To write a horse race story like Hunter S. Thompson I needed to be him. Moreover, it needed to be a hot afternoon in 1970’s Louisville, Kentucky. Instead, I had no equestrian knowledge, I was in modern Hong Kong, and secondhand smoke was my only fear and loath.
I only needed to follow the newspaper-reading crowd to find the tracks of the Happy Valley Racecourse.
I walked side by side an old man, he wore marble-white sneakers and an oversized jacket that made him look as tall as an 8-year-old. Without losing his rushing pace he managed to hold his cigarette and the newspaper with his right hand, as he used his forearm to write down his notes. His voice was loud and he was probably announcing to himself his pick for tonight’s race. The toothpick in his mouth surprisingly never moved out of place.
He didn’t speak English, and as far as my Cantonese, I still believe I can say “mm goi” for every situation. So I stopped talking. He took a plunge into his newspaper, low enough to hide his entire face.
He didn’t enjoy my persistent and inquisitive look over his shoulder.
50 meters ahead, a small bus stopped to drop a group of elegant gamblers. I slowly sneaked out of the gate D queue, reserved for such members and followed the usher’s directions to the public entrance.
At forty minutes past six I could only see small heads among the heavy clouds of cigarette smoke. The higher the stands the fewer heads I could see. The galleries were starting to fill up.
I could hear three different rock n’ roll songs playing from the speakers, and I had only given a few steps into the field. Elvis gave me a wink as his go-go dancers tried to sell me a beer jar.
No chance of getting close to the horses or the jockeys, unless you have a Race Press Pass.
20 minutes on the giant LED screen, and I was already anxious. The horses began their ceremonial procession around the central grounds, and the excited crowd whistled back at them as they would to a beauty pageant candidate. They expect any signal that would reinforce their bet.
Kharu walks past, wearing a white and blue number ten on its back, elegant and graceful. It’s probably three times taller and stronger than his jockey, and five times more graceful.
Two minutes to begin and I struggle to hold to the rails. My neighbour seems pleased to smoke in my face as I try to snap a picture.
Too fast. They’re all blurry.
I slip and try to hold my grip harder, as I feel dizzier from the smoke following me from both sides.
Again. Not one.
The front line of men are not moved by the result. I can’t tell if they won $500 thousand or if they lost it all. Most of them scribble down on their newspapers that now seems like a kindergarten doodle book. Some of them go back for another lucky try and another pack of cigarettes. The wives sit back and patiently wait for the last race to be over.
Kharu put its jockey down, who took the prize and the fame. It’s Elvis’ turn on the main stage, and the dancers are done selling beer. The smoke cloud grows again and takes over the stands. A bus driver waits to pick up his now drunken, but still elegant passengers. They don’t care if they won or lost, they gambled.
And at last, the toothpick-chewing man. I could bet he had lost that night. He sat down by the sidewalk and waited, for someone or something to change his own luck.
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