Wednesday, 22 July 2009

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #6

While the vast majority of the WWR Top 10 was selected for the physical features of the track itself, today’s candidate qualifies on accumulated weirdness, on the premises and in the area surrounding it.

Happy Valley Racecourse was opened in 1864 on what was the only plain on Hong Kong Island (Sha Tin, opened in 1978, is located in the New Territories on the Asian mainland). Racedays are held on most Wednesday nights during the season, a concept HK introduced several decades before CDI had that “stroke of genius”. Another aspect worth copying is HK racing's integrity system, based on tough stewards, full disclosure of pretty much all aspects of a horse's record and a no-tolerance doping policy.

As to our topic, Hong Kong is a really weird country, or self-governing Special Administrative Zone, to be precise. It has a unitary administration (meaning there are no local or regional councils), and most of the settlements are primarily consisting of skyscrapers. With 16.380 inhabitants per square mile, it’s statistically the fourth-most densely populated jurisdiction in the world (UK: 640; US: 80), yet only 17% of the country are settlements, and there are vast uninhabited mountain ranges, dozens of islands and a couple of remote villages you would rather expect to find in Vietnam or Malaysia. As a unitary authority, it’s formally a city-state, but in practice it consists of a number of separate cities (HK City, Kowloon, Sha Tin etc.).

HK racing and gambling are unitary, too, with the HKJC managing both tracks, all OTBs, licensing and even buying the mostly Down Under-bred horses which are then re-sold to HK owners. It also has a de jure gambling monopoly (which includes betting on football), although there are several illegal and semi-legal alternatives, and the casinos of Macao are within easy reach for HK residents. Officially a non-profit company, HKJC is the country’s biggest tax-payer and second-most important sponsor of public projects (behind the state itself).

Happy Valley has an average attendance of more than 17.000 and a capacity of about 55.000 in one of the world’s most impressive grandstands, yet not a single stakes race is run there. Since the opening of Sha Tin, all pattern races are run at the larger track, where Hong Kong’s stables and training centers also are situated (click here for a look behind the scenes of the HKJC, including one of the most unique stable areas in the world).

As the only plain area in HK City, Happy Valley’s infield is packed with playing fields and small stadiums, the most important being HKFC Stadium with a capacity of 2.500. From 1976 to 1981 HKFC Stadium was home of the Hong Kong Sevens (Rugby Union) Tournament, which grew into the world’s most important Sevens Cup.

Hong Kong shows how racing CAN be a healthy industry and interesting sport in our time. It’s a weird track, but one to learn from.

(Hollywood Park is in the process of making way for low-rises in a poor neighborhood; Happy Valley is in no danger while being located in this one.)

(Wikimedia Commons image by Minghong; image at the top is a Picasa image by Kurt)

1 comment:

  1. I had fallen behind on my reading over here, but this is another good installment in the series.

    I particularly like your drawing the parallel to Hollywood Park and its being torn down as a supposed means of rebuilding a community, while Happy Valley is one of the reasons that this particular densely populated area continues to thrive.

    As an aside, "Happy Valley" is also the nickname for State College, Pa., and is often used interchangeably by TV announcers as the stated location Beaver Stadium, where the Penn State University Nittany Lions play "American football."