An Odd Bet of the Nags

 |  April 29, 2010

Imagine Royal Ascot as the lavish, unashamedly effete father of the family, the Grand National as the eccentric, mercurial uncle, and maybe the Kentucky Derby would be the boorish capitalist cousin who has more money than sense . . . If this were a horse racing family then the weekly Chiang Mai Horse Race would have to be the bastard son, disowned youngest brother, sequestered in Asia and given a guinea a month on strict terms that he won’t come back and discredit the esteemed family. But don’t let this put you off, a day at the races in Chiang Mai might be a somewhat murky experience devoid of expensive hats and champagne swilling toffs, but its doggishness is its charm.

Even the most literal thinker would note the irony in Thailand’s marketing epithet ‘Land of Smiles’ if he were to visit the Chiang Mai horse races. It seems the illegitimate child of horse racing has grown into a very serious man. The spectators, either sitting on the rickety wooden stands, or skulking around under the stadium in the dimly lit betting tunnel (the antithesis of ‘air-conditioned space’), are some of the toughest, gloomiest looking Thai folk you’re ever likely to see outside of a Hang Dong holding cell.

Tension Mounts

The crowd whispers conspiratorially; the announcer tells everyone the horses are ready; people become slightly more animated, and . . . “Ork laew! Ork laew!” (They’re off!) shouts the commentator; the crowd rises to its feet. Miserable men and women no longer frown, their faces become pictures of awe and excitement, some shout anxiously the name of their horse, obscenities in Thai abound, geezers throw their half smoked fags to the floor, and some wipe the sweat from their face with the towel they keep wrapped around their neck . . . The winning horse: number 7, ‘Code Secret’ – a name, it would later become apparent, also bears the weight of irony.

Minutes before the head honcho of the military racing stadium comes to speak to us we take a quick look at the racing programme, which not only gives you the recent form of the horses and some other betting ‘help’ but entices the reader (perhaps only the winners) with some illustrations of (more) vice in the form of a bounty of soapy massage ‘entertainment’ complexes, ‘karaoke’ pubs and short-time ‘hotels’.

Chatchawan Suksamakee, who is a sergeant in the military and top brass at the race course, has been head of the races for 21 of the 40 years the course has been open. “There are five other stadiums in Thailand,” he explains, the others being in Bangkok (x2), Khon Kaen and Korat. Asked why gambling is legal at the races and illegal everywhere else he wasn’t quite sure but did say the central government ministries had given the five stadiums a dispensation on gambling. “We have permission,” he says, “but no one bets big, we don’t have that kind of money”. In answer to the betting cynics who might have lost a few quid on the horses in Chiang Mai and been exasperated by the confounding odds, dubious form of horses and more dubious race winners, he admits that in the past it may have seemed that there were a lot of “flukes” and odd victors, though now he says the game is definitely not rigged, that the odds do actually reflect the form. Talking about the soldiers involved, he says they are not allowed to gamble, the races are strictly for the punters.

Code Secret’s winning jockey, Nai, a nervous lad of 20 who we found in the jockey house, admitted that he was allowed to bet on himself but unfortunately he had not bet on this the day he was winner. He isn’t rich, he said, or famous, but the racing does give him enough not to have a second job. “I feel normal,” he said about the feeling his recent win had given him, and he didn’t even seem excited by the prospect of earning the bonus that he will get for winning. The privileged jockey, in his obvious discomfort at being questioned, seemed eager to get back to the jockey house where wives and manic kids were screaming at each other.

Tension Mounts

The betting itself is a complicated affair and it’s safe to bet you won’t understand it. The way it seems is that the odds fluctuate like stock market prices on the declaration of world war; you can only bet a forecast or a winner, no each way bets, and if you do win, you won’t win much if you haven’t made either a huge uncalculated risk or are part of a covenant of endowed gamblers …

“Corrupt as f**k,” is the very first response we hear from a group of equestriophiles having a beer in the heated hanger. A second indictment soon follows: “Completely fiddled,” backed up with predicate accusations of “they know who’s gonna win” and there are “non-triers” in the races who “pull back their horse” if it’s looking they might do better than they should. Nevertheless, as much as the five men – Scottish, English, Australian – understand the flagrant folly in high stakes betting at the races, they have a great deal of fondness for the weekly event. “We don’t come to get rich, we only bet small, it’s more a day out: cheap beer with friends, a good afternoon for a fiver!” They further explain the trappings of the betting at the racing, explaining that the odds don’t give the punter any realistic outcome of who might win. “It’s random, so you may as well pick any horse,” says one chap, though he does add that “jockeys have been suspended in the past for pulling back their horse”.

“No one wins big,” says one of the men, “and it’s not worth putting on a lot of money”. But, he adds, picking winners can be as easy as watching which horse certain people put their money on. The truth about the winner, he explains with a wry smile, is out there long before the nags hit the sand. The largest win they have known of in the history of their almost decade of Saturday race meets was 1/4 million baht by a Korean man who had bet a long shot forecast and his 400/1 horse came in first. Their last piece of advice, preached with the seriousness of a philosophical dictum: “Don’t go by the ‘book’ . . .”

Tension Mounts

It often pays to heed the advice of friendly locals in Thailand when faced with circumstances where nothing is really as it seems, but the ‘book’, with its fast women and photos of muscular horses was too much to ignore. The translator and I noted the recent form of each horse in the next race, meanwhile, as my eyes studied the programme, vocal apparitions swirled around my head whispering cautionary incantations: ‘Dooon’t go by the boook . . . dooon’t go by the boook’. Number four, who’d had a recent run of very good results, was a betting favourite, as was number five. The information about a horse’s strengths and weaknesses proffered to us by the programme, we had been led to believe, was as faithfully phony as the amicable smiles on the masseuses’ faces on pages 5, 9, 16, 19, 21. Accepting the vagaries of chance and being all too aware we were not part of the hallowed clique prone to profitable revelations, we decided to ‘use the force’ and make an intuitive leap. I picked Daet Diow, and was assured that even though it read and sounded just like ‘sun-dried pork’ it actually was an ancient word that meant ‘brave heart’. It had not even come close to winning in its last five races, and by all existing accounts, was totally rubbish. But the programme did add that he was a fast finisher, unlike number five, the second favourite that the translator chose, who was all about acceleration.

“You’ve picked a winner,” says the Scottish bloke we’d interviewed earlier as we were queuing to make our 100 baht bets. “How do you know that,” I asked. “Because everyone is betting on it . . . it’ll win for sure.”

And They’re Off!

Crowd stands again, horses in the distance are just a blur, we need binoculars . . . fags are spilt on the aching dry wooden boards beneath, I push through some people in my way . . . come on Daet Diow. The commentator says something about number two, my horse, and number five, the translator’s choice. They’re head and head down the last few furlongs, two and five; the crowd, at its feet, all seem to be screaming “Daet Diow”, “Daet Diow”, “Daet Diow”, maybe the Scottish guy was right with it being a foregone conclusion . . . the young translator and me shout at our horses to get a move on . . .

Daet Diow, what a horse! 80% of the crowd are grinning from ear to ear. Who said gambling was a loser’s game? I cash in the ticket and think about what I’m going to spend my four baht winnings on.

Chiang Mai Military Horse Racing

At the back of Suan Luam lake, accessible from the Mae Rim Road or from the lake enclosure

Every Saturday, first race 1p.m. Last race 6 p.m.