Hong Kong - Far Eastern racing run by an American
The view in one direction frames an expanse of the endless Hong Kong skyline, in another the emerald Happy Valley Racecourse, but this is unmistakably the working domain of an American. Portraits of Man o' War, Spectacular Bid and presentation photos made after races at Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga decorate the walls, the occupant standing beside Orientate, Sulamani and Funny Cide.
In the early years of the Breeders' Cup, which remains a young event when considered within racing's historical context, Bill Nader would leave his various duties at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, where he took his first racetrack job as a press box aide while still a student, for an assignment on the event's notes team, which gathers information concerning the participants for dissemination in the media. The world looks much different from the corner office on the top floor of the Hong Kong Jockey Club headquarters.
The executive director of racing in Hong Kong - the first American ever appointed to a position of such influence in what is a unique racing and gambling enterprise that has for more than a century impacted on the life of almost every citizen of the former British colony (returned to Chinese control in 1999) – is less than a year removed from New York, where at times it appeared that Nader was single-handedly guiding the daily business of a listing ship that has for years been imperiled.
Nader was the face of the New York Racing Association and its most reliable voice at a time when every day, it seemed, brought new crisis. Five years of tumult began with the turn of the century and a scandal spawned among betting clerks that progressed upward through what most consider the most important of American racing organizations. The guilty clerks were imprisoned on various tax fraud and money laundering changes as were two mid-level executives. Key people left the association, retired or resigned voluntarily, some on the day they qualified for a pension. Highly placed executives were forced to resign. Barry Schwartz, the outspoken and sometimes controversial chairman of the board, stepped down in frustration. The state's politicians and media turned the association's troubles and the question of franchise renewal into a public circus. Nader was left, usually alone, in the storm's eye.
The Association faced an array of threatened federal indictments avoided only by a long period of operation under the thumb of a court-appointed monitor and eventually filed the papers necessary for reorganization within the framework of bankruptcy law. Nader, originally hired to head the simulcasting network, watched the New York Racing Association's workforce shrivel and took up the slack left by manpower and expertise that once departed was not replaced. As the morass thickened, Nader rose to the position of senior vice president and chief operating officer calling on experience and skills honed in the heat of political, legal and financial battle for survival learned in New Hampshire.
Thoroughbreds no longer have a home at Rockingham Park, which now conducts only harness racing.
It was always a bootstrap operation, a fine place for the education of a young person with designs on a career in racing, and Nader steeped himself in a curriculum impossible to duplicate in the traditional halls of academia. He worked in the publicity department, developing relationships with the media; sharpened handicapping skills when charged with assigning morning-line odds; developed relationships with horsemen while working in the racing office, gained an understanding of their concerns and needs; couriered videotape to the local television station for the evening replay programs; negotiated simulcast contracts; learned to call races when the principal announcer was absent. It is also the place in which the direction of his life first took shape and form.
"I lived a bicycle ride away from Rockingham and worked in the press box as a summer job while attending the University of New Hampshire," Nader said. "When I was 21, I became the track oddsmaker. In that role, I further developed my handicapping skills and also my strong interest in the sport.
"I first became interested in racing through one of my best friends, my father, and we would go racing once a week. Racing helped our father-and-son bond and we spent a lot of time together discussing and enjoying the sport, especially in his later years of life and that is something I will always treasure. I had always turned him down when he asked me to go to the racetrack because I was active playing sports and being a horse racing spectator had no appeal to me. It took Secretariat to open my eyes in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. I watched on network television and that was the turning point.
"Rockingham provided a foundation because out of necessity you got an idea of how every department at the racetrack should work. And we had some good races there – the New Hampshire Sweepstakes and the Spicy Living Handicap, races that New York trainers and others would send horses to, so I was exposed to what was at the time a higher level of racing. Still, the move to New York was an awfully big step.
"When I was first offered the job in New York, I turned it down. I didn't feel as though I could leave Rockingham in the middle of a meeting. But when the meeting was over, the job was still open and I moved to New York at the beginning of the fall meeting at Belmont in 1994. Luck. If they'd found someone else during that time, I may never have had the opportunity in New York. The people at Rockingham didn't believe I was going to a place that big, but if you love racing and the New York Racing Association calls, that was it."
New York, however, besieged by posturing politicians and those who sought to take over the racing franchise upon expiration at the end of 2007 quickly became Kafkaesque, far from the utopian professional environment Nader envisioned.
"The problems and politics surrounding NYRA and its franchise were personally challenging and incredibly frustrating at times," Nader said, "but, in all honesty, I could fight the fight with the best of them. I came from a humble racing background and the privilege of being intimately involved with the high quality of racing in New York was a great equalizer. I could take the punishment as long as I knew there was a Grade 1 on Saturday and that Saratoga was only a few months away. With all of the personnel changes over my 14 years at NYRA, I knew there were many people in that organization that looked to me for leadership and for someone they could identify with. There was no chance of my leaving NYRA or so I thought, until the Hong Kong Jockey Club called. I had long admired the HKJC from a distance and I knew I would not get a second chance at the opportunity of a lifetime."
The move from New York to Hong Kong was for Nader like walking through a looking glass. He left pathos, which continues in his absence, for an organization unlike any in the world. In a city of seven million people among whom gambling is central to the culture, racing is not the sport of kings but the king of sports and membership in the Jockey Club, a requirement for those who aspire to ownership of racehorses, is a symbol of status considered almost priceless.
