Hong Kong. I’d heard the amazing numbers about gambling on the horses here, more money being bet on one race than in a week’s racing in the U.K., or more in a season than in all the tracks in the U.S. combined. Something about this seduced me, and I had to go see for myself.

The horses weren’t running that day at Happy Valley so I took the MTR from Central to Shatin in the New Territories, reflecting on the last time I’d been to a horse race. It was 1979, in another land heavily influenced by the British: India. I was idling away the autumn in the hill station of Darjeeling, where the ponies ran every Saturday at a track high on a ridge. Everyone in town went to the track that day, sitting high up the hillside for the best views, and I followed. For less than a dollar you could place your bets, and I joined in, picking ponies at random, losers all.

They didn’t have a starting gate then, so to begin the races the ponies lined up facing away from the starting line. They trotted in the wrong direction, then turned on a signal and raced for the start. In the next-to-last race my pony forgot to turn around with the rest of the pack and ran four or five strides in the wrong direction while the rest were off and running. After finding his way my horse made a gallant effort, passing most of the field in the two-lap race but finishing just out of the running.

In the last race I had a chance to make up my day’s losses. My horse came out fast, led through the first lap but was lagging in the home stretch. Still, as I leapt and shouted he hung on to win by a nose. Elated, I went to collect my winnings, but the clerk just handed me back my ticket and said it was no good. I looked, and to my astonishment discovered I’d been given a ticket for the wrong horse. Two names sounded similar and the man who had accepted my bet had misunderstood. I’d won, but I’d lost again.

I arrived at Shatin in the middle of the day’s events. The place was huge, with a capacity of more than 50,000, nudged against brilliant green hills. It was packed and buzzing, but no one was sitting up the hillsides here. Out on the track nothing much was happening other than half a dozen women walking slowly down the track, tamping clumps of turf down with wooden blocks on the ends of poles. The green track would have made the finest gardener proud. Beyond, a huge electronic screen flashed results of earlier races.

People were poring over race forms. I climbed to get a better view and squeezed in with the crowd, being welcomed with smiles and a laugh by those around me. In time a race was about to start.

The race began near the eventual finish line and the chatter rose a notch as the horses took off. When the horses went into the first turn and almost out of sight I realized that everyone was watching the race on the electronic screen, what looked to be about the biggest TV ever built. There we were, thousands of us, together, adrenaline rising, not watching the race at all, but watching TV. It was hard to take my eyes off the screen, harder still to know what part of the track the horses were on because they kept running across the screen. I lost all sense of the race’s continuity until I pulled myself away and looked up the track where the horses would appear in the home stretch. And there they were, a tiny band flying across the grass, growing larger by the second. For a moment it was glorious—beautiful, silent movement that should have been thunderous as the field of horses raced our way, accompanied by the rising roar of the crowd—and then they rushed past the finish line and the jockeys rose out of their saddles and the horses began to slow.

I had no idea who had won or lost, but the energy was high. Results flashed up on the screen and the noise of the crowd fell to a low hum. And in a little while, out came the line of women with their wooden mallets to put the turf back in shape again.

Before the next race I wandered into the betting area to see where all this gambling happened. I saw a man punching numbers into a hand-held computer and asked if he was figuring the odds, but he said he was placing his bets for the next five races.

I was perplexed.

“I can place my bets here,” he indicated the computer, “or I can place them over there,” he said, gesturing toward what looked like an ATM.

“So it’s like gambling with a bank account?”

He nodded. “If I win, it goes in my account. If I lose, it comes out.” All you need to bet on the horses in this high-tech town is an account and a bank card. No tickets, no exchange of currency or coin, just plug in and smile at your winnings. How efficient; how frightening.

Would my bank card work? I wondered. I walked slowly to the ATM. I pulled out my wallet and fingered my card. I reached out, then saw my reflection in the screen.

I’m not a gambler, I thought. I know nothing about horses. And even with electronic efficiency I’d probably still get the wrong horse. So I went back outside with the crowd to enjoy the fresh air, the gleaming green track and surrounding hills, to watch TV.

About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.

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