Hong Kong’s night races gallop on… without the fans
Without the usual roar of the stands, I can clearly hear the horses’ hooves hammering the grass track while the jockeys howl to point them.
This is what social distancing looks like during races.
“It’s surreal,” concedes Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, while we overlook the empty stands.
“But if you look at the importance of horse racing in Hong Kong, where 30% of the adult population follows horse racing, where we have 1.5 million racing fans and every Wednesday night we have at least seven to eight hundred thousand people who are now still sitting in front of the television and feeling entertained.
“And that is why we think it is important to continue the tradition and to continue horse racing.”
A changing landscape
The COVID-19 epidemic has transformed the sport landscape in the Asia-Pacific region.
But in Hong Kong, racing is galloping with strict precautions in place.
Everyone is subject to a temperature control before entry, face masks are mandatory and the course is regularly disinfected.
“Entertained and employed”
The club’s off-course betting agencies remain closed, but locals can still place their bets online.
Its weekly horse racing meeting is one of the city’s biggest producers of money. The turnover of the last “Happy Wednesday” without fans in the stands was nearly 145 million dollars (1.1 billion HKD), against 162 million dollars (1.3 billion HKD) a year ago year. The club says the difference is due to the drop in cash customers who prefer to place their bets in one of its 100 off-piste betting centers.
When the Hong Kong Jockey Club contributes 1.3% to Hong Kong’s GDP, there is literally a lot to do on the races. But South China Morning Post race editor Tom Biddington said the decision to continue racing during the epidemic went beyond the results.
“One of the other important aspects is to entertain and keep employees,” says Biddington.
“(The Hong Kong Jockey Club) is Hong Kong’s biggest taxpayer. It employs more than 20,000 people. It has 700,000 fans in terms of betting accounts and it does a lot. It’s not just a matter of money. ”
As a sport, running is in a unique position as it can continue behind closed doors and, in so doing, become a symbol for a city that has been fighting the virus since January.
“It is the uniqueness of Hong Kong and its resilience to face and overcome difficulties,” says Engelbrecht-Bresges.
“And it’s a Hong Kong spirit. And the Hong Kong race is a symbol of Hong Kong.”
COVID-2019 could ward off roaring spectators. But every Wednesday in the city, the races continue and the bettors continue to bet.
Crowd or no crowd, the Happy Valley ritual since 1973 continues.