England’s racing culture is hindered by the only thing that hinders anything in England; the weather. Not so in Penang. With the sun shining and a healthy stack of Ringgits, there is one obvious choice of how to spend a Sunday and that is at the races.
The Penang Turf Club, just off Jalan Scotland, is the islands race track and communal area for hordes of Chinese looking to profit from the latest hot tip. At the turn-styles, we made our way up a narrow ramp on the way to the boxes housing those entering on the ‘Tourist Package’ option. Before arrival, however, we pushed and shoved our way through the common betting area. The day had started and, during mid-race, crazy-eyed and hysteric Chinese men dressed in shorts and t-shirts shouted at the raised TV screens. Some waving programs, some nervously looking over the top of booklets – like a child too afraid of witnessing the final result – and all with the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from the corner of their mouths, the gang of frenzied betters were in full-swing issuing cries and moans of encouragement. Before we had made our way through, the din suddenly stopped like a stereo on pause; the race was over and heads were now buried in the day’s program analysing the potential for the next round.
Through glass doors, we paid for our entry into the boxes. Separated by a wall of glass from the pit, we welcomed the air-con and the distinct lack of stale, sweaty air. Private betting booths occupied the top mezzanine level and the boxes tiered downwards, comfortable rows of seats branching off shallow steps. Again walled with glass, the front of the boxes held a panoramic view of the race track below. A peaceful calm had settled over the course and the signboard inside the oval track informed us that we had twelve minutes to the start of the next race; it was the inevitable calm before the storm.
Whether it is Ascott or Penang, betting at a race meet – undoubtedly betting in general – has an immediate effect upon one’s psychology. With your tourist entry pack there are three betting vouchers; RM10 on a win/place, RM2 on a forecast, RM2 on a trifecta. Even though these are included in your RM48 admission fee it is a struggle not to slip into thinking these are free bets and a little hint is to use your trifecta at the end of the day when the stakes increase well into the thousands. For the laymen better, number and figures struggle to take on a qualitative meaning as one tries to come to a decision made on rationality; the odds, the jockey, the trainer, the horses’ past wins, how many furlongs in a race and which horses can run the length etc. etc. are all valid considerations when choosing your bet. However, under the guidance from an ex-horse trainer, I was forewarned that there are only 3-4 ‘goers’ (horses looking to win) in each race so the daunting task of comparing each horse was made easier.
My style, however, is to either bet on the name, the jockey’s strip or whether any horse stands out as looking particularly eager during the obligatory pre-race parade. Needless to say, I made an outstanding contribution to the Turf Club’s pocket and by the end of the day was down RM250. It goes quickly. Despite my exponentially panicked attempts to secure a win – sometimes betting on Penang and the Singapore’s races simultaneously – it was clear the day was not mine even though I thought I was in for a sure thing when one race contained a Weiner, Kaka and You Little Ripper. The day belonged to Chef Tommes who walked away with close to RM300 in the black. But, as they say, ‘he who dares…’
Throwing caution to the decidedly strong wind against my favour, I went for the ultimate gamble; RM50 to win on Black Arrow ridden by S. Salee. The parade came out and Black Arrow, jet black but with white ankles, stalked the oval calm and collected but with pricked ears. He was the heaviest in the group and lean with bulging shoulder muscles and Salee, the only jockey to have ridden him in his past six races, steered him without moving a muscle both comfortable with each other as one is with a limb or appendage. They took off to the start line, approximately halfway around the track as this was a short race of 1100m, taking it slow as not to tire each other out. It was to be a sprint race and, like an omen, I suddenly thought of the likeness between my horse and the recent Olympic hero Usain Bolt; it was an uncanny likeness of the smooth, fluent movements in Black Arrows stride and poise apart from the fact that he had four legs.
And they were off. Standing outside in the gated smoking area in front of the boxes, we had no idea who was first out of the stalls. As they rounded the corner to the finishing line a crescendo of moans and whoops started culminating in a wave of noise as they galloped down the finishing straight. It was neck and neck, as it always is, until the jockeys started spurring their horses to find their top gear and some broke from the pack. Black Arrow was among them. Then, with a turn of pace and change of hoof-beat rhythm, Black Arrow pulled ahead further and further until he was a good body in front of the others. This is not a time to relax, however. Sometimes a jockey spurs his horse too soon and they lose their sprinting pace before the finishing line. Not so with this pairing. Black Arrow seemed to get faster and faster and was still accelerating past the post winning convincingly and ensuring I broke even for the day.
Somewhat relieved and massively excited over the win, as I was not the only one to collect after the race, we called it an end to the day. It had been fun. Good company, plenty of beers and a constant rush of excitement over any races where bets were placed we left with a new sense of camaraderie discussing over and over strategies, wins and horses to remember. We had to take stock because we would be going again.
Originally published by The Expat Group, Penang International