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Conghua, commingling and equine stars, but is there a crisis in the jockeys' room?

By Alan Aitken

It isn’t often that a training track, or even a training centre, holds the focus in racing but Hong Kong Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges has highlighted the $4 billion Conghua Training Centre, how it is employed and integrated into Hong Kong racing generally as one of the key plot lines of the 2018-19 season that starts on Sunday at Sha Tin.

Engelbrecht-Bresges is forecasting more commingling growth and a bottom line of a “3 to 4 per cent” increase in betting turnover but believes many fans and stakeholders will be watching Conghua carefully.

“I am really looking forward to the new season, to the heights that might be scaled by our horses – Pakistan Star, for example. and last season's four-year-olds – but Conghua is a step into an entirely new world for the club, for our owners and trainers. How we all, collectively, realise the full benefits of Conghua is, for me, a really fascinating aspect of the season ahead,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said after the official opening of the $4 billion training centre an hour out of Guangzhou on Tuesday. “I thought our opening received what was an overwhelmingly positive coverage in the press and the comments of stakeholders, whether officials, owners or trainers, were also very positive. But the question now – and it starts with this season but it will be ongoing, of course – will be the smooth integration of Conghua into the overall operating model of Hong Kong racing.”

At the opening, for example, trainer Dennis Yip revealed that he is particularly pleased with what might be termed the ‘Conghua effect’ on horse with stomach ulcers, a prevalent problem in the high density, busy atmosphere of Sha Tin, while others highlighted a calming effect on horses trained at the calmer Conghua centre.

Sunday’s opening meeting will begin the process of assessment in racing terms, with 12 horses having been prepared in one way or another out of Conghua.

Chris So-trained Fabulous One, A Beautiful and Turf Sprint represent one approach – they were the first horses to go to Conghua on July 12 and spent a month there before returning to the trainer’s Sha Tin yard on August 14, where they have been prepared for Sunday.

The others are Nice Fandango (Fownes), Daring Fit (O’Sullivan), Calling The Shots, Lucky Storm and Great Profit (Shum), Midnight Rattler, Green Card and Sea Pearl (Moore) and The Full Bloom (Yip) and all of them have spent a minimum of three weeks at Conghua and will race almost straight off the centre after being floated to Sha Tin earlier this week or late last week.

Champion trainer John Size said it is inevitable that horses will be brought to the races straight from Conghua and the So example might be in the minority.

“The trainers at Conghua now have a 70-horse limit instead of 60 and a reduced capacity at Sha Tin, so the numbers simply don’t add up to enable all your runners to be brought back to Sha Tin and prepared to race,” he said.

The club’s website team has facilitated punters being able to follow the trends here, with “movement records” between the two centres now available on every horse’s form page.

“At the moment, we are looking at the horses having to be brought down at least four days prior to racing but this is an area we can optimise further as we go forward. How we reap the full benefits in terms of horse welfare, horse performance and even widening our industry - as a centre like Conghua should enable potential stallions to be left as entires and trained effectively -  these will be fascinating to observe,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said.

Conghua will also offer a fresh challenge to the club with the plan to run a meeting there in March to showcase horseracing for the local audience.

“We need more government approvals yet but I was greatly encouraged by the comments of Mr Chen Jianhua, the chairman of the Standing Committee of Guangzhou Municipal People’s Congress – he was very positive about encouraging horse racing, of course within the legal framework,” the Jockey Club chief said.

In other aspects, the season ahead has some of the usual focuses – the continued expansion of commingling, including the global pool hosting for next year’s Royal Ascot meeting.

“It would be impossible to see the kind of growth we had in commingling last season again – a rise of 154 per cent that came off a low base – but I believe that we could see another 11 per cent increase in commingling this year,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said. “I see a potential 3 per cent increase in locally-generated turnover and an overall rise for the season of 3 to 4 per cent would be my estimate. In the overall context of economic conditions, we know that Hong Kong is very sensitive to things like trade wars and sanctions so outside factors will play a role in our turnover.”

In the wider world, Engelbelbrect-Bresges says he hopes to progress on the speech he delivered at the Seoul Asian Racing Conference in May, helping horseracing to develop a better global brand.

“We are looking to develop a more strategic program in this area for our own brand, which could be a blueprint for others who already have recognizable brands, like Royal Ascot, like Japan,” he said.

But, while Engelbrecht-Bresges is positive about the season ahead in most areas, he does have a concern where the depth of jockeys in Hong Kong is concerned.

Two of last season's top four, Joao Moreira and Nash Rawiller are departed and under disqualification, respectively, stalwarts Brett Prebble and Olivier Doleuze are gone, the new names are untested and Zac Purton looks to have the game to himself unless someone steps up.

“I think, with the departure of Moreira that the jockeys’ title could be quite uncompetitive this season and, for me, that is a concern,” he said. “We have some very good jockeys but Zac Purton is world class and, in all likelihood, is going to completely dominate. It’s true that there are not many jockeys in this class but we need to see how we can attract more riders who will really offer him strong competition, even if they are only available for sections of the season.”

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