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VIDEO: Horse racing a safe bet for gamblers in Buddhist Thailand

Thailand’s hard line on betting is buttressed by beliefs that gambling contravenes Buddhist morality

Published: Updated:

Binoculars swinging around their necks, Thai punters erupt into cheers as horses round the final bend -- the thrill of the race amplified by the rare chance to gamble in a Buddhist country where betting is virtually banned.

“I come every week, I love horses,” says 66-year-old Chumpon Aunaeksri, eyeing the thoroughbreds as they trot onto the turf at the downtown Bangkok course, which is fringed by tower blocks.

The stadium’s scuffed concrete stands are filled with thousands of other race fans, mostly elderly men, snacking on peanuts and sipping beer as cigarette smoke wafts through the sticky city air.

There is none of the glitz and glamour associated with the international racing circuit.

In Thailand it is all about the sport -- and of course the chance to openly enjoy a flutter in country with tough anti-gambling laws.

A former jockey himself, Chumpon has seen his fortunes wax and wane over the years, winning 20,000 baht ($570) on one Sunday only to lose 100,000 ($2,845) on another.

Lately, he has endured a painful losing streak.

“But it’s okay, it’s all legal here,” he says.

Not so for underground casinos or even friendly backyard card games -- which are routinely broken up by police and soldiers in the junta-run country.

Even elderly bridge players are not exempt, with a squad of security officers hauling a pack of retired Brits over to the police station in the beach town of Pattaya last year for violating a ban on owning more than 120 playing cards.

Sport of kings

Thailand’s hard line on betting is buttressed by beliefs that gambling contravenes Buddhist morality -- a religion that more than 90 percent of the population adheres to.

Yet more than a third of all Thais still gamble regularly according to a 2015 study by Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, rolling the dice on cockfights, football matches and boxing bouts.

Only a combination of tradition, royal patronage and handsome tax returns have kept trackside betting sacred, making it the only legal form of gambling outside of a state-run lottery.

Horseracing was first brought to Thai soil a century ago under King Chulalongkorn, an anglophile monarch credited with modernizing Thailand and fending off the colonial powers who had carved up the rest of the region.

After enjoying a race put on by Thais who had seen the sport abroad, the king bestowed a plot of land in the capital to become Thailand’s first course.