The old Saigon racetrack is up and running again

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 13, 1992|By Peter S. Goodman | Peter S. Goodman,Contributing Writer

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The double-tiered grandstand is crumbling and has shed most of the paint that once covered it. The turf has bald patches the size of baseball diamonds. The horses are tiny. Not very fast, either. The jockeys are generally pre-pubescent. The maximum bet -- 20,000 Vietnamese dong -- works out to about $1.50.

There's no computerized tote board, and there's no adenoidal voice calling the pace of the race.

But the old Saigon racetrack is up and running again, and it is thriving, a testament to the irrepressible nature of this city. Despite 16 years of socialism, the former bastion of glitz, sex and unabashed capitalism retains much of its old character.

Built longer ago than anyone can remember -- sometime in the '30s appears the best guess -- the racetrack flourished right up to 1975, when Communist North Vietnam conquered the U.S.-backed South.

The authorities thought the people of the new revolutionary society should have better things to do than gamble, so the track was shut down.

But in 1989, it was resurrected through the efforts of Philip Chow, a 48-year old Vietnamese-born Chinese entrepreneur. He persuaded the cash-strapped city to let him operate the track in exchange for a steep 80 percent of the proceeds over the first 20 years of business.

Mr. Chow is well-connected -- a man who boasts that he was the first to import a Mercedes-Benz into post-1975 Vietnam and who is legendary throughout town for his prowess at working through the bureaucracy. Lately, he has been negotiating with the government on behalf of an overseas contingent that would like to open a casino here. Suffice it to say that when cellular telephones arrive in Vietnam, Philip Chow will be the first to own one.

The racetrack has the look and feel of any track anywhere else in the world. Well, sort of. There is no shortage of old men, some wearing fedoras and most smoking, who scream about how they have been victimized by brain-damaged jockeys or acts of God as the wrong horse streaks across the finish line.

People line up to pass money through a wire cage for betting slips. Vendors sell snacks. The jockeys sit nervously in their colorful uniforms, awaiting their next mount. And horses are promenaded round past a deadly serious throng of sportsmen looking intently for the telltale signs of winners and losers.

The local money that people bet with is emblazoned with the pointy-bearded image of Ho Chi Minh, hardly a face that one would expect to encounter at the track. The vendors do offer peanuts and sandwiches, but they also deal in French bread, pate and pastry in the high style that befits a former French colony.

There are no race horses with names like Randy's Rocket or Sinbad listed on the form. They tend toward names like Thanh Kim Hue and Ma Dinh Hong. And those women keeping the jockeys company before the next race are their mothers.

The jockeys are mostly youngsters. If they win, they are paid the relatively whopping sum here of $8. Some jockeys are so small that, as they step up onto a scale in the weighing room, it seems amazing that their presence registers at all.

Some horses are big, sleek and fast. Most are not. It is not unusual for a horse to come in 20 lengths behind the leader. And place second.

But the fourth race today ends in a tight finish. While the boys in the booth inspect the tape from the home video camera mounted across from the finish line, Philip Chow sits in his semiprivate box and reflects on why he revived the track.

"I love horses," he says dreamily.

He watches and bets on each race, studiously selecting his picks from the form. But he exhibits a particular fondness for money, too, and the ability to acquire lots of it.

To get the track running, Mr. Chow put up $60,000 a couple of years ago. At last count, he had taken in $2 million -- not too bad in this country, where the average person survives on around $200 a year.

The old Saigon instincts live.

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