With the possible exception of the Japan Racing Association, the Hong Kong Jockey Club is easily the world's most prosperous racing enterprise, made more so by a gambling monopoly that includes the lottery and wagering on international soccer matches. Originally established as the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club after the introduction of racing in the region by the British, who constructed a racecourse in 1845 on the only suitably flat land on the island –f a drained malarial swamp with the whimsical name, Happy Valley – the Jockey Club, after the Chinese government, is the region's most important organization and in real terms perhaps the most important based on its impact upon the lives of Hong Kong's citizens.
Though the British first brought racing to the island, the native Chinese have taken the sport to heart in a way that has no frame of reference outside Asia, participating with a fiscal enthusiasm unprecedented elsewhere. In 2006, Hong Kong bettors wagered $63.86 billion – $8.2 billion in U.S. funds – though the Jockey Club holds just two days of racing, or 16 races, per week, from September through June. This is more than half the $15.6 billion wagered on 58,851 races run in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico – population 338.5 million – during the same year
The people of Hong Kong, only an hour by ferry from the explosion of opulent casinos in Macau, wagered another $30.2 billion -- $3.9 billion U.S. – on soccer matches and $6.6 billion – more than $848 million U.S. – on the lottery. The Club, conduit for all money wagered legally in Hong Kong, is the region's largest taxpayer and supports the majority of charitable institutions, research organizations, medical facilities and recreational programs. It is impossible to travel far in Hong Kong without seeing the Jockey Club logo on everything from hospitals and schools to parks and animal shelters.
The two Hong Kong racetracks are pristine and in almost perpetual renovation. The management, a multinational team of highly experienced executives imported by the Jockey Club, is progressive, deeply interested in maintaining an atmosphere in which the integrity of racing is beyond question. It meets challenge with action, as it did last year when in response to the migration of high-level bettors to offshore bookmakers offering rebates, the Club responded with its own rebate program, which effectively reversed the trend.
The Club takes virtually every facet of racing into its own hands and employs everyone required for the conduct of racing except trainers, who under the circumstances suffer no burden of payroll or slow-paying owners. The Club maintains testing laboratories and veterinary hospital, pays for feed and medication and though only eight percent of bets are placed on-course, when the gates open at Happy Valley or Sha Tin, the tracks are animated by huge crowds of people with a collective focus – betting, which is in turned shared in the most remote corner of Hong Kong, where the speculators and the tote are joined by wireless device.
In the 16 hours of flight time between New York and Hong Kong, Nader went from holding a finger in a crumbling dike to occupying one of the highest positions of authority in a racing organization that is boundlessly successful, astoundingly affluent and held in a position of almost reverent esteem by the members of the community it serves.
"The thing that impressed me immediately was the attention to detail and the commitment of the people," Nader said. "There is a refusal to settle for second best. Everything is first-class. Then came an appreciation for Asian racing and its structure, which I found fascinating, much more so than I ever expected."
Eight months after arriving in Hong Kong, Nader celebrated his 50th birthday on the day of the Cathay Pacific-sponsored International Races, four Group I events run at the end of a week of lavish parties at the expansive and electric Sha Tin. "Before I moved here, the man I replaced (Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, who was promoted to chief executive officer) told me that it would take two years before I really had a handle on job. I don't think it will take two years, but this has been an eye-opening experience. For instance, the betting on the international races will be less than you would expect because the bettors don't know the foreign horses. But we're running two races after the Hong Kong Cup and the last race of the day has the potential to generate more betting handle than the total for the day at Aqueduct and Hollywood Park combined."
The superficies run deep in Hong Kong.
"This is a place of great wealth. The economy is strong, the stock market is strong and many people are able to afford horse ownership," Nader said. The equine population of horses in training is just 1,200 and no owner is permitted interest in more than four. There is currently a 16-month waiting list of those who have applied for membership in the Jockey Club on a level that permits horse ownership. Those eventually admitted to what may be Hong Kong's most exclusive circle will have survived an exhaustive background check and examination of financial resources and paid a $250,000 (HK) initial fee.
The inevitable and enviable denouement is a model for the world that is impossible to duplicate. "The resources here allow you to do things you'd never consider anywhere else," Nader said, "but other things done here are possible to reproduce anywhere. If you can knock down the barriers and wipe the slate clean, these are things that can be done anywhere."
Foremost, Nader said, is attention to the concerns of every segment involved – from owners, trainers and non-owner members to bettors. "We maintain a customer-friendly racing environment and the state-of-the art drug testing is one thing, but the way the racing is governed is a key element. The jockeys and trainers may complain that fines are too stiff, but safety is a key element in the decision making process and the club demands respect for the rules. What separates racing here from virtually everywhere else is the transparency."
At the end of the day, the unfolding international races, with sprinter Sacred Kingdom and miler Good Ba Ba impressive in victory, only strengthened the upwardly mobile position of Hong Kong-trained horses on the global stage upon which the membership of the Jockey Club aspires to excel in the mold of their British mentors.
If Hong Kong will not be duplicated, it can at least be emulated.
"We have great expertise in specific areas that we are willing to share," Nader said. "The Club has brought great talent here from a number of countries. There is also great expertise here in the construction, drainage and maintenance of turf courses, which is important to all the stakeholders, including the public. European horsemen come here knowing that the ground will always be good to firm, no matter what the weather. There are things that can be learned here and people come here from other parts of the world to observe. We're very interested in doing whatever we can to assist those in the industry from other countries."
There is much to be learned in Hong Kong, but it is first necessary to make the trip.