A Date at the Derby

AFTER MY FIRST visit to the Happy Valley Racecourse on 2nd March 2010 for M’s hockey tournament, I once again found myself on a racecourse two weeks later. This time it was the Sha Tin Racecourse in the New Territories, and for a race, in fact the mother of all races – THE DERBY – where thoroughbred horses compete in world-class racing.

According to reports, the Hong Kong Derby has been held annually since 1873, first at Happy Valley Racecourse, and moved to Sha Tin Racecourse from 1979 till this day. In 1981, the HK Derby was restricted to only horses that are four years old. So for the horses, it’s a once in a lifetime chance to win the coveted title, and a dream for many horse owners.

That Sunday afternoon of 14th March, we were invited to the Derby Reception 2010 at the Sha Tin Clubhouse. I quickly flipped through Sunday’s South China Morning Post. Its Racing pullout headlined “It’s Derby Day and the city’s top trainers are all in the chase for the HK$16m prize at Sha Tin”. That was all that made sense to me. The rest of the 12 pages containing columns and tables of details, statistics, tipsters’ predictions, race jargons, etc. might as well be written in horse language!

When we arrived at the Private Box on the 6th Floor, many of our colleagues were already there. The huge enthusiastic crowd at the public forecourt that day was testament to horse racing being a favourite pastime of Hongkongers, even considered part of its culture. (The Hong Kong Jockey Club that administers the races and bets is the largest tax contributor to the island.)

We helped ourselves to the buffet lunch and got better acquainted with the events of the day. We were later led to the parade ring where we got a closer look at the thoroughbreds before they raced.

There were 10 races that day with distants between 1.2km to 2km. The race to look out for was Race 8 which was the 2km Mercedes Benz Hong Kong Derby (Mercedes Benz became the main sponsor since 2004.)

I heard people talked about odds and dividends, they sought opinions and exchanged views. I saw people placing their bets at the counters right up to the last minute before a race began. I heard the roar of the crowd every time the horses sprint their final distance to the finishing line. As the roar died down, I imagined there were winners and big losers too.

The biggest winners that day were undoubtedly Super Satin and its owner Ranjan Mahtani, trainer Casper Fownes and champion jockey Douglas Whyte, who took home the Mercedes Benz Hong Kong Derby 2010 title that came with a HK$16 million prize!

Confession 1: After 10 races that ran between 1-6pm, alas, I came out of the event as ignorant as when I first stepped into the Private Box. Well at least I left feeling full from the continuous flow of food and drinks.

Confession 2: I went away a little poorer too. I was betting on the so-called “beginner’s luck”. I’d put some money on Fun Rider (ridden by same jockey David Whyte) in Race 5. So much for beginner’s luck. Fun Rider lost to Public Figure by the nose and came in second (it was that close!). Well at least I know my money went into helping pay HK taxes 🙂

That Derby date turned out to be “a once in a lifetime” for me, as we left Hong Kong later that year.

HK Derby

Sha Tin Racecourse boosts of the world’s longest Diamond Vision Television screen in the parade ring.

Horses

#1 Super Satin and #13 Jolly Good, proudly galloped around the parade ring which boosts of the world’s first retractable roof. Super Satin later emerged winner of the 2010 Derby title.

Race

A race in progress, watched by thousands of enthusiastic spectators.

Scoreboard & Crowd

The giant screen displayed details of the impending races, and its results afterwards, and a section of the attentive crowd.

Scarves

The lady guests with their striking jockey-jersey-motif green scarves, Hermes no less.

Ties

The men sporting their Hermes’ ties.

 

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Blimey… It’s a Party with Blini, Bear and Bonfire!

Blinis of all sizes (and taste too, I presume) contributed by students, being shared in school.

Blinis of all sizes (and taste too, I presume) contributed by students, being shared in school.

SHROVETIDE OR MASLENISTA is a celebration of the end of winter and the start of spring. It has a tradition that goes a long way back, but to an outsider like me, it’s simply a time for partying and feasting on blinis or Russian pancakes.

