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An eye on the big picture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am

John Ridley has overseen myriad aspects of racing in Hong Kong for the past 18 years, from maintaining the grass on the tracks to managing multimillion-dollar grandstand redevelopments. Now, the Jockey Club's racing operations director is the logistical mastermind behind what could be the biggest challenge in more than 125 years of racing in Hong Kong - extending the Jockey Club's operations to the mainland.

Not only does the Conghua training complex in Guangdong mark the first time the club has established a significant presence beyond Hong Kong's borders, it is a strategic step to help make the long sought-after dream of HKJC-run racing in China a possibility.

Ridley's diverse role involves everything from ensuring races are run on time to track maintenance, but what motivates the Australian most is his responsibility in co-ordinating special projects, like the ambitious development at Conghua.

When chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges arrived at the club in 1998 he identified Ridley as someone he felt was under-utilised, an employee he describes as 'extremely focused, result orientated and with extraordinary attention to detail'.

The pair worked together to orchestrate Hong Kong's successful hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics equestrian events and formulated the original concept for Sha Tin's ground-breaking, enclosed parade ring.

'He is somebody you can trust with a task and be sure he'll give everything to make it a success,' Engelbrecht-Bresges said of his long-time colleague. 'I think he has done a terrific job. If you look at the Olympics, it was a completely new field and he came up with the principal design in six or seven weeks.

'He always responds to challenges when you can enthuse his passion. When I met him, I got the impression straight away that he was someone I could work with and someone who wanted results.'

In 2014, 400 horses will be prepared at the planned state-of-the-art Conghua facility, located 31/2 hours drive from Sha Tin - and Ridley is the man entrusted with the task of making sure it happens.

The club has moved mountains, literally, to build the complex - essentially chopping the top off a mountain to make space for a 150-hectare compound, 40 kilometres northeast of Guangzhou. Originally developed for the 2010 Asian Games by the club, the site is now a whir of excavators which, by completion, will have shifted around 10 million cubic metres of soil. Ridley says the aim is to build a training centre that will still be considered cutting edge in 2025.

A racetrack with a turn radius of 200 metres, compared to the 150m of Sha Tin, is just the start of what will become home to around one-third of Hong Kong's racehorses. The racetrack will feature a rise of one metre over the last 400m - designed after extensive consultation with trainers - to maximise horse fitness, and nearby will be an English-style, 1,200m uphill gallop.

Mobile vet facilities, luxurious spelling paddocks and shoeing bays for each stable block will offset any concerns trainers might have about being based away from Sha Tin.

'There will be people who will seize upon it and turn it into an advantage,' Ridley said. 'I believe we've designed a world-class facility and I have no doubt an innovator like [leading trainer] John Size will work out very quickly how to turn it into an advantage. Once someone gets results using the uphill gallops, or being able to put horses out in a paddock in the sun for a day ... the others will change fairly quickly.'

Fate dealt Ridley a good hand in 1974 after he was knocked back for the first job he ever applied for, as an accountant at an Australian mining company. The second job he interviewed for was at the Australian Jockey Club in Sydney, where he eventually became racecourse manager at Royal Randwick.

Ridley's father operated the totalisator systems for provincial greyhound tracks in and around Sydney and as a schoolboy he would help tally figures to earn pocket money. It gave him the inside running for the Randwick job, where he first worked in the finance department, doing the same job he had done as a teenager, and then moved on to racecourse management within three years.

This is where Ridley got his on-the-job grounding on every facet of how a racetrack operates - from crunching betting numbers to maintaining the hallowed Randwick turf. 'I'd spend half the time out of the office being dragged on to the roof by workmen, shown down holes by plumbers or on to tracks... in those days you had to do everything or you didn't survive,' he said. A stint in New Zealand as general manager at Ellerslie racecourse in Auckland provided the final touches to the skill set required for his over-arching responsibilities in Hong Kong.

Ridley is well placed to provide perspective on the dramatic changes since he arrived in 1994 and the driving influence of Engelbrecht-Bresges, who moved from executive director of racing to CEO in 2007.

Ridley has presided over a period of racing when the number of meetings has increased from 69 to 83 per season and the number of races held has leapt by 250.

'Winfried is very passionate about racing improving and saying: 'What we do today is not good enough for tomorrow'. He challenges people to do more and more. What you did last year isn't good enough for this year,' is how Ridley describes his leader's influence.

'Winfried's capacity to work is quite amazing ... he is like an octopus with arms everywhere. He moves so quickly you've got to forget about the way you do things and sit down and say, 'All right, how are we going to solve this problem'? A lot of the old rules that I came to Hong Kong with, I've had to put in the garbage bin.'

As exhibit A of 'dreams becoming reality', Ridley recalls how the idea for Sha Tin's stadium-like parade ring, the first of its kind in the world, with a retractable roof, was formed and eventually built in 2004.

'We were standing in the parade ring, it was raining and Winfried said, 'We should have a roof on this'. I said, 'OK boss, we can put a roof on it ... but while we're at it, why don't we open up the back of the grandstand as viewing areas?' It went from a conversation at the races and six months later we had a project. That's never going to happen anywhere else.

'Things move quickly here, not only because the town has so many resources, it's got so many clever people. I go back to Sydney and think it's slow. It's the mindset of Hong Kong, people just want to get on with it and they've got the resources to make it happen.

'In Australia you can have dreams and they stay dreams; in Hong Kong you can make them reality.'

As far as dreams go, they don't get much bigger than the holy grail of expansion into China. It's a vision Ridley doesn't shy away from discussing, but he is flatly realistic about the possibilities. 'I've heard it talked about since the day I arrived in '94,' he says.

Discussing the 'if' or 'when' of the Jockey Club running racing on the mainland might be stuff of fantasy, but if the green light is ever lit, Ridley says Conghua will be ready.

'If you look at the layout, it's not hard to tell that you could race there,' he says. 'It's primarily designed as a training centre, but it has scope for the future and would be a wonderful racetrack.

'I don't think anybody knows what is going to happen with racing in China ... but we've designed the facility so that if opportunities do come up, we can take advantage.

'We've put in ducting for timing systems because at the construction phase that sort of thing is cheap to do. Even the lighting system is such that it can be easily changed. It's adaptable and flexible. We have to make sure we can expand when and if we need to. We could easily go to 1,400 or 1,600 horses at that site.'

Whether Conghua remains simply a world-class training facility, or germinates into the new frontier of Hong Kong racing, Ridley says he will find immense satisfaction in continuing whatever project comes next.

'The fun for me is projects and doing things that are outside the box,' he says. 'Doing things you can stand back and be proud of.'

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