It’s late Saturday morning at the Nong Ho race track in Chiang Mai and the scorching summer sun beams down with its usual intensity and oppressiveness on the spectators about to enter the grandstand.
However, for the predominantly male crowd aged 40 and over, some adorned with leathery well-worn faces, others looking a little less experienced in life, worrying about the consequences of standing too long under the rays of the strong northern Thailand sun is the farthest thing from their minds.
Rather, scurrying to purchase a programme, selecting the right horse, placing a bet and hopefully winning a few baht is of far greater concern.
It’s officially race day in Chiang Mai, the only day of the week the so-called sport of kings is offered to those who wish to partake, and behind the old tattered wooden benches men – some carrying bottles of whiskey placed in pails probably aimed at drowning their sorrows in defeat or celebrating in victory — mill about looking very concerned. Some appear to be intensely studying the programmes they purchased. All have the choice of placing single or group bets. No matter the type of wager though — the minimum is 20 baht – the harsh reality is their hopes will be placed on jockeys riding atop elderly thoroughbreds which upon closer inspection have unfortunately seen far better days.
“These are all class seven horses,” said Frank Adams, a former North Carolina, U.S. native now living in Chiang Mai, who has evolved into one of the rare non Thai horse owners since arriving here. He has owned three horses in the past, including his latest, Danny Boy.
There are seven classes in the British horse racing system all designated by their handicap level — the weight range a horse must be in order to add fairness to the rest of the field.
“Class seven are worst of the bunch, but they’re pretty nice horses. You never know who’s going to win in a class seven race. The average age is about eight years and oldest could be 11. These are all thoroughbreds, which aren’t even allowed to race in Bangkok. Only the Thai born horses can race there. But the Thai horses can’t beat the high class thoroughbreds,” added Adams.
Horse racing was introduced to Thailand at the turn of the century after King Rama VI went abroad and took a shining to it. It’s the only kind of legalised gambling allowed in the country, but remains restricted to only once a week. In Chiang Mai, it is controlled by the military, as evidenced by the very visible military policemen patrolling the grounds on a constant basis while gazing over at the crowd.
Nine races are normally held on each card during which time betters cheer their chosen horses on to victory either standing and peering or sitting on wooden benches in a building that looks like something out of a time capsule. Nothing appears to have changed since it was built in the early 20th century, except the consequences of age, making everything appear old, dusty and very run down.
But to some, including the small number of expats who come down to spend some time sipping on a cold brew and taking it all in while not placing too much money on bets, the unique blend of seriousness and the non-conventional is the main reason they attend.
“I just like the atmosphere here,” said David DeMinico, originally from New Hampshire, U.S., but currently living in Chiang Mai. “I like doing the people watching thing. I like trying to unpack the stories about each horse and their health and its owner. There are all kinds of good luck charms, lucky numbers and colours, and I find that interesting.”
DeMinico said he enjoys gathering information from talking to others. During those conversations, he also admitted he had heard rumours bandied about concerning alleged wrongdoings at the track. Still, he quickly added he was not in a position to question anything or anyone.
“I’ve heard about that, but it doesn’t really bother me,” he said. “Look. I lived here as a kid for seven years. I speak Thai. I came back to live here about a year ago. I still don’t understand shit. I know there are layers and layers and layers here above water that are fascinating to uncover and what’s below water is a whole other world. I just acknowledge it exists, somewhat accept it and realise it’s not my place, not my country to shape or to choose. I have definite feelings about it but it’s not under my cultural jurisdiction if you know what I mean.”
United States resident Taylor Killough who hails from Louisville Kentucky and was visiting Chiang Mai with her boyfriend, said the unique atmosphere at the track actually reminded her of a strange mixture of an American baseball game mixed with horse racing.
“It just feels a lot more informal than the races we see back home in Kentucky,” she said.
Killough knows of what she speaks. Her hometown of Louisville is considered by many in the know as the home of thoroughbred racing in the United States, made famous by its hosting of the annual Kentucky Derby, one of the most iconic races in the world and often called the most exciting two minutes in sports.