Blini is an essential part of the celebrations. Being “warm, round and golden”, it symbolises the sun, much welcome during the cold winter. Russians eat their pancakes with fillings such as sour cream, butter, jam, minced meat, cottage cheese, fresh berries, mushrooms, salted fish and even caviars. They have them with coffee, tea and even vodka.

Two other essentials of Maslenista are bears and bonfires.

It was said in the past, “bears and their tamers would perform at Maslenista and both would be served large quantities of vodka, ending in a wresting match between them in which the bear wins”. At the end of the festive event, an effigy of a straw/paper woman that represents winter is burnt to signify the bidding of farewell to winter.

Maslenista is a cheerful and colourful holiday in Russia though it didn’t appear to be so in the old days. It was a day of remembrance of the dead, and the burning of the feminine effigy signified her funeral! Over time, Russians turned the sombre event into a festival to include merry pastimes – such as troika and horse-riding, singing, and also the storming of a snow fortress troika – that lasted a week long.

For the Christians, Maslenista marks the last week before the typically 40-day long Lent fasting period that precedes Easter.

Today Maslenista is a huge event that draws locals and tourists. The Moscow City Committee for Tourism organises the annual Blini Week Maslenitsa in numerous locations across the capital. Its 2007 promotional leaflet said: “… Russian people really like to feast.  And all the Russians are sincerely happy when the severe winter ends, the nature awakens, the sun warms the earth and the long-awaited spring comes. A day, or two, even three won’t be enough to celebrate it – it takes a whole week for the Russians to enjoy the farewell of cold winter thoroughly! That’s why it’s called “Wide Maslenista” – seven days of impetuous fun, reckless pleasures and solar mood, a great pleasure for both body and soul! That means sleigh rides, celebrations, fairs and show-booths, taverns full of people and sheer joy for all!”

During our stay in Moscow, we needn’t go far in search of Maslenista festivities. We had a taste and feel of Maslenista, first in M’s school that held the event on 3rd March 2006, followed by our building management on 4th March 2006 which sent out this invitation: “We would like to invite you to Winter Farewell Party, on Mac 4, 12-2pm in our Park. We will offer you traditional Russian food (hot pancakes, shushlik, strong and soft drinks and entertainment (folk music and games).

An air of festivities filled the school with indoor activities (including egg-painting) and outdoor activities – M with her classmates and her teacher Ms Holly; the effigy held up high and paraded before being burnt, 3 March 2006.

An air of festivities filled the school with indoor activities (including egg-painting) and outdoor activities – M with her classmates and her teacher Ms Holly; the effigy held up high and paraded before being burnt. (3 March 2006)

Another round of Maslenista fun at the park organised by our building management in the park, 4 March 2006.

Another round of Maslenista food and fun at the park organised by our building management in the park – M with a smiling babushka, the guys joined in the fun too; M and I imitated the effigy’s pose; thankfully they burnt the right effigy! (4 March 2006)

The following year 2007, spring evidently arrived earlier as Maslenitsa was celebrated by M’s school as early as 14th February, while our building management held it over the weekend of 17th February.

M showed off her painted spoon; out in the cold with her friends and teacher Ms Chalkley. (14 February 2007)

M showed off her painted spoon; out in the cold with her friends and teacher Ms Chalkley. (14 February 2007)

Outdoor fun and entertainment that ended with a bonfire. (14 February 2007)

Celebrating in our own backyard, with friends, family and loved one. (17 February 2007)

Celebrating in our own backyard, with friends, family and loved one. (17 February 2007)

Hello again, she’s the same smiling babushka whom M took a picture with last year; M with two other babushkas; M and I with the effigy before she burst into flames.

There were plenty of food ….

There were plenty of food ….

… and music and entertainment by a bear and its trainer, and a bonfire to mark an end to winter and the festivities. (17 February 2007)