I’ve visited many of the world’s great racecourses – from Cheltenham and Ascot to Longchamp in Paris, Flemington in Melbourne and Santa Anita in California. But I can honestly say that, in terms of sheer spectacle and atmosphere, I have never been anywhere that quite matches Happy Valley in Hong Kong.
There are two racetracks in the former crown colony and the best known is Sha Tin in the New Territories. Big and ultra-modern with a capacity crowd of 85,000, Sha Tin is home to the prestigious and hugely valuable Longines international races each December, and the racing there every Sunday during the Hong Kong season between September and July is always top drawer. But so vast are the grandstands that sometimes it feels as if you are watching racing in the suburban Chinese equivalent of Twickenham. By contrast, Happy Valley is wholly and uniquely urban, situated right in the heart of the Central district of Hong Kong Island. Imagine a racecourse sitting in the middle of St James’s Park, overlooked on all sides by tall apartment buildings and skyscrapers, and pulsating with all the speculative energy and excitement of the City of London, and you have an idea of what Happy Valley is like.
Today the British-built 1845 racecourse holds approximately 40 meetings a season, with racing taking place on Wednesday evenings under floodlights and catering to the local population’s passionate enthusiasm for gambling. Even at relatively low-key midweek fixtures the betting turnover has been known to exceed HK$1bn (about £101.5m), which helps to explain why the Hong Kong Jockey Club contributed approximately HK$22.6bn (about £2.3bn) in tax revenues in 2017/18 and donated a further HK$4.2bn (about £405.9m) to 222 charitable and community projects.
Basic admission to the racecourse is less than £2 a head, with high rollers watching the action from private boxes and luxurious dining rooms high up on the seventh and eighth floors. But I recommend joining the general throng of expatriate and local Chinese racegoers along the rails down below. It’s loud and exuberant with live music and and street food from the numerous pop-up stalls, including my favourite fresh fish fry barbecues. You will see Cantonese gamblers poring over their form sheets, fingering the lucky charms around their necks as the horses thunder past and either cursing their luck or whooping with joy at the outcome. It’s horse racing as it might have been envisaged by Graham Greene or Paul Theroux, and a thrilling experience.
Thanks to an agreement with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, UK punters can now access Hong Kong’s Tote betting pools – which are the biggest in the world with huge liquidity – through most British bookmakers.