Laying the groundwork before a day at the races
Behind the perfect grass of the Jockey Club's racecourses is a team of people who put in hours of back-breaking work to make it just right
On the morning after a race night at Happy Valley, the stands are empty and the horses are resting in their stables, but the track is anything but deserted.
Wearing large hats and sitting on little stools, clusters of people tend to the turf, filling the holes divot by divot and helping to fulfil Deng Xiaoping's famous pre-handover pledge to Hong Kong that the "horses will keep racing".
These are the track attendants who ensure the grass is healthy and the turf's texture just right for the horses' hooves in time for the next meeting.
"Each horse has four legs, so you can imagine how many holes there are," says Jeff Cheng Wai-tat, 34, one of 21 full-time track attendants at the Jockey Club's Happy Valley racecourse. Another 12 part-time workers help out with regular maintenance.
The work on the 5.4-hectare track of 1,450 metres is done by hand rather than machine, because the position, shape and size of each hole is different.
"When we recruit new staff, we always emphasise to them that the work is very boring and tough," says Pako Ip Pak-chung, the track's executive manager, who heads the team. "They have to keep bending their backs to plant grass on the track, but it is a very important job."
It is difficult to recruit people for the job, and the turnover rate among newcomers is high. Some leave in less than a month.
The club also has to compete with the construction industry for workers as it requires more or less the same skills, Ip says.
The track attendants, with 47 other casual workers, are also on duty during race meets, raking and smoothing the turf during the short breaks between races.
Then, early the next morning, the task begins of filling each hole with sand, planting new grass and watering it, which usually takes a few days, depending on the weather.
On other days, the attendants trim the grass with mowers, use rollers to flatten the sand and punch holes in it using a tractor. All this work is done to soften the soil so that it does not hurt the horses' hooves.
Lau Wai-fong, 50, is the only full-time female track attendant at Happy Valley, although several work part-time to take advantage of a flexible schedule that fits in with their family lives.
A 15-year veteran on the job, Lau says she enjoys working as part of a team. "I'm used to the environment here. Sometimes we chat while we plant the grass. We get along well," she says.
A former gardener at the club, Lau was transferred to work on the tracks after six years. She was delighted to learn different skills, such as operating machinery.
Cheng says his satisfaction comes from seeing the race audience enjoying themselves during the events. "I'm a simple person. When I see people cheering in the auditorium, I feel as if they're cheering for me. That's my motivation," he says.
Although he has watched many races in his eight years of work at the club, the competitive atmosphere still makes him excited and nervous.
Another member of the team, Chan Kim-sing, 36, says the most challenging aspect of the work is the unpredictable weather. Heavy rain can create big holes in the track.
He remembers a day when a water pipe burst at the Sha Tin track, causing an especially big hole the day before an international competition. "I got a call from home to get back and help fix the hole, which was about a metre square," he recalls. I made 200 turf bricks that day - the most I had ever done in a day."
Ip explains that sand - which has been used as a culture medium to grow the turf since the 1980s - has a high drainage rate that helps it to adapt to Hong Kong's rainy climate, but it also has poor strength and stability.
Once, 223 millimetres of rain fell on a race-day morning, but the good drainage meant the races could be held. "Not many people in the world would contemplate racing in such weather, but we could," Ip says.
The attendants plant one species of grass for summer and another for winter that adapts better to the weather. Extra work is required during the transitional months. New grass is imported from Guangdong, then maintained at the Sha Tin racecourse nursery before it is planted.
"Growing turf on this kind of medium is not easy, but it has a good usability under all weather conditions," says Ip. "The implications of losing a race meeting would be more significant than the cost of maintaining the track."