When riding the Skytrain between Siam and Saladaeng stations, it’s not uncommon to hear tourists wonder aloud about the big green space with the horse racing track, grandstands and golf course situated opposite the luxury hotels on Rajadamri Road. Often simply referred to as ‘the place with horse racing’ by locals, this is the hallowed turf of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club (RBSC), one of the oldest and most prestigious clubs of its kind in the region.
An exclusive members-only institution patronized by Thailand’s elite, it isn’t easy for Joe Public to gain access to the RBSC – a visit usually requires a firm invite from a member. However, race days held at the club every other Sunday throughout the year (alternating with the Royal Turf Club in the Dusit area) are a different story. Then, for the princely entrance fee off B100, members of the public are allowed in from 12.30pm to 6pm to enjoy an afternoon of flat racing set against a panoramic downtown backdrop.
It has been this way since January 1902, shortly after the RBSC was founded by a royal charter granted by King Chulalongkorn. A courtier, Phya Pradibaddha Bhubal, was instrumental in this. In the late 1890s he was a member of the King’s entourage on a visit to England, during which the party attended a race meeting at Royal Ascot. Phya Pradibaddha was smitten with the sport and on returning to Bangkok he and a Russian diplomat called Count Oroloffsky asked the King for permission to establish a permanent club for horse racing in the capital (earlier racing, usually organised on an ad hoc basis by the city’s expatriate community, had sometimes been staged at Sanam Luang, the royal field outside the Grand Palace).
That the sport is the key reason for the club’s establishment is evident in one of many racing-related clauses in the royal charter, which explains that the aim of the club is “To build a clubhouse, to have it decorated and to maintain it, to build large and small stands for the public to attend race meetings; to establish offices, stables and other quarters including fences and drainage, and to keep the race course in good order”.
Land was granted at Sra Prathum and formalised horse racing began drawing big crowds. Other sports were also taken up by the club – golf being one. In the early years snipe shooting was also a popular pastime at one end of the ground, which must have lent a frisson of danger to teeing off and the added challenge of avoiding fallen lead shot when putting on the greens.
Over 100 years later and things have changed somewhat. No more snipe shooting for a start. While racing attendances steadily declined over the decades, crowds upward of 15,000 were common at the RBSC as recently as the early 1990s. Today however, they average around 6,000 a race meeting, although this figure rises significantly when one of the ‘classic’ races (the Chakri Cup in April, the Queen’s Cup in August, and the King’s Cup in December) are run.
That said, whatever the size of the crowd, the atmosphere on race days is always festive and while there might not be the glamour or prestige associated with the Cheltenham Festival, Kentucky Derby or Melbourne Cup, a certain amount of decorum is expected if you are watching the action from the more exclusive air-conditioned confines of the RBSC’s Winning Post restaurant and adjacent Committee Box – these areas are accessible by special pass and invitation respectively and require jacket and
tie for gents.
In the grandstands, however, anything goes. The Thais love a bit of sanuk (fun), especially when it involves a wager, and excitement reaches fever pitch during each race when the field turns into the final straight and makes for home. By this point a multitude of binocular-wielding spectators will be bouncing up and down, raucously chanting the name of their fancied horse, willing runner and rider across the line.
Between races, which are all run over a the same fixed distance during a meeting (anywhere from 1100- 1700 metres), moderate calm descends while punters check programmes (an English version of which is available for B100 at the main RBSC entrance on Henri Dunant Road) and study the form of the field in the next race. Then they’re off to place their bets at the numerous betting windows located throughout the stands. In terms of gambling – officially illegal in Thailand but allowed here because a great deal of the revenue raised is donated to royal charities – anywhere from B50 to B200,000 can be staked on win, place, quinella and trifecta bets, the odds for which are calculated using a totalizer system.
With bets wagered there is always time for a snack or a cool drink before the next race gets underway (this being hot and thirsty work) and reasonably priced refreshments, including beers and local whiskies, are available from the many semi-permanent bars and booths at the back of the stands.
So, if you find yourself with ‘temple fatigue’ or simply can’t face another shopping mall but have a free Sunday afternoon, a visit to the races at the RBSC is a unique and fun way to spend a few hours at a venerable city institution joining the natives at play.
For information on racing schedules and race day packages, please visit rbsc.org or call 0 2652 5000.