HONG KONG -- In this British colony where gambling and making money are communal obsessions, bettors will put down billions of dollars on horse racing over the nine months of the racing season.

Even Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping understands the importance of horse racing to this bastion of capitalism, which will revert to Communist China in 10 years under a Chinese-British accord.

"Dances will continue to be danced and horses will continue to race," Deng promised.

"Racing here is fanatical," said Robert Edwards, former racing editor of the English-language Hong Kong Standard daily. "You get a doorman shuffling a form guide at you for tips or people calling you in the middle of the night for information on a race."

Horse racing here, which is run by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, began not long after the colony was established 145 years ago and at first was strictly the domain of the British elite.

It has since become part of the fabric of daily life for both expatriates and Chinese, providing a major source of entertainment and -- through Jockey Club donations -- transferring millions of dollars from the pockets of gamblers to the coffers of charities.

Chinese, who make up about 98 percent of Hong Kong's 5.5 million people, are noted for their gambling mania and frequently bet on mah-jongg and card games. But stories of racing's popularity have become legend.

When a second race course opened in 1978, an entertainment newspaper, Hung Lu Daily, reported that a 40-year-old cancer victim who supposedly only had days to live requested one last wish -- a visit to the new track.

Permission was promptly granted and the Jockey Club provided him a special seat, according to the report.

Statistics also tell the story of racing's appeal.

Gamblers bet a record $3.12 billion last season -- $568 for every man, woman and child in the colony -- up from $371 million a decade earlier. On average, nearly 6 million bets were placed on each of the 66 days of racing.

Races are held Saturday afternoons and Wednesday nights, but a calendar is not needed to know when the ponies are running.

People walking along the street listen to live broadcasts on transistor radios. Traffic becomes congested near the famed Happy Valley race course nestled between hills on Hong Kong Island and the 9-year-old Sha Tin track in the New Territories bordering China.