Binoculars and cigarettes: A day at the Bangkok horse races

Binoculars and cigarettes: A day at the Bangkok horse races

What to expect, how to bet and what not to wear at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club's Sunday races
Horse racing in Bangkok dates back to 1892, when His Majesty King Rama V approved Englishman Franklin Hurst’s petition to rent land and hold races in Sra Pratunam.

Hope reigns eternal, or at least for a few seconds, at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club as 11 horses race through sweltering midday humidity towards the finish line.

Hundreds of croaking voices, parched with decades of nicotine, egg them on from a cement-block bandstand littered with empty water bottles, cigarette butts, discarded betting tickets and puddles of spit.

“Santa! Santa!” 

“Gasinee! Gasinee!”

“Fonluang! Fonluang!”

Silence instantly engulfs the stands as the smallest horse in the field, Porn Charoen, scores its owner a 176,400-baht first-place prize in the second of 10 scheduled races in the Queen’s Cup, one of three signature events on Bangkok’s annual racing calendar.

Popular sentiment -- and money -- was apparently not with Porn Charoen, whose team receives little applause as it poses for victory photos with the horse.

Bangkok horse racesRegulars dutifully take notes as the next wave of horses parade onto the track at the RBSC's Sunday races.Once his moment of glory is sufficiently catalogued, the horse is led back to the stables under a shower of catcalls from punters whose baht were on Santa, Gasinee and Fonluang.

Horse racing in Bangkok dates back to 1892, when His Majesty King Rama V approved Briton Franklin Hurst’s petition to rent land and hold races in Sra Pratunam.

Years later, after Hurst had departed from what was then known as the Royal Racing Course, King Rama V issued another Royal Charter that sanctioned the establishment of a club focused on “improving the standard of horse breeding, the holding of race meetings, and other sport.”

Part of the Charter included orders to obtain and establish the club at the Royal Racing Course, today known as the Royal Bangkok Sports Club.

Leave the flip-flops at home

Though the club -- which includes a driving range and an 18-hole golf course -- is private, horse races are open to the public and held every other week, usually on Sundays from about noon to 6 p.m.

Admission for foreigners is essentially 200 baht: 100 baht at the gate and another 100 baht for an English-language racing program, which is available near the entrance on Henri Dumont Road. 

Men should be sure to wear shoes and a collared shirt -- otherwise you’ll have to check your flip-flops at the gate and rent an ill-fitting dress shirt and a pair of stylish rubber slip-ons.

Inside, gamblers lean on the stable fences, studying the horses as they’re bathed and led around a small sand track. Others huddle under small television sets airing pre-race scenes from the main track, scrutinizing the field, sizing up the jockeys, jotting notes on their racing program, searching for clues before bets are made.

Bangkok horse racesFor the best views, head upstairs to the second deck. Placing bets is fairly easy: each level of the cement-block bandstand hosts rows of windows marked by the monetary range of bets that can be made at each. Minimum wagers are just 50 baht and range from simply picking the winner to picking trifectas (first-, second- and third-place finishers, in order). Most tellers speak some English.

After the third race I head upstairs to the second deck, where seats offer spectacular views of the expansive grounds, the Skytrain as it glides in and out of Ratchadamri station, and the high-rise condominiums and hotels of Rajprasong, Pathumwan and, in the distance, Pratunam.

Nervous tension is palpable as the next race nears. Wiry men with salt-specked hair surround me, most taking long, contemplative drags from cigarettes as they peer through binoculars at the starting gate; their programs are littered with notes, scribbles and circles.

Pens click open, click shut, click open, click shut. A guy in blinding white pants and a plum-colored dress shirt stamps out a Marlboro and pulls out a fresh pack.

The race begins on the far end of the track, but I can’t see anything without binoculars. The crowd cheers, and the announcer chatters in a sing-song cadence over the loud speakers. Somebody accidentally kicks over a tray of fish cakes when he springs to his feet as the horses round the bend … and then again come the exasperated groans and looks of disbelief.

It seems another underdog, Sri Siam, has taken home the prize. Only three people clap during the victory photos.

The day has barely reached its halfway point, but already a creeping sense of dejection permeates large quarters of the crowd. Race programs are tightly rolled between clenched fists. Cups of 100 Pipers whiskey are poured; more cigarettes are lit.

Still, battered by losses, these regulars show a flinty determination. With the next race beginning in 30 minutes, programs are reopened and notes dutifully taken as the next wave of horses parade onto the track. Hope springs eternal, again.

Royal Bangkok Sports Club, 1 Henri Dumont Road, Pathumwan, +66 2 2510 181. Check for race dates and more information.

Brian Spencer is a travel editor and freelance writer who for the past year has split his time between Bangkok and Brooklyn, NY.
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