“The races back home are a lot more serious, with some high betting being done,” she added. “The horses are a lot more expensive as well. Yes the horses here are a lot older here which bothers me a bit but it bothers me at home to see younger horses racing as well.”
Peerapong, a 45 year old jockey born and raised in Chiang Mai and who has been riding and working around horses since he was 15 was entered into six races. He admitted he really doesn’t care if the horses he rides every Saturday are old, young, expensive or a bargain. All he wants to do is win as many races as he can and support himself financially. However, there are times he admits when certain matters are simply out of his control.
“Of course I would like to win every time I enter a race,” he said. “But it’s the game right? Sometimes we have orders to do things a special way. It annoys me at times as I’d like to win every time I go out there.”
Strangely enough, to the authorities who run and operate the track, horse racing is considered a game.
“It is actually a registered sport in Chiang Mai,” said a track official who wished to remain anonymous. “That’s what makes it legal. It’s looked after by a club just as football, volleyball and other sports would be.”
When asked whether members of the military actually bet on races themselves, he just smiled slyly, paused reflectively for a few seconds, and answered, “well, they’re not supposed to play, but in reality it’s different.”
Despite its unique atmosphere and interesting ambiance, the state of horse racing in Chiang Mai remains in a troubled state. Attendance is consistently low, young people have turned their back on the sport, and no renovations for the dire clubhouse or other facilities are planned.
Yet by the look of it, the loyal regulars that number about 300 in a grandstand that can fit about 1,000 people it will continue to return on a weekly basis.
““It’s an interesting sport to watch,” said Chiang Mai resident Teo who was visiting for the first time. “But you know it would be nice if more women would attend. Actually, it would be interesting to ask the few women who are here why they are actually attending. But I respect the jockeys as well. As you can see it’s pretty hot and they’re very good if they can withstand the heat while riding all day.”
Chiang Mai jockey Peerapong enjoying the ride:
It has often been said that at least part of the key to inner happiness is the ability to find a job you truly love.
If you’re fortunate to have done so, then your chosen occupation will not seem like work, but rather be fun and enjoyable, and nobody can be a finer example of the latter than Chiang Mai native Peerapong.
The 45 year old Peerapong began to learn all about the world of horses when he was a 12 and became a jockey soon after. He was introduced to the life by his uncle, also a jockey. Since that time, he has known no other profession and his love for the sport has never waned.
“There are two kinds of jockeys here in Chiang Mai,” said Peerapong, who explained he often changes his clothing three times during a hot day of racing. “There are those jockeys who work only for one horse owner and others who are what we call freelancers. They can ride as many different horses as they want. On Thursday or Friday they usually get a call from a horse owner who will ask them if they’d like to ride for them that weekend. I am in that category. I am a freelancer.”
Being a freelancer has served Peerapong well, and he was quick to point out that most local jockeys cannot live off the salary of one day’s work, but he has managed to do just that. In fact, he’s never had a second job his entire life. He often heads to the track during the week to practice and get the feel of things.
“There is nothing certain in this job,” he added. “But you can make up to 20,000 baht on any particularly Saturday. There is also a tip of close to 2,000 baht from the owner that is available as well if you win. So I manage.”
For anyone who has followed the sport of horse racing, it is common knowledge that all jockeys must maintain a certain weight level and Peerapong is no different. He definitely watches what he eats, but he has also learned to deal with it through a special diet that includes consuming lots of special herbs. He also abstains from drinking alcohol the day before and the day of the races.
Like all athletes, Peerapong admitted he still has a dream of becoming the best in his chosen profession.
“I watch other jockeys from other parts of the world and observe how they race,” he said. “If you want to go abroad to race you have to go to Bangkok to compete for at least a year. If you can obtain a certain number of points from winning races a committee will then decide if you’re eligible to go abroad and race. So it’s not easy.”