By Sally Duckett
The dream for many trainers is to be based at a top-class state-of-the-art training centre with wonderful gallops, leading rehabilitation facilities, top-class staff accommodation as well as an ambitious site owner prepared to establish the facility as the very best of the best. For nine Hong Kong-based trainers, that dream has come true.
In August 2018, an eight-year project conceived by the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) came to fruition with the opening of its Conghua racecourse and training centre in China.
There is the slight downside for Sha Tin-based trainers, as the centre is a four-hour drive away from their main Hong Kong stables—across the border and in China. But every possible negative that it might have caused has been mitigated by the HKJC through discussion, cooperation with the Chinese authorities, big-planning, alongside the focused use of technology and ambitious ideas.
Nine trainers were invited to send horses to Conghua last autumn, and each has a string of between 15 to 20 horses based at the 150-hectare site—the trainers now termed ‘dual-site trainers’. Currently around 150 horses are in training at the €377 million facility, although by December 2018 the number of horses who had shipped to Conghua, returned to Sha Tin and travelled to China had already exceed 500 individuals.
The trainers were fully involved with the design and planning of Conghua from outset; the racecourse and gallops are in fact a replica of Sha Tin. Ensuring that the daily work and training processes are exactly the same, methods honed in Hong Kong can merely be picked up and transferred to China. There is though, at the trainers’ request, an additional 5f uphill straight gallop.
Selected trainers were invited to trial the Chinese venture and were chosen on their own abilities and that of their staff. The HKJC wanted to ensure that stable staff sent to China were capable and experienced.
The nine trainers with horses on site include leading trainers John Size, John Moore, Danny Shum, Casper Fownes and Tony Cruz.
All have been successful back in Hong Kong with their Conghua-trained horses (which are identified as such in the media for the betting public); and the Sha Tin nine are kept fully abreast of the training at Conghua courtesy of video, timing facilities and real-time technology all provided by the HKJC. The trainers, however, can spend as much time as they wish in China.
“John Size and Danny Shum in particular have spent a lot of time at Conghua”, reports Andrew Harding, the HKJC’s executive director of racing. “We have had applications from other trainers to send horses, and we will be adding another two later in the year”.
The success of the training process has kicked into gear quicker than even the ambitious HKJC team planned, and the site has already lost its initial ‘pre’ training tag.
“We had thought trainers would take horses back to Hong Kong two or three weeks ahead of a race, but they are travelling down and running just two days later—and winning”, smiles Harding. “We thought this would take perhaps a year to phase in, but it has come much quicker. The HKJC provides all the transportation, and we are already needing to ramp up the logistics—the transport initially between the two sites was twice a week, but we have extended it to six days a week (much earlier than anticipated). The travelling process had also been taking five business days to process with the levels of administration required for the border crossing, but our dual site trainers said that was too long. We have already narrowed that down to two days. Trainers can now ship on Monday in order to race on Wednesday at Happy Valley, and the horses need to undergo certain veterinary examinations ahead of racing; so they have to be in Hong Kong two days ahead of racing. They can then return to Conghua on Friday. The transport costs are all part of the HKJC’s service, and owners do not see any extra expense”.
Establishment of the Equine Disease Free Zone
The HKJC’s CEO Winfried Engelsbrecht-Bresges has driven the concept. (Engelsbrecht-Bresges is the organisation taking advantage of a unique opportunity that emerged in 2010.)
That year the People’s Republic of China hosted the Asian Games at Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. The equestrian sector was based at the site in Conghua, and in order to successfully host the equine side of the games, an Equine Disease Free Zone (EDFZ) had to be established.
An EDFZ is a way to create a disease-free zone within a wider geographical area in order to facilitate international equine movement to and from those countries which have stringent controls in place regarding diseases not found in their own regions.
The initial Conghua EDFZ consisted of a 5km radius around the site via a wire fence to exclude wildlife, stringent biosecurity measures and the exclusion of other equines within a 1km corridor linking to the local airport. A disease-free equine sub-population was created at Conghua.
After successful operation of the games, the HKJC came up with the concept of extending the EDFZ and turn it from a temporary to a permanent zone. The Hong Kong veterinary services, Chinese veterinary authorities and the HKJC engaged in a public-private partnership to transform the venue into a permanent EDFZ to facilitate safe regular cross-border transportation of racehorses between the Hong Kong Special Administrative region and the EDFZ in Guangzhou.
“The EDFZ really is an asset and was an extreme opportunity to the catalyst development of the equine industry in China—both horseracing and equine sport”, informs Engelsbrecht-Bresges. “It took a significant time to be established and be internationally accepted, though there are some teething problems with Australia, which we can hopefully overcome.
“We really could leverage the EDFZ. It was a strategic investment for China and a strategic investment for us and the Greater Bay area of China and required very strong collaboration between Hong Kong and Guangzhou”, explains Engelsbrecht-Bresges.
