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Holding a Group One race at Happy Valley would be like deciding the men’s 100m Olympic final with a few laps around a tennis court, or holding one of golf’s majors at the local pitch-and-putt. But without a doubt, it’s the best racetrack in the world, and the most important for the sport, despite its faults. Why? Because it holds the key to attracting and educating newcomers to a sport whose fans are so old their memories are in black and white.
Quirky doesn’t begin to describe a circuit around 1,400m in circumference, that never seems to stop turning, with a back straight with more ups-and-down than the Mid-Levels escalator and a reverse-cambered home turn than sends horses scrambling like ninepins.
The first Happy Wednesday meeting showcased the best and the worst of the Valley. The media was given a tour of fabulous new facilities, all part of the Jockey Club’s “Master Plan” – centred around the buzz-phrase “customer segmentation” – and out on the racetrack, speed maps became more important than form, an apparent leader and rail bias meaning on-pace runners dominated.
The first “customer segment” taken care of, unique to the Valley, is the Beer Garden’s “Let’s drink as many cheap pints as possible” demographic, which contributes little to turnover, but provides atmosphere in spades. More than 20,000 spectators at a midweek meeting, even when you are the only show of its type in town, and even if many of the revellers don’t know they are at a racetrack, is pretty healthy.
Getting some of those who are double fisting two-for-the-price-of-one pints to look over their shoulders and think “What are those strange looking animals with little men on their backs?”, and then to place a bet on this strange phenomena, are the next crucial steps for the club. And that’s where many of its new initiatives are aimed.
Behind the beer garden, and below the excellent The Gallery restaurant, a nicely stylised bar will offer some respite from the beer and sweat-soaked madness outside, but also make it easier for the party-goers to make the leap from “here for the beer”, to “here for a bet”, with friendlier looking betting counters.
(Strangely, the journalists’ tour also included a brand new women’s restroom, which was hopefully the first and last time any of the press corps are allowed in such a place with cameras).
It’s not just monetary investment the club needs from the newcomers, but an emotional investment for young people to understand, on some level, and care about what is going on out on the track.
The good news is the Valley’s idiosyncrasies are the best teaching aide racing has got. Want to know why barriers are so important? Back a horse from gate 12 over the 1,200m course and watch it get strung three wide and then drop out, or take the outsider from gate one and witness him sit in the box seat and fill a place.
Everything is magnified tactics-wise; nothing illustrates the importance of pace in a race better than a horse getting a soft lead down the back at Happy Valley, and then pinging into the home turn to win going away.
Wednesday at the Valley was a little lopsided as far as tactics go, as the name of the game was to simply find the front. But there wouldn’t have been a person in that modern coliseum of a racecourse who didn’t have a memorable experience.
And who wouldn’t watch – or bet on – a race between Usain Bolt and Johan Blake around a tennis court, anyway?