Hong Kong International Races and the true value of horse racing

Author: Alex Cairns Photo: Alex Cairns

Money has always been an important part of racing, but is the sport purely an economic concern? On a recent trip to Hong Kong International Races, Gallop Editor Alex Cairns discovered value that can’t be counted in dollar bills.


I moved to South Korea from Northern Ireland in August 2016, seeking to discover Asian culture, expand my view of the world, and learn all I could from challenging new surroundings. During the year I spent in Korea, I also travelled to Hong Kong and Japan several times, always taking in a race meeting or two and relishing the prospect of experiencing another nation’s interpretation of the great international sport of horse racing.

The more I travelled, the more I came to appreciate the qualities and peculiarities of each racing jurisdiction, discovering small yet telling differences such as innovative bet types, radical race tactics, or sold-out merchandise stores. At the same time, I marvelled at the time and energy put into the sport by talented people working in diverse fields and felt proud to be a small part of this global community.

Unfortunately, I also had some encounters both on and off the track that made me a little uncomfortable. In conversation with people of varied occupations and backgrounds, including a Korean professor, a Japanese video producer, and a Hong Kong taxi driver, I was faced with what I considered to be a negative attitude towards racing. This ranged from unuttered scepticism to vocal disapproval, usually centred on the admittedly thorny issues of gambling addiction and horse welfare. Occasionally, on revealing that I was employed in racing media, I even perceived a certain mistrust towards me, which I had to work hard to dispel.

Being from Ireland, where racing maintains a prominent and for the most part positive position in the social and cultural life of the nation, this was a new experience and caused me some consternation. Of course, there is cultural difference at play here, with horse racing neither being an accepted pan-societal leisure pursuit nor a mass employer in East Asia the way it is in my homeland. Nonetheless, I was regularly drawn to act as an advocate for the sport, pointing out the positive aspects that were evident to me, yet had seemingly been obscured to my interlocutors by a distorting veil of stereotype.

Having attended the Hong Kong International Races on two consecutive occasions now, it appears to me that this meeting encapsulates a great deal of what makes racing such a unique and worthwhile sport, with qualities that far outweigh its flaws. Indeed, in my occasionally uncomfortable discussions with some of racing’s detractors, I often returned to my HKIR experience for arguments and examples demonstrating the value of horse racing in general. In an effort to propagate a considered yet positive image of the sport I love, I have put five of these to paper.

Breeders’ Cup Turf winner and global superstar Talismanic.

Fast-paced, richly storied, and diverse, HKIR reflects the city it calls home. Looking down on Hong Kong from its iconic Victoria Peak, with gleaming towers rising alongside rocky jungle-clad outcrops, one can struggle to believe that such a city even exists. Perched high in the stands at Sha Tin Racecourse, with horses and jockeys from a list of countries worthy of the United Nations streaking past, a similar sense of wonder is justified.

The international logistical operation required to get both equine and human participants to the racetracks of Hong Kong each December is exceptional, with not only world-class infrastructure provision but also a delicate feat of diplomacy and intercultural understanding required to satisfy the needs and expectations of such a cosmopolitan cast. That horses from across the globe often put in career-defining performances at HKIR is not down to chance, but rather an unrelenting sense of service and rigorous attention to detail.

All this lies in sharp contrast to general geopolitical trends of our time, when some of our most prominent statespeople seem focused more on division than cooperation. At HKIR, diversity is a virtue and difference an opportunity to learn. From my experience, HKIR brings racing’s various participants together to work for a shared goal and to celebrate a mutual passion. Today more than ever, this is an outlook worth trumpeting.

Highland Reel wins the 2017 Hong Kong Vase.

Some sports fans say they struggle to relate to horse racing because, unlike soccer, baseball, and many other sports, they will never have the opportunity to experience it first-hand via race riding. This might cause a certain sense of distance or impenetrability that isn’t felt at a soccer stadium, for example.

While I can understand this perspective to a degree, I would point out that directly relatable experience is not the only path to profound engagement. What is really fundamental to a sport becoming immersive is compelling narrative and emotional involvement. Often due to the very fact that horse racing stars both human and equine athletes, it tends to produce narratives of an unprecedented nature and potent emotional weight.

In 2017 alone, HKIR served up stories of excellence and perseverance to rival any sport. Even for those that fancied the second or were connected to another horse in the field, Highland Reel winning his last ever race in the Hong Kong Vase resulted in an uncommon moment of universal appreciation. Alongside this, the jubilation among Hong Kong racing’s passionate fans as Derek Leung landed the Hong Kong Mile on Beauty Generation, in the process becoming just the second local rider to win an HKIR race, was something special. Of such moments great sport is made.

