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Hong Kong’s last colonial race day brings out the bets

June 15, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ The all-Chinese Royal Hong Kong Police Band played ``Send in the Clowns″ _ in kilts, no less. Horse racing fans placed phone wagers in three languages and watched, live, from as far away as Vancouver.

And 88,000 bettors clutching tickets, racing forms and dreams packed Hong Kong’s suburban horse track to chase a staggering kitty of more than $92.9 million _ a figure race officials predict will be declared a world record.

With a curious matinee of colonial pomp and Chinese circumstance, Hong Kong ran the sport of kings for one last colonial time Sunday in fog-shrouded borderland hills that resembled a classical Asian painting.

And for a day, the impending handover to China slipped from people’s minds, though the festival mentality didn’t.

``Hong Kong is a lot of fun right now,″ said Abraham So, who lost his Triple Trio bet on the first race of three at Shatin, one of Hong Kong’s two horse tracks.

``People are going crazy,″ So said. ``I’ve never seen so many people bet on races before.″

For Hong Kong, which adores horse racing and horse betting, this was akin to a Super Bowl Sunday _ with legal betting.

The colony has more than two dozen race sheets and many more newspapers offering racing coverage. The Jockey Club has nearly five times more members than Hong Kong’s three largest political parties combined.

And though no one won the coveted 1-in-48-million Triple Trio by picking the top three horses in three particular races, plenty of people who came close will be at least $260,250 richer.

``Everybody wants to become a millionaire today,″ said Samson Wu, a track spokesman. Of the changeover he said only this: ``The races go on. Life goes on. Everybody wants to capture something of the race before it changes.″

His sentiment mirrors one expressed by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who once remarked that after China takes over Hong Kong, ``dances will continue to be danced and horses will continue to race.″

Indeed, few think their beloved horse racing will change much when China claims sovereignty. The new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, will be the guest of honor at the September season opener of the 112-year-old Jockey Club, which barred Chinese until 1926 and dropped the ``Royal″ from its title last year.

``It’s worth coming just to be here the last time before the handover,″ said Tsang Tsuen-wan. His female companion watched over his shoulder as he marked up his Chinese-language racing form.

``But,″ Tsang added quickly, ``I just came to relax _ and of course for the money.″

Track officials said they would ask the Guinness Book of World Records to rule on the Triple Trio jackpot.

The races were the last in a season of twice-weekly meets. Hong Kong’s 6.3 million people bet more on an average Wednesday than Britain _ a nation of 57 million _ does in its largest race of the year.

And technology-minded Hong Kong does not only bet in person. Hundreds of betting machines that accept bank ATM cards were in full use around Shatin, and another 20,000 people gathered at the older Hong Kong race track, Happy Valley, to watch the races on closed-circuit TV and place their bets from there.

In the bowels of Shatin, 3,130 operators _ sitting before rows of computers in a vast room _ field more than 700,000 phone-in bets daily from around the world, in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Sunday’s calls far surpassed that.

One kind of betting, though, is barred: wagers by cellular phone from the track. This leads to some interesting muffled conversations from Shatin bathroom stalls.

The non-profit Jockey Club pumps income from the bets into Hong Kong social programs _ from education to health care _ so extensively that it is considered a factor in keeping taxes low.

So at 5:44 p.m., with a finish-line cross and a rendition of the William Tell Overture, racing in Hong Kong _ a colonial bastion for so long _ became a Chinese endeavor and closed for the summer.

``Now that there are no races, what are you going to do in the hot summer months?″ Hong Kong’s ATV Network asked one bettor Sunday night.

``Play mah-jongg, of course,″ he replied. ``What else is there to do?″

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