Gambling is illegal in Thailand. So how is it that I found myself standing in line to place a fifty baht bet on a horse?
My buddy Mark –who has lived in Chiang Mai for a couple of years now– suggested one day that I join him at the track to watch the Saturday races. “It’s really just an excuse to sit around, eat and drink beer. And you might win a little money if you’re lucky.”
“I thought gambling was illegal here? How do they get away with it?” It’s legal, in this instance, because it’s run by the Military Police and the track resides on MP land. And when I say “run” by the MPs, I mean it — the races are heavily regarded as being rigged.
“If you watch,” he said, “you’ll see the jockeys looking around and slowing down as they near the finish line. I once saw a jockey jump off his horse at full speed to avoid winning. It must have hurt, but someone else would have hurt him a lot more if he’d won.” And with that little tidbit of information, I was sold on the idea.
An easy twenty minute ride north of the Old City on a rented scooter deposited us at the track’s front gate. An entry ticket cost twenty baht ($.70 US) and we were soon sitting at a plastic table inside a cavernous steel building, drinking 50 baht Leo beers over ice.
As I snacked on some chicken satay, Mark tried to explain the betting system and how to figure out the odds, how to bet on a horse to win versus to place, and more but I couldn’t really get my head around any of it. I’m not much of a gambler in the first place and wasn’t here to win big bucks. But I still wanted the experience so I decided to bet 50 baht on horse #3.
“They don’t speak any English so you’ll need to bet in Thai.” He told me what to say and I got in line at the betting window. I stood there several minutes muttering it over and over to myself, then promptly forgot what to say when my turn came. The problem was easily solved by me holding up three fingers and handing him 50 baht with a stupid smile on my face. Sometimes the simplest ways are best.
Just a minute later, there was a howl over the loudspeaker and everyone in the building scurried for the open doors on the side. The race was on.
The stands outside were about half full — mostly Thais but there were a few expats. No tourists in sight. The horses were already turning the final corner and heading for the finish line as people cheered and craned to see if their choice was in the lead. The main pack thundered by and a loud groan escaped from the crowd, sprinkled here and there with a few cheers or applause. My horse came in second.
Mark had placed a “to place” bet where he had to pick two of the three top spots and he’d nailed it, winning 300 baht for his effort. He would, of course, spend the rest of the day reminding Paul and I of this fact. What a guy.
Back at the table, we ordered more beer and I scouted the food stalls, finding some spicy pork sausage for ten baht. The races were 45 minutes apart so we soon fell into an easy rhythm, drinking beer and swapping lies, then hurrying out to watch the end of the race. While drinking we’d chat up everyone we could, hoping for tips. If you want to win, you have to find someone with inside info — here the best horse isn’t necessarily going to win.
The best tips, Mark explained, came from the MPs themselves. Just a few weeks ago, he’d bought a couple of them two bottles of whiskey and earned a whispered tip for the next race. He’d then collected his 1,000 baht winnings while the MPs proceeded to drink themselves silly, leaning on each other and singing, guns on their hips and helmets scattered about the table. “I haven’t seen them here since,” he remarked.
Next, we met an old white-haired character, Phil, who was quite into the horses — he’d only missed three races in the last two years and was a font of knowledge. “I’m betting on #5. I think he’ll take it. #4 is a better horse but his jockey is crap. The guy’s been banned from racing in Bangkok because he’s thrown so many races.”
Hopping back in line to take advantage of my newly acquired insider information, I bet another 50 baht, feeling pretty good about myself. Looking around, I saw Thais betting thousands of baht — these guys were serious. And it wasn’t uncommon to see men staring dejectedly at their race programs after a race with a stunned look that suggested they’d just lost money they couldn’t afford to lose.
The loudspeaker howled and we all rushed out to watch the finish. My horse came in second. Again. When I asked Mark if Phil made much money betting, he just laughed. “He bets ten baht on each race.” So much for my expert advice. I’d later see him shouting “wanker!” at a jockey who was far behind the pack. He takes his ten baht seriously.
We finally did meet up with a couple of MPs and spent time drinking whiskey and coke with them as we waited on the last race. They were a little quiet at first, but opened up as the bottle disappeared, posed for photos and even let us try on their helmets, with everyone laughing and communicating in pidgin English and Thai.
I had bet 100 baht on a horse I picked at random, determined to win at least once. It had good odds, too, so if it won, I’d get 400 or 500 baht. The speaker went off and we handed the helmets back and rushed outside for the last time. As the horses drew closer, I did a double-take. My horse was in the lead! As they passed by us, he was half a length ahead of the pack. And with maybe fifty feet to go, I saw him look around and sit up in the saddle, easing up at the last moment. The fix was in.
He finished second.