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All morning I have been trying to get confirmation that, after a 15-year hiatus, Vietnam's Phu Tho racetrack is back in business. It is whispered that the man behind the revival is a Hong Kong-based Vietnamese named Philip Chow. On this sultry May Saturday in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Chow can be found at the owners' box at the track, or so I am told.
Because I don't read Vietnamese, I can't tell the local racing forms from the newspapers. It takes four or five phone calls by my skeptical hotel concierge to determine that there is, indeed, a track and that the day's card began at noon. One moment he is insisting that I must be mad; the next, he tells me that if I hurry, I might make the fourth race.
But there's no such thing as hurrying in Vietnam. The best I can do is hop into the carriage of the first available cyclo, which in Vietnam is a pedicab. I don't bother to go through the usual half hour of bargaining over the couple of thousand dong—about 35 cents in the hard Yankee currency the pedalers crave—that it costs to reach the track.
The only organized contests I have seen in Vietnam involve motor scooters circling dirt rings as small as cockfighting pits. I was shown a stadium for soccer, the major fan passion here. Since U.S. troops left Saigon 17 years ago, baseball and basketball have all but faded from the scene, along with many of the go-go bars and other signs of American influence.
My driver negotiates his way through waves of Honda motorbikes in the general direction of Cholon, the old Chinese quarter, where many of the city's gamblers congregate. Forty minutes after we set out, the cyclo driver begins shouting, "Horses just there, man! Hang loose, boss!"
We're skirting what seems to be a huge empty space in the middle of the city. Another 15 minutes brings us to what the driver claims is a gate to the track. Still, I am unable to spot anything resembling the Big A. Then I see, almost hidden by apartment houses, the back end of a gigantic, chipped abutment that is trimmed in peeling red paint. Raked steps are cut into the limestone. Though I pass through a small tunnel, I see no official entrance sign. I could be entering the central courtyard of some unrestored Buddhist temple. But it's a racetrack.
The infield of the track is vast, defoliated. Bettors in rubber flip-flops line the rail, the sound of their reproaches and cheers eerily quiet. The grandstand, as long as a football field, is only half full, but a mob has claimed the roof of the betting house, which resembles a gigantic chicken coop. Whole families are picnicking atop parked horse trailers.
Attendance at these daily races, I would later learn, can reach 30,000. Nobody bothers to sell admission tickets, so it's hard to get a sense of how many people have just wandered in from the neighborhood—or how many more are trying to scratch out a living at the awning-covered stands that sell sodas. Yes, there is Coca-Cola in Vietnam, and, in keeping with the colonial influence of the French, Evian water is found almost everywhere.
Yet I can't believe this is the Sport of Kings until I see the entries for the next race in the post parade. The horses stand only to the height of their handlers, small fellows themselves. Are these Secretariats cast in miniature? Fractions of quarter horses? The explanation for their size is that the horses' inferior breeding and poor diet have left them stunted.
And the jockeys are boys doing a man's job. They are youngsters between the ages of 10 and 15, and flaunt their crops and wear their modest silks with appropriately childish zeal. The atmosphere of the track resembles that of an old-fashioned country fair that has been transplanted to equatorial climes. Unsure handicappers watch the ponies being saddled in a red dirt paddock. I see no signs of wealthy owners. Anyone who might once have qualified as one of Vietnam's horse people has long ago left for Hong Kong's Happy Valley racetrack.