Travel and the Unexpected
Roulette anyone? Or a game of Two-up? Perhaps the poker machines or slot machines are more your thing? If, like James Bond you prefer the thrills of baccarat and drinking vintage champagne from Baccarat flutes, then Thailand is not the place for you – or for the roulette players or other types of gamblers.
Gambling in the Kingdom is of course, quite illegal.
Oh – except for the cockfights that happen every weekend in many villages around Chiang Mai. Oh – and also for the bi-weekly State-run national lottery (top prize THB 3,000,000 or about $120,000). Oh yes – and for gambling on horse racing – the sport of kings!
How appropriate it is then, that in the Kingdom of Thailand one of the two legitimate forms of gambling is at the races … especially when those races are under the control of the Thai army … and the country is under the control of an ex-army general who is actually doing an enormous amount of good for the country.
A night at the Opera?
I recently had a day at the races – but the night at the opera will have to wait a while. Apart from their names, the Marx Brothers films and British rock group Queen’s 1976 album really had very little relevance to the splendid day offered by the Chiang Mai Race course (www.chiangmai-horseracing.com), where you pay THB 100 (about $4.00) for a seat in the air-conditioned stand or just twenty baht for a seat with the crowds in the open stands.
The races are held every Saturday, unless the day is a Buddhist holy day … in which case the races are deferred until the following day.
Betting is fast and furious – and again it depends on where you are sitting. To place a WIN bet on any of the horses costs THB 100 in the a/c room, but only fifty baht in the open air, where you fight your way through crowds to one of the twenty or thirty betting windows. Upstairs in the cool, the betting was more leisurely – just two betting windows there – and for some reason I always went to the wrong one and was told – nope –this time it’s that one over there – whenever I went to place my pittance on the nag of my choice – Beetle Bomb, or Super Guy or even Prik Tarr ridden by Mr Jaisoo.
For those who do not know the famous nag Beetle Bomb, (far more famous than Phar Lap or Kuan-Jai-Mahachon ridden by jockey Roong-Rit) go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=hq2kv-QQhIE – the amazing 1940s comedian Spike Jones is just as good today as he was seventy or eighty years ago.
When paying the king’s ransom to get into the grounds, punters are also given a bi-lingual race program that contains not only the names of the horses and their jockeys, but also the jockey’s history of wins and places in recent races. We were lucky to be sitting next to a retired man whose hobbies were golf (he plays weekly in the golf course that is part of the huge race track and army barracks just north of the old city of Chiang Mai) and going to the races. He goes every week and was very knowledgeable about the horses – mostly magnificent looking animals – as well as their owners and riders:
- No – do not bet on Number 8. He is owned by the same man as Number 2 and the jockey won last week so he will not try very hard this week.
- Oh! Many thanks! So you must be having a great day with all your local knowledge?
- Nope … have not won anything yet.
I was with Ann Reimer, a friend visiting from Tasmania, and who knew horses well, so I sometimes followed her advice, sometimes the advice of the man next to us, sometimes the betting guide – and sometimes if the jockey was wearing silks with Australia’s colours of green and gold.
And the winner is …
None of the approved methods worked particularly well although my favourite, Number 8, did reward me with a massive THB 100 win when he came in first after all – and last was Beetle Bomb.
Between races the deep sandy race track was groomed and crowds milled about under the ever-watchful eyes of armed Military Police, checking out racing forms pinned up to noticeboards under the grandstand, watching the results being entered on blackboards, buying new shoes (true!) from a street stall, making bets or receiving a payout, and eating and drinking.
The Chiang Mai Race Course website promises Clean food & drinks at a reasonable price etc and the grub on offer certainly lived up to its promise. We were having lunch beneath the open-air stand when a race started. The food stall owner merrily waved us off, saying that she would look after our meal and that it would still be there when we got back. We hurried out to join the crowd at the rails as the horses gallooped past, joined the crowds tearing up losing betting slips, and went back to our pork noodles. They were still there and the stall owner did not charge us extra for the flies.
In our air-conditioned stand, one table of local gamblers had brought their own food and drink – and lots of it. They were quiet and chatty at the start of the afternoon, but got progressively louder and more amiable as the afternoon sun – and the Thai Sang Som whisky – got lower … and the punters got higher.
Before races, the horses were paraded in a ring behind the stands and then lead to the sandy track by barefooted grooms. In a section of the track in front of the cheap stands the horses (and most of the jockeys) strutted their stuff, then eventually moved around to the starting point which on our day was at the far side of the track for the races of 1080 metres.
They did not seem particularly fussed about getting in and getting going – sometimes it took over half an hour before all nags and riders were in place – and then the traditional trumpet call was sounded, gates flew open and the horses galloped around the track at – I estimated – speeds of about 45 – 50 kmh, taking just a couple of minutes to decide the winner.
And the crowds went wild
- C’mon Emmy! Hurry up Dang-Picjit-Chai! Get a move on Prik-Tarr!
screamed in Thai, of course (Anne and I were two of about four non-Thais at the races that day), but:
- C’mon Number 1! Hurry up Number 2!! Get a move on Number 3!
Perhaps the horses – or their riders – were numerate but not literate.
Once Beetle Bomb and all the others straggled past the winning post, the winner was then paraded in front of the air-conditioned grandstand, while the others were led off to the glue factory or the dogs’ meat cannery. One losing jockey looked as if the same fate was going to befall him – perhaps his owner had told him not to come last after all and he had forgotten …
The jockeys’ faces and silks – and the horses chests – were spattered with sweat and sand and mud kicked up by the flying hooves of the horses in front: almost more of a reason to get in front and stay in front and owners’ race instructions be blowed!
Back to the open-air weigh-in station to make sure saddle weights and jockey weights were still what they should be and if all was well, with no photo finishes or stewards’ enquiries necessary, the officials in the tower above the a/c stand posted winning numbers on little hooks in their window and someone on the ground trotted over the chopped-up track to post numbered cards in slots showing the winning horses.
Torn-up losing betting slips fluttered to the ground all around us, as a few very happy punters who got the winner or the “Tri-actor” or the “Daily Double” or the “Exacta” right trotted or cantered off to collect their winnings.
Although neither of us made much of a profit at the races – certainly not enough to have a night at the opera – it was a great way to spend a lazy Saturday, even if Beetle Bomb did come last in every race.
- Race Day: June 2016
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2016
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