I found this photo a few years ago at an ephemera fair in London. Looking at the original below, it doesn't seem like much of a find: taken at an angle, cut down from its full size, ripped and torn at the edges.
Flipping it over, the dark patches show the remains of the album page it was stuck to - explaining the rips and tears when the seller removed it.
But there's good news too. The pencil note has enough detail that we should be able to track down this event in the day's newspapers, and find out more about the scene.
"Greyback" winning the mile, July 3/09.
The photo was taken on Saturday, 3 July 1909. Let's see what else we can discover.
I didn't see any mention in the newspapers from Saturday or Sunday, but three papers reported the race in detail on the following Monday. Only three horses took part:
So the three horses shown above are, in order:
Mr. Blank’s Grey Back, 169* lbs....(Owner)
Mr. F. B. Deacon's Butcher, 162++ lbs, (Owner)
Mr. H. G. Moore's Lyemun, 155 lbs. (Owner)
* Penalty of 14 lbs
++ Penalty of 10 lbs.
I wondered if "Mr. Blank" was a mistyped "Mr. Black", but checking the other newspapers they all clearly use the same "Mr. Blank". I can't find any Mr Blank mentioned on Gwulo, but looking in the 1909 Directory & Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits ..., there is a Mr H. de Blank listed as manager of the Pulo Samboe Tank Installation in Singapore. The names of his colleagues suggest it was a Dutch company, so that could be a clue.
The directory has better results for the other two racers:
- Deacon, Frank B., solicitor, Deacon, Looker & Deacon, Hong Kong (D, L & D was the predecessor to the modern Deacons law firm)
- Moore, H. G., lieutenant, Royal Artillery, Hongkong
They don't look to have much of an audience, just a Sikh policeman watching the end of the race, and an adult under an umbrella watching over a child playing.
The racecourse stand is out of sight behind us. It would give spectators shade from the summer sun, so hopefully there was a larger crowd there.
The newspaper reports use some interesting landmarks as they describe the progress of the race. Here's the Hong Kong Daily Press:
The start was even—Grey Back, Lyemun and Butcher, this order being maintained the greater part of the distance. The field, spread out on passing the football club stand, but bunched again at the village.
The football club marked the north end of the track, and the village marked the south end. The football club is still with us today, and at roughly the same location. The village was demolished in the 1920s though, so the only reminder of it today is its name in Happy Valley's Village Road.
The Hong Kong Telegraph:
After one false start the trio got away level with one another. Passing the spectators' stand Grey Back had the smallest of advantage of Lyemun by a neck, Butcher bringing up the rear. In processional order the field covered the next two stages of the course. Up the incline Batcher reduced his distance from Lyemun who made a plucky attempt to close with the leader with whom he drew level round the village where the trio bunched. It was difficult to tell who held the premier position in the home straight, but Grey Back had the position of advantage on the rails, whilst Lyemun was closed in between him and Butcher. Grey Back was being easily ridden and won as easily. The race for second place was a capital one, Butcher beating Lyemun by just a length.
I don't remember hearing of 'the incline' before, but it's easy enough to see what they mean. Across on the far side of the racecourse, roughly in the centre of the main photo, there is a large rock that is still clear to see today. If you look at the track you can see it had to climb up to the level of the rock, then come back down again on the other side.
Does the modern racecourse still have any incline, or has it been flattened out at some point?
The large building on the left is still with us.
Today it houses St Paul's Primary Catholic School. It was originally an orphanage, known as Le Calvaire and run by the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres. It is almost brand new in this photo, as it had only opened the previous year.
Something else to note is the relative sizes of the horses and the riders, and how different they look from modern racers.
The 1909 race was organised by the Hongkong Gymkhana Club, which was formed to "promote racing and amusements at the Happy Valley during the Off Season". Their entry requirements for this race were listed in the newspapers as:
3.30 p.m. — ONE MILE FLAT RACE — For subscription griffins of season 1908-09. Weight for inches as per scale. Winners of open race at this season's gymkhanas, or at 1909 meeting, 10 lbs. extra; two or more races 14 lbs. extra. To be ridden by owners. Pony to have been the property of rider for at least one month prior to date of entry.
Entrant fee $5. First prize: presented, 2nd prize: $25.00, 3rd prize: $10.00 (Entrance fees to go to winner)
I've been using the word "horse", but the animals in the photo are actually ponies - the difference between the two depends on the adult animal's height: 14.2 hands (appx 4' 10") or more is a horse, anything shorter is a pony.
Also in this race a pony had to be ridden by its owner, not one of the smaller and lighter professional jockeys seen on the horses at Happy Valley today.
The larger jockeys and July temperatures seem like a tough combination for the smaller pony.
Gwulo photo ID: EM004
Here's an example of a crowd in the Happy Valley stand on another occasion
More information, and photos of ...
- Happy Valley Racecourse [1846- ] (also see Photo 13 in Volume 4 of my books)
- Hongkong Gymkhana Club [1904-1921]
- Hong Kong Football Club
- Le Calvaire / St Paul's Primary Catholic School, Happy Valley [1907- ]
- Wong Nai Chung Village [????-1923]
Read the full reports of the race:
- p.3, Hong Kong Daily Press, 1909-07-05
- p.3, The Hong Kong Telegraph, 1909-07-05
- p.21, The Hong Kong Weekly Press, 1909-07-05
The rules for the race say it was only open to "subscription griffins". The Hong Kong Jockey Club's current ownership bye-laws give the following definition of a Subscription Griffin, though I'm not sure if it was the same back in 1909:
... a horse drawn in a ballot for horses purchased by the Club unraced and offered for sale to Members by subscription in accordance with the Horse Ballot Bye-laws.
The origins of the word "gymkhana":
The first element of Gymkhana comes from gend meaning ball in Hindi/Hindustani/Khariboli. This element is distinct from the English word gym, short for gymnasium and gymnastics which has Greek and Latin roots. The second element, khānā has a Persian origin, meaning a home or a compartment. In Persian, (خانه) is a term for dwelling, house. (Wikipedia)