Horseracing a safe bet for gamblers in Buddhist Thailand

Horseracing a safe bet for gamblers in Buddhist Thailand
This photo taken on December 11, 2016 shows racegoers watching a horse race at a racecourse in Bangkok.
PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Binoculars swinging around their necks, Thai punters erupt into cheers as horses round the final bend - the thrill of the race amplified by the rare chance to gamble in a Buddhist country where betting is virtually banned.

"I come every week, I love horses," says 66-year-old Chumpon Aunaeksri, eyeing the thoroughbreds as they trot onto the turf at the downtown Bangkok course, which is fringed by tower blocks.

The stadium's scuffed concrete stands are filled with thousands of other race fans, mostly elderly men, snacking on peanuts and sipping beer as cigarette smoke wafts through the sticky city air.

There is none of the glamour associated with the international racing circuit.

In Thailand it is all about the sport - and of course the chance to openly enjoy a flutter in country with tough anti-gambling laws.

A former jockey himself, Chumpon has seen his fortunes wax and wane over the years, winning 20,000 baht (S$810) on one Sunday only to lose 100,000 on another.

Lately, he has endured a painful losing streak.

"But it's okay, it's all legal here," he says.

Not so for underground casinos or even friendly backyard card games - which are routinely broken up by police and soldiers in the junta-run country.

Even elderly bridge players are not exempt, with a squad of security officers hauling a pack of retired Brits over to the police station in the beach town of Pattaya last year for violating a ban on owning more than 120 playing cards.

Thailand's hard line on betting is buttressed by beliefs that gambling contravenes the morality codes of Buddhism - a religion that more than 90 percent of the population adheres to.

Yet more than a third of all Thais still gamble regularly according to a 2015 study by Bangkok's prestigious Chulalongkorn University, rolling the dice on cockfights, football matches and boxing bouts.

Only a combination of tradition, royal patronage and handsome tax returns have kept trackside betting sacred, making it the only legal form of gambling outside of a state-run lottery.

Horseracing was first brought to Thai soil a century ago under King Chulalongkorn, an anglophile monarch credited with modernising Thailand and fending off the colonial powers who had carved up the rest of the region.

After enjoying a race put on by Thais who had seen the sport abroad, the king bestowed a plot of land in the capital to become Thailand's first course.

Racing quickly bloomed.

Tracks were built in provincial cities around the country and stables sprouted up along Thailand's poor and rural northeast, where slight young men were recruited as jockeys.

But harder times have befallen the industry in recent years as younger Thais increasingly fixate on football.

Bangkok's two tracks still sell some 6,000 tickets each per race day, turning over around 40 million baht.

But that is a steady drop-off from Thai racing's heydey before the 1997 economic crisis, when the clubs raked in three times as much.

Nearly a quarter of the profits are syphoned off in tax, a cut that racing authorities have warned is crippling the industry as its ticket sales sag.

Some believe that opening Thailand up to global competition could help keep the sport running.

Today only Thai-bred horses can compete and the kingdom does not host international race meets.

Yet a peek around the stables behind Bangkok's tracks suggests that international acclaim remains a distant prospect for Thai horseracing.

Official oversight to prevent doping is threadbare, with trainers free to administer medication to horses themselves and drug tests only run on animals that place first and second.

"It's like the Wild West here," says Helena Gabrielsson, a Swede who has trained a string of winners since she opened a stable with her Thai husband in 2011.

Race-rigging also remains all too common - giving horse owners the upper hand when it comes to closing the day with extra cash.

Thailand's top jockey, Namsak Thepnarong, says many of his peers come under pressure from owners to fix the races and hold their horses back.

"Some jockeys have to take orders from the horse owners. They (the owners) determine everything," the 10-times champion told AFP, explaining his success allows him to operate independently and keep the shady approaches at bay.

In the absence of transparency, regular punters know the safest bet is to follow the VIPs' lead.

"If there are many people betting on a horse, I'll just go for that one," explained 79-year-old Preecha Sridama, a race devotee since since he was 20.

"But it's never certain," he adds, peering back down at his notes for the next race.

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