Watching the Horses with Bill Clinton

by Joe Lavin, Sep 5, 2001 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

I certainly don't expect Bill Clinton to show up on my vacation, but here he is at the Happy Valley Race Track in Hong Kong on the same night as me. The former president is here as part of the festivities for the Fortune Global Forum, an international business conference being held in Hong Kong. I'm here because it's my final night in Hong Kong, and I didn't want to miss the chance to catch the horse races at Happy Valley.

Because of the conference, this is an especially tough ticket to get. Luckily, my friend Linda is a member of the prestigious Jockey Club and is able to get tickets for the two of us, as well as three others -- her cousin Mona and friends Barrett and William.

At home, I rarely go to the horse races, but I had been looking forward to Happy Valley. Before traveling to Hong Kong, I had read about how seriously people here take horse racing, and I looked forward to being down with the crowds watching the entire spectacle unfold. Unfortunately, I soon realize that that will not be happening.

"There are two entrances," Mona tells me as we arrive. "One is for members and the other is for ... the people." Needless to say, we use the member's entrance, even though I would be much happier just hanging out with the people.

Horse racing, after all, is a very upper class activity here. Belonging to the Jockey Club is a sure sign of success. There is even a dress code, and I feel more than a little inadequate when I realize that most people are wearing at least a sport coat. I'm just thankful that I brought a tie with me at the last minute before leaving. Luckily, I can get away with just a tie and no sport coat, although I'm still worried that all the members will stare at me.

The members' section is essentially one large restaurant, and no one seems overly concerned with what is happening on the track. It seems that they are all more interested in being seen at the races rather than actually seeing the races themselves. The tables are a bit back from the windows and from most, you can't even see the action. Sure, there is a balcony from which to watch, but few bother with that, preferring instead to watch on the televisions above.

Of course, it is an excellent restaurant. A buffet in the back is loaded with all sorts of delicious food. I manage to eat sushi, raw oysters, sole, and chicken-pineapple rice. For dessert, I have coconut and red bean paste pastries along with a small slice of lemon chiffon pie. I shouldn't be this hungry, but hey it's my last day in Hong Kong. Why not indulge myself?

There are betting counters just to the left of the buffet, and I place bets on three races -- twenty Hong Kong dollars on each. It seems like a lot of money until I think about the exchange rate and realize that I'm betting less than three dollars on each race. ("Hey, big spender!") I would actually bet more, but I'm trying to make my cash last until the next morning when I fly out.

I confess that my betting techniques are not sound, certainly not as sound as William and Barrett's method of scouring through the racing program for information. It doesn't matter. They end up doing no better than I do. I actually bet on one horse for the silly reason that I like its name (Non Sequitur). In another race, a horse owned by Linda's boss is running, and I feel it is only polite to bet on him. In neither case do I come close to winning.

Still, it's fun to see the races, which I insist on watching from the balcony. As in England, the horses run clockwise instead of counter-clockwise. It seems odd at first, but soon I get used to it. A few others are out here on the balcony, but most seem content to stay inside. They are missing a beautiful site. The races are run on grass, which lends a certain elegance to the event, and there's also a lovely view of the Hong Kong skyscrapers, all lit up in the background.

The fifth race of the night is the most important of all -- the Fortune Global Forum Cup. The owner of the winning horse will be awarded HK$1.6 Million (about US$200,000), in honor of the conference. According to the newspapers, Bill Clinton may even present the cup to the winning jockey, and so in honor of the former President I put my HK$20 on Expedient, one of two American horses in the race. Expedient starts out, well, expediently, and I almost think I might win until the very end, when he falters badly.

After the race, Mona and I stay on the balcony to watch the cup presentation. Earlier in the night, on the large television screens by the track, we had seen Clinton laughing and sitting comfortably in a luxury box somewhere. Now, though, he is nowhere to be found. We wait for what seems like forever, but Clinton still doesn't show up.

Finally, Gerard Levin, the CEO of AOL Time Warner, which owns Fortune Magazine, does the honors. Clinton, apparently, had to leave early, although no mention is made of him. I'm sure Levin is a respectable choice, but we are not impressed. We wanted to see Bill, and instead we are stuck with a CEO we had never even heard of. We all decide that, out from under the auspices of Hillary, Bill probably found some attractive young lady and decided to ditch the cup presentation.

Mona seems especially disappointed for me that I have missed the chance to see my former president, but I reassure her that I don't mind.

"That's okay," I joke. "It's not the first time he's disappointed me."