Luxury apartments provide a stunning backdrop to the world's most urban racetrack. (Charlie Schroeder/OAG)

Luxury apartments provide a stunning backdrop to the world’s most urban racetrack. (Charlie Schroeder/OAG)

Some guys have all the luck. Today, that lucky guy was Joseph Lu. The 24-year-old medical student just won $2,400 on a horse race. Okay, well, $2,400 Hong Kong dollars. But still, that’s about $300 US. So, how’d he know that horses 6 and 4 would win and place?

“I’m just a lucky guy. I picked random numbers,” Lu said.

The most dramatic setting for the sport of horse racing is Happy Valley…Hong Kong.

Heather Adams, author of An A-Z of Hong Kong Racing, said Happy Valley is the world’s most urban racecourse.

“It’s ringed by high-rise and developments and roads. Very densely packed, and racing takes place at night, so it’s brilliantly lit and you have this natural amphitheater of light,” Adams said.

Happy Valley Racecourse grandstands. (Charlie Schroeder/OAG)

Happy Valley Racecourse grandstands. (Charlie Schroeder/OAG)

It’s a spectacular sight, especially when the nearby neon lights barely penetrate the fog. Although it looks like Happy Valley Racecourse was plopped down in the middle of skyscrapers, it was actually the other way around. This former British colony, back in China’s hands since 1997, grew up around Happy Valley…and horse racing.

“So, as soon as the British were able to open up the treaty ports in China, in the mid-1800s, they generally opened a racetrack,” said Adams.

Close to 50 opened in China, including one in Beijing where an astonishing 80,000 people regularly attended the races. In Happy Valley, on the turf racetracks, the horses ran clockwise, just like in Britain.

“The Chinese seemed to fall in love pretty instantly with horse racing and would treat it as a big occasion,” Adams said. “They would always get wind of a race meeting, they’d show up, not necessarily invited, but there they’d be. And it’s said that the hills around the Beijing track in particular, which was the most frequented, was blue with the tunics of the Chinese.”

Building racecourses on the expansive mainland was a breeze, but mountainous Hong Kong island? That terrain didn’t leave the Brits many options. The best prospect was a flat bottom valley called Wong Nai Chung, which Adams said meant something like “dirty yellow stream.” It was a place where the malaria ran wild. “People were dying inexplicably and it was believed from sort of noxious fumes from the bog of Happy Valley,” Adams said.

The area had originally been earmarked as the central business district, but with people dropping like, well, mosquitoes, it was moved farther west. So in went the racecourse. And from these humble beginnings, the sport has grown into something totally different from American horse racing.

“There’s no NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball or NFL here,” said Bill Nader, the Executive Director of Racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club. “Horse racing is such a dominant player in the sporting landscape of Hong Kong.”

Nader said that during the 10-month racing season at Happy Valley and its sister course, Sha Tin, horseracing is by far the number one sporting and entertainment option here.

“It’s such a big part of the culture, there’s a loyalty and a passion here that’s unmatched anywhere else,” Nader said. “And every race day counts.”

Fixing divots after a race. (Charlie Schroeder/OAG)

Fixing divots after a race. (Charlie Schroeder/OAG)

A lot. Consider some of these astonishing numbers: there are 7 million people in Hong Kong and there are 6 million bets made per race day. Every race—and there are eight each night—averages a turnover of just under $14 million US. Last year $10.6 billion US was bet. That not only makes for very exciting races, it also makes the Hong Kong Jockey Club the city’s biggest taxpayer. Last year, along with proceeds from its lottery and soccer betting, they contributed close to 7 percent of the city’s tax revenue.

“As you walk around Hong Kong and get the lay of the land, whether it be hospitals, universities, entertainment facilities, you see that the Hong Kong Jockey Club was a primary driver in funding these important parts of Hong Kong,” Nader said.

At the Canto Race Track, I sought out someone with good, solid betting tips on the night’s last race. I found Grace Chau, a 77-year-old retired schoolteacher who’s intimately familiar with Hong Kong’s horses and jockeys. He said it all came down to the horse’s past record and the jockey.

“The jockey lead the horse smoothly, it’s good,” said Chau.

A smooth lead. I considered this for a moment, realized I didn’t know a thing about the horses or jockeys and opted for plan B. I pull out 10 Hong Kong dollars—about a buck thirty—and approached the betting window.

“Uh, my name is Bond.” Yes, that was the name of the horse, but more than anything I’ve just always wanted to say that. “Ten dollars to win. James Bond.”

“And they’re all in for the final race in the Valley…and they’re off,” the announcer said.

A little over a minute later I waited in anticipation for My Name is Bond to cross the finish line, which…he…eventually…did…in sixth place. As I tore up my ticket, I spotted Kaustuv Nayak who was in town from India for an immunology conference. He was giddy. Positively giddy.

“I won twice, and it’s the first time I’ve ever bet in my life,” Nayak said. “I had a combination of my lucky numbers.”

And that was it?

“Just my lucky numbers.”

That night, HK$950 million was turned over, more than $122 million US was wagered at Happy Valley, and Nayak no doubt was one of the luckiest. Inside as he collected his earnings, I learned that he walked away with an extra $100 US or so in his pocket. He was so excited he rang his wife and told her the good news.

“And she was excited, but she was a bit apprehensive. She said, ‘no more betting,’” Nayak said.

Knowing how fleeting luck is, her apprehension was understandable.