Conghua Racecourse, a near £400-million investment by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, will stage exhibition races - which means without betting - for the first time on March 23 next year before an audience of around 4,000.
It is a modest start for the world’s newest racecourse – based in China where horse racing does not yet exist despite various attempts over the years including plenty of ill-fated initiatives – which in concept and development was a training track, albeit an expensive one, for horses to be prepared for racing across the border at the two Hong Kong tracks of Sha Tin and Happy Valley.
Conghua Racecourse, which has 660 stables and occupies a 370-acre site in the Guangzhou area of Guangdong province in China some 200 kilometres north of Hong Kong, only accepted the first batch of racehorses in training in July this year.
There now some 150 horses training there and so far this Hong Kong season – which runs from early September to mid-July – 25 winners at an acceptable strike rate of around 10 per cent have come from horses stabled at Conghua rather than Sha Tin, which is nearly at capacity with its training quarters due for redevelopment.
Trainers, owners and horses quickly have come to accept the peaceful state-of-the-art facilities in China, which include an equine clinic, equine swimming pool, 20 paddocks, aqua treadmill, chilled salt-water spas and owners’ lounge, but the Hong Kong Jockey Club wants to build up the numbers gradually, in line with its training and development of a skilled pool of staff, such as vets, work riders and grooms, on the mainland, and only expects 250 horses in training at Conghua in 12 months’ time.
So the timing of exhibition races on Saturday, March 23 next year so early in Conghua Racecourse’s life is interesting. The stated aim is to introduce the concept of racing to locals and tourists in a region known for its hot springs as part of an equestrian sport initiative spanning China and Hong Kong’s greater Bay area, but undoubtedly there is also the ambition to demonstrate to the myriad of authorities in China that if and when horse racing with betting is approved then there is a racecourse ready and waiting and run by a responsible authority.
Conghua Racecourse is built to high specifications and is similar if not superior to 40-year-old Sha Tin where Sunday’s four Group One races of the Hong Kong International Races, worth collectively approaching £10 million, were staged.
The turf track is 10 furlongs in circumference – against Sha Tin’s nine furlongs - while there are two All-Weather tracks on its inside, one of nearly nine furlongs round and the other a mile. There is also an uphill grass gallop of five and a half furlongs.
Everything is in place to stage race meetings, the weighing room, parade ring and much more, except any grandstands. Temporary facilities will be rolled out for March. If the go-ahead for racing with betting was ever given, it is easy to imagine a capacity of 15,000 to 20,000 racegoers with grandstands built.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club has worked very hard on bio-security and creating an approved disease-free area at Conghua, with all visitors to the stables having to proceed through four gates, wear protective clothing and be disinfected. The horses going racing in Hong Kong are taken in specially-designed cross-boundary horseboxes, which are checked by mainland government officials at Conghua and therefore can cross the China/Hong Kong border seamlessly. The journey takes four hours.
Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, Chief Executive Officer of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, commented: “The first world-class racecourse and thoroughbred training centre in the mainland, Conghua Racecourse is truly a milestone for the sport of horse racing in Hong Kong and for the ever-closer relations between Hong Kong and Guangdong.”
He added: “Conghua Racecourse is also, we believe, the beginning of a new era for equine sports in the mainland. Through the training it will provide to equine personnel, Conghua will help advance professional standards.
“Through exhibition racing, it will enable mainland audiences to experience the sport of horseracing at a world-class level.
“Above all, Conghua Racecourse has great potential to support the development of an equine industry in the greater Bay area and in the mainland as a whole.”