Now horses travelling to Conghua from Hong Kong are loaded into ‘sealed’ lorries at Sha Tin, and the transport does not stop until it reaches Conghua. Special border controls are in place to allow the lorries, grooms and drivers seamless travel while all others need to queue.
The lorries enter the Conghua site, still protected by an impenetrable fence, via double-locking gates and with full wash facilities, with the horses unloaded in a special designated area before moving to their respective barns. The human and equine border requirements take place on site, requiring an on-site Conghua-based government department of 40.
“To run a world-class training centre with same quality of service between Hong Kong and China has been a massive exercise”, adds Engelsbrecht-Bresges of the further requirements needed to house and feed nine stings of horses in a country without any significant equine infrastructure. “There are multiple layers involved, government and stakeholders, to get approvals for things such as the import of feed and drugs so that our vets and horsemen can practice as required. “It ranges from talking to local officials right through to discussion with top-level departments in Beijing. It has required tactics, diplomacy and an understanding of Chinese culture and working methods.
“It has been the largest strategic undertaking by the HKJC since Sha Tin was built 40 years ago”, recalls Engelsbrecht-Bresges, placing the investment into context. “Forty years ago Hong Kong racing had Happy Valley only, and the decision made to build Sha Tin was a little bit like the move to Conghua—it was on an island, there was little infrastructure, [and] it was away from the centre. You have to ask now, if that had not been done, where would racing be in Hong Kong without Sha Tin? We are hoping Conghua will be of a similar importance.”
Racing plans and Sha Tin refurbishment
Significantly, there is a racecourse on site equipped with state-of-the-art facilities for stewards, jockeys and horses.The first ‘exhibition race day’ took place on March 23, albeit without betting due to the anti-gambling Chinese rulings.
While the meeting confirms that the HKJC sees the facility as a way to extend its racing facilities—while introducing the sport to the Chinese public—the reasoning behind the Conghua development, which at its current size could house 660 horses, was more immediate and more pressing; for years some of the stabling at Sha Tin has been in desperate need of refurbishment.
“The stables at Sha Tin are 40 years old”, says Engelsbrecht-Bresges. “To further Hong Kong racing, we need to replace and refurbish—we need to build modern facilities, and we have a €150 million investment for the next phase of Sha Tin. We could only do this if we moved horses to Conghua; we couldn’t knock down stables and do the significant work with horses on site”. That phase is envisaged as a five- to seven-year plan with batches of horses moving to the China site as required.
Engelsbrecht-Bresges adds: “I visited Conghua around two weeks after the first batch of horses arrived on site, and I was surprised how well the horses looked; even then horses were eating better, were more relaxed, were looking good in their coats”.
Barrier trials have been held, attended by jockeys, and it is envisaged that in the future jockeys will make more frequent journeys to China to ride work.
The Hong Kong-based owners were initially a little resistant to plans unused as there were by the idea of travelling horses to race, but as ever in horseracing, success trumps all doubts.
“We have had greater buy-in from owners as they have become used to the idea of travelling horses and their runners have been successful”, observes William Nader, the HKJC’s director of racing business and operations. “They can travel to Conghua to see the horses, we have an owners’ suite and entertainment facilities”.
Reporting on the concept so far, Engelsbrecht-Bresges is delighted with progress and is looking forward to the future. “We have been working on this for six or seven years”, he explains. “And we think it is a unique project. We are pretty convinced it will help Hong Kong racing to develop to the next stage and continue to ensure we have the world’s best horses and the world’s best facilities.
“It is a beautiful fresh-air environment; there are no challenges in the environmen;, it is an environmentally protected site, and we are extremely certain that there are no negative challenges”.
The area around Conghua has for centuries attracted tourists from all over China to visit its hot springs and enjoy using the healing properties of the warm water.
With an urban population of 25 million and only an hour's drive from Conghua, the region's Guangdong government is keen to leverage these advantages and has seized on the added value than an equine industry might offer. Of course, the ‘elephant in the Chinese room’ is betting, and the government is firmly opposed to legalizing gambling in China. But, if the Conghua venture proves to be successful, and with continual dialogue with the Chinese government, who knows what could be achieved by the special administrative district of China. Since they are world leaders in the field, technology could be developed to control gambling to certain geographical zones.
Betting, however, is just one item on a long-term plan for the HKJC. To begin with, however, the club is keen to ensure that its ambitious plan creates a win-win-win for the three main stakeholder groups: the Chinese government, the cash-rich Hong Kong racing industry, and its horses and horsemen—who can take advantage of on-site facilities that are the stuff of trainers’ dreams.
TO READ MORE —
BUY THIS ISSUE IN PRINT OR DOWNLOAD -
SUMMER SALES 2019, ISSUE 53 (PRINT)
SUMMER SALES 2019, ISSUE 53 (DIGITAL)
WHY NOT SUBSCRIBE?
DON'T MISS OUT AND SUBSCRIBE TO RECEIVE THE NEXT FOUR ISSUES!
PRINT & ONLINE SUBSCRIPTION