When the gates opened, the jockeys drove hard and the horses thundered out on the grassy racetrack. The crowd of fortune-seekers went wild cheering for the horses they'd bet on. Some clutched a pair of binoculars. Others had eyes glued to the big screen. In the background, the announcer detailed the race's progress. After just over a minute, the horses covered 1,200m and crossed the finish line. While some continued to cheer, most of the crowd fell into a collective sigh.
These sights and sounds were repeated throughout the afternoon, until twilight.
This atmosphere is familiar to anyone who has visited Royal Turf Club of Thailand under Royal Patronage on any given Sunday when a horse meeting is on. The place is also known to Thais as Sanamma Nang Loeng. After over a century of racing and betting, the track will close in a few months: the scene of thrills will vanish and the venue, one of the two horse racing tracks in Bangkok, will become history.
The Crown Property Bureau announced the termination of the lease back in early April, requiring that the plot be returned within 180 days, meaning the Royal Turf Club will most likely shut down in September. There are now plans to convert the present location into a public park, with a monument to honour the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Horses are rinsed off back at the stables.
The history of this racecourse dates back to the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI). Gen Watanachai Chaimuanwong, chairman of the Royal Turf Club, told us that the place was officially opened on Dec 18, 1909, with the king permitting the use of this land in the Nang Loeng area. King Vajiravudh himself also presided over the opening ceremony and gave the place its official Thai name of Rajchatrinnamai Samakhom.
Another nickname for the Royal Turf Club is Sanam Thai (The Thai Field), as an alternative to Sanam Farang (The Foreigner's Field) -- the country's first racecourse Rajchakreetha Samosorn (Royal Bangkok Sports Club) on Henri Dunant Road, founded and run by a foreigner. These nicknames are still being used today. The two courses take turns hosting races on each Sunday.
Horse racing in Thailand began during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) following his European tour. The first horse race was held in present-day Sanam Luang to honour the king's return. Later on, Sanam Farang was founded in 1902, beginning the era of Western-style horse racing in the country.
"People do refer to horse racing as the sport of kings. It's classy," said Gen Watanachai. "Like in other countries, people used to come to racecourses all dressed up with big hats and long-tailed coats. They brought family to have fun, to socialise."
While it originated more for leisure and recreation, the chairman said the current image of horse racing is rather that of a gambler's paradise. Racecourses are the only legal gambling operators in Thailand, where every other form of gambling is illegal.
In what could be called Sanamma Nang Loeng's last hurrah, a sizeable crowd can be found outside, beginning at 10am when we arrived on a recent Sunday, though the race wasn't due to start until noon. Several tables were set up by vendors selling pens, programme booklets that detailed information on that day's horses and their form, and more. Some offered binoculars for rent. A lottery vendor was also nearby, if anyone was feeling extra lucky.
Looking around, the age group of the fans and fortune-seekers here was quite noticeable.
Checking the form of horses and their jockeys.
"There are mostly men aged 45-80 years old here. It's an old man's sport," proclaimed Sak, 62, a vendor outside the Royal Turf Club who has been conducting business here for 33 years. He said most of his aged customers are regulars he has known a long time.
"You rarely see teenagers here. The younger ones probably put their money on football games and other things," he observed. "So when these people die, the horse racing business will probably go with them too."
As he conversed and shared tips on horses with his customers, he handed out programme booklets and binoculars readily, already knowing by heart what each of them needs and even which binoculars they usually use.
After getting the necessary gear, it was time to head inside. Entry fees are 50, 100 and 300 baht depending on the zone you want to sit in, with the 300 baht ticket being the closest to the finish line. The dress code requires people to wear sleeved shirts with collars and long trousers. No flip-flops. The staff do deny entry to those not following the dress code. However, the rules seem more relaxed in the 50 baht section.
Inside, we found Adul Dangkomen, 61, who has been in and out of the racecourse since he was 16 years old. He operates a bakery now, though he revealed he was an avid gambler and even used to own a few horses himself.
Adul would visit racecourses almost weekly, at Nang Loeng, Sanam Farang and even at the Military Racing Course in Nakhon Ratchasima, which holds races weekly on Saturday.
"I'm all for recreation now," said Adul. "But before, I took it as serious gambling. I used to carry 10,000 baht on me daily, and when that ran out, I borrowed people's money. I even pawned stuff to get money to continue betting." Now, he only brings 1,000 baht in his pocket. If that runs out, he will simply go home. Nowadays, he only stays for a few races, hoping to just make a few baht and enjoy himself.
"I would rather not get into debt at this age," he added. The most he won at a meeting was 55,000 baht. He said that only happened twice in his entire life. "I can't remember how much I actually lost, though."
To place bets on horses, people can simply walk up to available booths to buy tickets from the bookmakers. The minimum bet is 50 baht per horse per race. There is no maximum amount set.
Betting on horses is practically an art, according to Adul, as one has to know about the horse and the jockey's stats and physicality in depth. ("But if you know too much, you also lose a lot," he warned.) Luck and personal intuition also play a part. At the end of each race, we can see crumpled betting tickets of those who bet on the wrong horses strewn all over the ground.
From his 45 years of experience, Adul said the Nang Loeng course doesn't really change much.
"They built more viewing stands. That probably has my money in there somewhere."
The current number of people, however, is a drastic contrast. Gen Watanachai, the chairman, estimated that 5,000 people now visit the racecourse on Sunday, though there used to be up to 30,000 visitors in the past. The money in circulation per day had reached 100 million baht per day, though now it's down to 30-40 million baht.
"Before, the stands used to be very crowded. People stood shoulder to shoulder, and there was lots of pickpocketing too. I even got robbed!" said Adul.
According to Adul, the racing's popularity has been declining in past years due to two factors: race-fixing and illicit gambling.
"Some people do play games behind the scene. Sometimes, jockeys will pull on their horses and not allow them to go full speed, basically throwing the race," he said.
While it's legal to place bets with the official bookmakers, it's illegal for people to orchestrate their own system and participate in illicit gambling rings in hopes of winning more money.
"When there's illicit gambling going on, there is also more race-fixing," Adul added.
Gen Watanachai Chaimuanwong, chairman of the Royal Turf Club.
Gen Watanachai also agrees that illicit gambling is leading racecourses to ruin.
"When people start betting with illicit sources and not our bookmakers, the money doesn't go to the racecourse, and we actually need that money for operation and management of the place," said the chairman.
"The police have arrested some of them, but perhaps just the minor ones. They can't seem to be eradicated, and this happens at every racecourse."
Discussing Nang Loeng course's imminent demise, both Adul and Sak the vendor are not really bothered by the fact, despite having come here for decades.
"I think I've already reached my peak anyway," Adul said. "I don't own horses anymore. The people who would be in trouble over this would be stable owners. Now they will have one less place to send their racehorses."
As for Sak, he simply said: "I don't make much profit coming here, to be honest. I just like to socialise with the customers."
A punter watches a race through his binoculars.
Races are held here every other Sunday. Photos: PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL