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Running the racecourse in Hong Kong

AAP logoAAP 7/11/2016 Alison Godfrey

It's 6.30am and I'm outside Hong Kong's Happy Valley in my activewear. My friends all laughed when I told them I was going to run the racecourse. They made jokes about horses and scratchings. But here in Hong Kong, it's a perfectly normal thing to do.

Every day from 5am the track opens to the public for exercise. And it's free.

Happy Valley Racecourse was built in 1845 so the British inhabitants of Hong Kong could enjoy the sport of kings. It was the only flat land surface suitable for horse racing and the British drained rice paddies in order to construct the track.

It was also the scene of one of Hong Kong's greatest tragedies. On February 26 1918, close to 600 people died when a temporary grandstand collapsed, causing food stalls and bamboo matting to catch fire.

In 1995 the track was renovated and now includes the prestigious Hong Kong Football Club, the original home of the Rugby Sevens.

These days, Happy Valley is a magnet for wealthy mainland Chinese, who come to have a flutter on the Wednesday night races.

It's also a place for locals to get their morning exercise.

A security official tells me to wait out the front of the building as thoroughbreds are unloaded off a horse float.

"Running? Running?," he asks, smiling. "You wait for the horses."

Once the beasts are offloaded and transported into the bowels of the building, he waves me through.

"Down there, running," he says.

I follow a road that looks like it leads down into an underground car park, through a tunnel with signs saying "infield".

Soon the road begins to go up the hill again and I'm standing looking at one of the world's greatest horse racing tracks.

To my right, the eight-storey grandstand looms above the turf. High-rise apartments and lush mountains form a background, making the abundance of open space inside seem surreal.

The running track is not actually on the turf, but is right next to it, on the inner circle. It's separated from the track by a white fence and a low hedge. It's as close as you can ever get to the famous run without being a horse or jockey.

Most Australian racecourses use their inner fields for race day car parking. Not so in Hong Kong. This is a city where space is at a premium; a city that strives for efficiency and innovation. So it's no surprise really that the middle of Happy Valley actually contains leisure and sports areas, including hockey, rugby and soccer fields.

The run is smooth and flat, a rarity in Hong Kong. It's best to get here early, though. At 6.45am it's already 23.2 degrees Celsius. The humidity is building. Setting off at jogging pace, I can already feel the sweat dripping on my face.

Traditional Chinese music blares from a small inner field car park as a dozen elderly residents practice tai chi. Their arms move gracefully through a sequence.

At the bend, runners pull off to a small stretching park to watch the women's soccer team train before embarking on another lap.

The park is far from crowded, so it's easy to really stretch out my legs and build up a pace. It's a short track at 1370m per lap, but you can go round as many times as you like.

Using Strava, the time to beat per lap (for women) is four minutes and 48 seconds. I'm nowhere near that. If you were placing bets on me, you'd get your money back.

But even if I'm slower than a horse, it was still an incredible way to wake up in Hong Kong.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Qantas flies direct to Hong Kong daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

STAYING THERE: Lanson Place Hotel in Causeway Bay provides apartment-style hotel rooms with all the facilities of a hotel. It is about 10 minutes walk from Happy Valley Racecourse. Visit hongkong.lansonplace.com

PLAYING THERE: Happy Valley Racecourse opens to the public from 5am to midnight. Check the race schedule for details before you go (hkjc.com/english/racing/fixture.asp).

* The writer travelled as a guest of Hong Kong Tourism Board and Qantas.

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