Conghua Training Centre track surfaces designed to retain the best qualities of Sha Tin with a modern twist

The construction of the training tracks, both turf and all-weather dirt surfaces, at the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Conghua Training Centre (CTC) on the Chinese Mainland has been an important milestone for the facility as the first horses prepare to relocate to the site beginning in the 2018/19 season.

“Conghua is an extension of what we do in Hong Kong,” says John Ridley, the Club’s Director of Racing Capital Projects. “One of the big advantages of racing in Hong Kong is that all horses are trained using the same facilities – they train on the same turf track they race on, they all use the American dirt tracks – so from a customer perspective, it’s a level and open playing field.”

Constructing a new training centre, the first new base for Hong Kong horses since Sha Tin opened in 1978, presented some challenges to the team with the aim of maintaining a similar experience across both sites.

“Straight away, the decision was made that the turf course and the two dirt tracks should be the same,” Mr Ridley said, “so that the form, whether you are training in Conghua or in Hong Kong, is as equal as you can get it. In designing the turf track in Conghua, it was fairly simple – replicate all the best attributes of what we have in Hong Kong.”

This means that CTC’s 2000m turf track, which was completed in May, is as similar as possible to the turf track at Sha Tin. This includes using the same type of grass, a Bermuda species known as Tifton 419 that is often used in golf fairways and is already in use at Sha Tin.

“We took a long, hard look at the grass species, because the growing environment at Conghua is slightly different – it is warmer in summer, cooler in winter, and the growing seasons vary slightly too,” Mr Ridley says. “We decided to stay with what we have in Hong Kong, the Tifton 419. We understand its growing pattern and decided it was easier to fine-tune the maintenance practices we have, rather than learn about a whole new species. Our current grass is already grown in China and so it made sense to stay with the 419.

“We will still have to over sow with rye in the winter up there, it will go into dormancy a little longer and come out of it a little later, and we are still learning about the transitional periods between the Bermuda and the rye in Conghua. That was a major advantage of getting the grass laid in May, more than a full yearly cycle before horses will be trained over the surface.”

The final pieces of grass are laid on the Conghua Training Centre’s turf track by Mr. Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, Chief Executive Officer (centre), Mr. Anthony Kelly, Executive Director, Racing Business & Operations (right) and Mr Philip Chen, Director of Property (left), picture Hong Kong Jockey Club

Where a difference does lie between the turf tracks at Sha Tin and Conghua is in the design, with subtle differences between the two tracks despite their similar characteristics.

“Sha Tin’s turf track was designed some 40 years ago, so there are certain design principles that are different now,” Ridley says. “Sha Tin was designed with a simple radius turn, meaning that horses go directly into a turn. At Conghua, we have introduced a transitional curve – all modern tracks in the last 20 years have been built to include this. Modernised safety standards in course construction have evolved too, and we have adopted those as well.

“One notable change is that we have introduced a one-metre rise from the 400m to the line in Conghua, which was put in after consultation with senior jockeys. Sha Tin is flat once you hit the straight, so that will change things a little bit and offer an extra variant for trainers. However, the back straight is completely level, because we will conduct the 1000m barrier trials down the back straight and the trainers wanted it nice and simple for young horses.

“Other than that, though, it is very similar as a training surface.”

CTC also offers the first uphill gallop available to Hong Kong trainers, an 1100m turf chute above the back straight which is currently under construction.

“The uphill gallop is a 1.5% continuous rise to the 1000-metre mark, with the last 100 metres flat, so rising about 18 metres above the back straight,” Ridley said. “The original design was different – it was going to be more like Japan, where it goes from 1.5% to 3% to 5%, but after some of our jockeys and trainers rode an uphill gallop in Japan, they told us that the continuous rise was more suitable for Hong Kong horses as our racing is different. It is more sprint-oriented in Hong Kong.”

“The uphill gallop was also originally supposed to be synthetic too, but after our trainers reassessed what they wanted to achieve with the uphill gallop, and recognising that we don’t actually race on a synthetic surface, it was switched to turf. It will operate similar to the 1800-metre gallop at Sha Tin, open two days a week with restrictions.”

CTC’s tracks require a management team, separate from the Hong Kong division, and Mr Ridley, who has overseen the project, says the squad is currently expanding its knowledge under the leadership of Jackson Wong, Racing Operations and Tracks Manager (Conghua), who has been based in Conghua since course construction commenced in March 2016.

“Jackson brings more than a decade of track and turf management experience to the team, having served as a tracks officer at both Happy Valley and Sha Tin, and was also intimately involved in the Club’s work with the equestrian events of the Beijing Olympics and the Asian Games. Amongst his team are several newly-recruited university graduates with a strong interest in turf and science, and they have been in place since before the track construction commenced,” Mr Ridley said.

“The team has been on the journey with us from day one. They were involved in the construction of the courses to understand everything from the foundation up, and now they are on rotation through Hong Kong, learning about how we maintain our tracks over time. That’s one of the reasons we started building the track so far out from CTC being opened – it gives us over a year to teach them about the maintenance practices.”