94,560 race fans would soon fill the Sha Tin stands 

Racecourses around the globe, from Chantilly to Santa Anita and Merano to Mumbai, provide settings that anyone, racing enthusiast or otherwise, can appreciate. And this is no less true of Hong Kong, where the narratives of HKIR week are played out to spectacular effect in the unique sporting theatres of Happy Valley and Sha Tin.

Horse racing’s striking combination of athletic prowess and aesthetic allure is seen to famously dramatic effect in the hothouse setting of Happy Valley. I can only imagine that from a rider’s perspective, the looming towers and beaming floodlights that encircle this singular inner-city track must seem all the closer as they compete for the International Jockeys’ Championship on the Wednesday of HKIR week. As a spectator, the tension of the event is palpable and, as the night wears on in this cauldron-like atmosphere, racegoers are roused to fever pitch by the exploits of some of racing’s great showmen.

Like a trip to Barcelona’s Camp Nou or the Yankee Stadium in New York, racing at Happy Valley is a spectacle worth travelling for and should feature on the bucket list of both devoted racing enthusiasts and adventurous fans-to-be.

2017 Hong Kong Cup runner Robin of Navan and his lass.

My principal argument when drawn to defend horse racing is that it is more than a sport, it is a way of life. Hundreds of thousands of people in scores of nations daily devote themselves to racing, be it hands-on working with horses, as part of an administrative structure, as a member of the media, or in some other area of the sport’s multi-disciplinary network of direct and indirect employment. The social, cultural, and economic impact of such activity needs to be underlined, as it is often overlooked by those fixated on one-dimensional criticisms.

Even within my own circle there are scores of gifted and distinguished people who have made racing their life’s work. At morning trackwork throughout HKIR week, I was pleased to meet some of these same people, to catch up on their activities and exchange on some of the hot topics thrown up by HKIR and the racing world more generally. To the uninformed, horse racing’s international media caravan could appear something like a travelling circus, but the coverage produced is integral to the proper functioning of the sport as a whole, which in turn contributes to society in general via tax revenue and employment.

When racing people get out of bed in the morning, they probably don’t have the greater good of society or the general health of the sport in mind. But this doesn’t mean that their chosen actions throughout the day will not make a positive contribution to both.

The unique setting of Happy Valley.

Fundamental to the thoroughbred endeavour is the desire to improve, to strive for more and use today’s achievements as a springboard to tomorrow’s betterment. The success of the Hong Kong Jockey Club is itself a prime example of this powerful ethos and the Club today uses its influence to propagate these same progressive virtues.

Though HKJC may only have morphed into a professional entity in 1971, it now stands as one of the world’s most successful sports companies and draws some of the globe’s greatest sporting talent to Hong Kong each year for HKIR. At the same time, HKJC Charities Trust is one of the world’s top 10 charity donors and its social contribution extends beyond mere numbers via development projects and educational programmes.

As is evidenced in the grassroots investment of sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee or the English Premier League, fostering a culture of ambition and achievement can have a far-reaching impact on people’s lives. HKJC has long grasped this and invested accordingly, with its headline events such as HKIR providing concrete examples of the success that can be aspired to.

Looking to the future, one may wonder what more HKJC and its flagship HKIR meeting might achieve. With the ground-breaking Conghua Training Centre set to open on the Chinese mainland in August 2018, the possibilities appear boundless.


In the eyes of some, racing is irredeemable, a moral and social blight that exploits animals in order to provide the imprudent with a means of ruining themselves. Racing’s advocates should recognise this perception and work to combat it through positive action. At the same time, racing’s critics must also avoid taking a blinkered view. Without considering the sport’s qualities, as so strongly demonstrated by HKIR, their critique loses the potential impact it might otherwise have. Yes, there are flaws and these should not be whitewashed. But the redeeming features are writ large if one takes the trouble to look.

Not everyone will have the opportunity to attend HKIR and witness first-hand the admirable work that is being done within the world of horse racing. I hope that by sharing my experience and my own interpretation of some of racing’s most commendable qualities, I can contribute at least in a humble way to the improvement and future prosperity of the sport.


Alex Cairns is a horse racing writer and photographer and Editor of Gallop Magazine. He previously worked for the Korea Racing Authority as English Editor and International Liaison and is now based in Northern Ireland. This article will appear in the spring 2018 edition of Gallop Magazine.

 Email: [email protected]


Twitter: @ACHorseRacing

Instagram: @the_winning_post












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