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A Day at Bangkok’s W(h)acky Races


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Among Bangkok’s less well-publicised attractions are its two horse-racing circuits: the Royal Bangkok Sports Club (RBSC) and the Royal Turf Club (RTC). The latter is on Phitsanulok Road while the former is probably the easier to get to, being near Lumpini Park (and its underground railway station) and within walking distance of the Ratchadamri, Sala Daeng and Chit Lom Skytrain (BTS) stations, although it’s not exactly a short stroll from any of them.

A-tight-finish-300x149.jpg

And the winner is...

The RBSC and RTC alternate between each other, racing on a Sunday between 12:30 pm and 6:00 pm. The reason for running on a Sunday is that this is the standard day off for most ordinary working-class folk.

Owners of racehorses include politicians -both current and former-, high-ranking police and military personnel, and high society types. Six major races are conducted each year on the two city courses including the King’s, Queen’s, and Chakri Cups at RBSC (also referred to as Patumwan racecourse) while the RTC holds the Derby, President’s Cup and something called the Ramraghob, which sounds suspiciously like an exotic Asian dish featuring an endangered species.

Around 500 races are run in Bangkok each year and there are provincial racecourses in Khorat, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Chiang Mai, and Roi Et.

Perhaps the best known racehorse -and by ‘best known’ I mean an animal whose name appears among the many winners of major races conducted around the world- to stand at stud in Thailand was Temperence Hill, who won the 1980 Belmont Stakes (third leg of the U.S. Triple Crown). He also won the Arkansas Derby, the prestigious Travers Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Super Derby, and Suburban Handicap, finishing with 11 wins in 31 starts. His career prize money of US$1,567,650 was the-then eighth highest in the world. He came to Thailand in 1996 after an average career as a stallion in the United States.

In an August 2002 article, the American magazine Newsweek claimed horse racing in Thailand was ‘rigged’. It called it ‘one of the most corrupt in Asia with backroom deals occurring on a regular basis.’ Owners were colluding with each other to determine who wins races and were ‘making millions of dollars in gambling profits at the expense of average fans.’ Allegedly the winning owner/s share the proceeds with others involved in the scams. Considering an average year sees a turnover in excess of 35 billion baht, of which the government receives more than 16 percent, it’s not hard to see why a few people might find it very lucrative.

Ngern-Lang-March-2011-crowd-still-have-t

Early in the day and most gamblers still have their shirts

In 2003, a contributor to an Australian horse racing website noted: ‘I recall the day I went with a business colleague and he kept backing the second-favourite, which in one race streaked away at the 300 metre mark only to be collared on the line by the odds-on favourite which had all but collapsed and called for oxygen on the home turn- I think the jockey on the second horse had a bad case of hand blisters after the race…’

Throughout the world a racetrack tends to be a male-dominated environment. The courses in Bangkok are no different, with men outnumbering women on a ratio of about 10 to one. At least this is undoubtedly the case in the public enclosure (entry fee 100 baht), which always looks to be made up of the type of people who would most kindly be described as the needy and the greedy.

The public stand is not a place to bring someone you are trying to impress. The place looks like it hasn’t had anything resembling a modern makeover for about half a century. The last time it saw a coat of paint was just after Armstrong and Aldrin were traipsing about the surface of the moon.

Betting is by totalisator (Tote) only. The odds on each horse and the amounts invested for the win or the place are displayed on TV monitors around the course, as well as on a semaphore board in front of the main grandstand on the infield of the track. The minimum bet is 50 baht.

All races are run over either 1100 or 1200 metres (five and a half or six furlongs for the metrically challenged) and a comprehensive formguide is printed in English. The events, usually 10 per meeting, are divided into a series of divisions with the higher numbers representing poorer quality conveyances, i.e. animals classified as thoroughbreds but more inclined to run like castrated goats.

In the abbreviations guide at the start of the formguide are the letters ‘d’ and ‘m’. They do not translate as ‘deep’ and ‘meaningful’ but rather as ‘doped substance’ and ‘medicated substance’, both of which appear to indicate a rather relaxed attitude towards performance-enhancing or retarding drugs.

Within a couple of minutes of the conclusion of each race the field for the following event makes its way onto the course and around to the barrier stalls. A bevy of barrier attendants then help to place the runners in the barriers where they remain for anything up to 20 minutes.

Although there is an advertised starting time for each race, the events take place in a Kipling-like ‘a fool lies here who tried to hurry the East’ fashion. During that time betting on the race takes place but it’s apparent the ‘real’ money only goes on in the last one or two minutes. As the advertised start time comes and goes a course broadcaster tells gamblers they now have about one minute to place a wager. He then starts a 10-second countdown before the horses are released from the barriers; this is made very clear by the announcer shrieking in a fashion normally associated with people who have suddenly come into painful contact with a cattle prod in a tender part of their anatomy. He then falls completely silent for the remainder of the race.

The-lucky-last.-Run-in-pouring-rain-an-h

The lucky last. Run in pouring rain an hour after the scheduled start time

The fields tend to be fairly closely packed as they approach the one and only sweeping bend. Once in the home straight the slowest animals drop back quickly and by the time the winner and placegetters pass the finish line there can be quite a margin between first and last. Finesse is not a word that jumps into the mind when watching the jockeys. I wonder if there are ever representatives of pet food companies attending these meetings?

Most races that I’ve seen have been taken out by one of the first two favourites on the tote board.

Thailand may well boast a proud history of world-class lightweight boxers and the odd snooker and tennis player, but if the visual evidence of a race day in Bangkok is anything to go by they are a long way from ever having a Thai jockey equivalent of a Lester Piggott, George Moore, or Willie Shoemaker.

©Duncan Stearn

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