I had better declare an interest! I am involved in Hong Kong's Jockey Club and have watched in recent years as attendance at race meetings has fallen and betting turnover has dropped. Happily that trend has, at least in the early part of the 2007/08 season, been reversed and there are a few more smiles around the place.
For those not in the know, the Jockey Club is non-profit. The majority of the stake gets returned to the punters, a decent percentage (well, decent for them) goes to the Government in tax, a small percentage goes to the running and administration of the Club, while the balance goes to charity. So far, so good, and for those who read these pages, you may recall another piece dealing with Macau in July where I also touched upon the Jockey Club.
I write this from Melbourne where I have been attending, on behalf of the Jockey Club, the Melbourne Cup Carnival - and what a show they have put on. It spans a week, and is held in a true carnival atmosphere.
But for me, the contrast with Hong Kong racing is stark. Not because this is a one off week of colour and entertainment, because Hong Kong can do that too, and does so for the International Races. No, what struck me was the attendance of young people, of two categories. There were the young adults caught up in the enthusiasm of the day. No, not all of them racing aficionados; many just there for a good time at an event where they would meet and catch up with friends. The others, children of racegoers. There for a good picnic lunch and a runaround.
During the summer this year I attended Ascot in the UK, where the races were not so carnival-like in outlook, but where the attendance demographics were similar to Melbourne. In addition the UK has a website which sets out exactly what people can expect from a day at the races - including free entry for children up to the age of 16. A comment that would send shivers down the spine of our Government.
Hong Kong's racegoers, by contrast, are generally engrossed in their racing form - and children are not allowed anywhere near the place for fear that they will fall into bad habits and be allowed to gamble. It would be true to say that there are some signs of life in the new Racing Club, and in the provision of activities more appealing to a younger, but adult, crowd particularly at the Happy Valley track on a Wednesday night.
The whole sport of racing, in the eyes of Government and certain focus groups in Hong Kong, appears to be a fear that the attendance of young people at races tracks in Hong Kong will subsequently lead to bad habits, and in particular an addiction to gambling. The preferred "solution" appears to be a prohibition on such activities.
Gambling is a disease, and gambling ruins families. I am not so naive as to believe it is a minor problem. But, as experience has shown, prohibition merely drives it underground. Gambling is not going to stop just because you make it illegal, or try to prevent it by other means. People who have the unhealthy desire to gamble will soon find alternative means to do so.
Meanwhile, back to Melbourne and Ascot and all those many other racing jurisdictions around the world where a day at the races is seen as a family day out. It seems to me that Hong Kong should encourage a healthy interest in the sport of kings, rather than trying to make it look like some sleazy activity only to be carried out furtively inside smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors.
We should celebrate the success of Hong Kong's racing industry and its many achievements. And we should build a base of newer, younger interested people - just like they do successfully in other World Cities.