The gee-gees, the Sport of Kings or simply the races; there is no better way to waste a lazy Saturday afternoon in Chiang Mai than to pack a picnic, gather up some chums and head down to the Nong Hor Racing Track to bet your shirt on a filly named Potato.
The fabulous thing about the gee-gees for me is that, unlike say cricket or quidditch, there are relatively few rules one needs to be aware of to enjoy this noble sport. A bunch of nags gather at a starting line and, after the firing of the starter’s pistol, are cajoled around a well-defined track by little people in colourful shirts brandishing whips. The first horse to cross the line wins.
Arrival at Nong Hor requires the visitor to hand over 30 baht to get into the car park. I know what you are thinking — 30 baht to park a motorbike! That’s six times as expensive as parking a bike at Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Mall. Well, worry not, that 30 baht is the price of entry too. Try getting an Access All Areas ticket to any other racecourse on the planet for that. Come to think of it one would find it difficult to get Access All Areas to a public toilet in most countries for that.
Chiang Mai horse racing is less Royal Ascot more east London dog track. No elegant bonnets or spiffy trousers here. This is a place where real men in jeans and t-shirts go to hang out with other real men in jeans and t-shirts, swap tips, discuss form and gamble. Yes gamble.
Again, I know exactly what you are thinking — gambling is strictly a no no in the Land of Smiles. That’s generally true, but the military run horse-racing is exempt, for reasons I’m pretty sure you can work out for yourselves. As is the government regulated lottery. Oh, and perhaps the string of regional casinos touted to spring up across the country in the near future by them what knows best. But, I digress. Horse racing without the thrill of a flutter would be a little like travelling all the way to the seaside and not dipping ones toes in the water. Like going to a theme park and not having at least one go on the rollercoaster.
Not that I’m advocating gambling, but a 20 baht wager on an imaginatively nag named Banana or James Bond adds an extra element to a day at the track. Even the complete novice immediately becomes something of an instant expert with a compulsion to start talking nonsense about whether the track is hard, good to firm or a bit sloppy and use the terms Yearling, Filly, Stallion and Gelding as if they actually have a clue what you are talking about. Having placed a bet, gamblers also somehow earn the right to look at other people’s betting slips, suck air through their teeth and suggest that a place-bet would have been the sensible option rather than backing Mr Chuckles to win. This is all done whilst showing the other gambler how clever they have been by investing in an accumulator bet (combining several selections into a single wager), that, when it comes off, will finally allow them to buy that little vineyard in the Loire.
Don’t get me wrong, the sight and sound of a dozen horses thundering past the stands is tremendous in itself, it’s just that the added frisson of being able to collect enough money after the race to buy an ice cream is a delicious prospect, and also causes one to understand why playing the ponies is up there with internet pornography and The Great British Bake Off on the list of potentially unhealthy fascinations.
For first-time visitors to the racing in Chiang Mai everything is well laid out. Nong Hor is a 15-minute drive north of the old city on the way to Mai Rim (just past the signs for the Tribal Museum). Racing takes place each Saturday between 12.30 pm and 5.30 pm. There are between eight and 10 events at each meet with enough time between the races to study the form, grab a bite to eat and have a natter with fellow aficionados. Visitors pass the paddocks, where the horses and riders show themselves off before the races, on the way in, and the stands are capacious enough to hold several hundred spectators, with more than enough room for a good-sized picnic. And don’t worry if you forgot the hamper, as with every well-established public venue in Thailand there are plenty of food and drink stalls in the cavernous hall immediately behind the stands. To the rear of the hall are the all-important betting counters. Having a first time flutter can be intimidating as nobody wants to look like they have no idea what they are doing in front of an eager crowd of seasoned gamblers. Worry not — as is the case around the globe the cashiers at any gambling venue are well versed in making you feel right at home handing over your hard earned cash. Simply pick a race, as well as a horse running in that race, and ask the lovely lady behind the betting counter to take your money in exchange for a printed betting slip. Bets are usually for the horse to win (come first) or to place (come first, second or third). But, as I have already said, nearly everyone becomes an instant expert almost immediately after receiving their first betting slip. There are racing lists available at the course — although these are only printed in Thai, or you can peruse the starter’s names from the comfort of the internet by clicking on the link below.
Now, there have been suggestions that the races may be rigged, but have no truck with such cynicism. Who ever heard of a horse race being contrived? Rigging a race would require the participation of riders, owners and the powers that be, and that just smacks of nonsense — even if various international studies suggest the contrary. I also abhor the rumours that buying a couple of beers for the right race official can lead to a dead cert tip on the winner. I visited the paddock and saw these resplendent beasts up close (the horses, not the officials). They are far too noble and proud to ever consider throwing a race.
Although I have suggested that a Saturday afternoon speculating on these fine looking ungulates is geared towards hard working gentlemen seeking some respite from the drudgery of whatever it is hard working gentlemen get up to during the week, Nong Hor is a fabulous place for all the family. There is cheap food and drink galore, a shop in which to buy the colours of your favourite jockey, toilets and plenty of space in front of the stands for the kids to muck about. And who of us doesn’t enjoy settling back with a bottle of a popular beer brand to contemplate a group of surprisingly voluptuous dancing-girls bob up and down while having twenty-baht notes popped into their cleavages between races? Yes indeed, an afternoon at the Chiang Mai races has something for everyone.
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