On The Rails

Surface too hard? It's that time of year

Club is faced with several issues that have cropped up, such as the nature of the track and why there was no trial for Dragon

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 2:53am

Sunday at Sha Tin was well and truly the day when the rubber hit the road as far as the intersection of racecourse management and its impact on racing.

First there was the issue of trainer Tony Millard not having been able to barrier trial Ambitious Dragon in the lead up to the Sha Tin Trophy, and then there was the track surface itself.

In fairness, Millard said after Ambitious Dragon's win that he had "been able to do everything we wanted to with the horse" and was not making a hue and cry about the matter.

Ambitious Dragon, as a 120-plus rated horse, had the option of a Tuesday grass gallop on the course proper, an option put to good use 12 days prior to Sunday's race.

A case of all's well that ends well, but perhaps it would be something difficult for the average fan to understand - that the best horse in town was not allowed a turf trial to prepare him for a Group Two feature.

Notwithstanding that there were quite a number of trials available earlier this month on turf at Sha Tin and Happy Valley and the all-weather - with most of the first-up Sha Tin Trophy runners using that avenue - the rules do allow for a special turf trial to be convened for an upcoming Group One.

But club policies draw the line there, as allowing the same privilege for a Group Two race might lead to demands for the same before Group Three events. The bottom weights in a Group Three are often 100-raters or less, who would then have a case for a special turf trial. You can see where this is going.

Why the restrictions at all? Well, it's all about surface management at Sha Tin.

After a sharp rise in triallers on the turf in 2011-12 season - an increase of 130 per cent - the club introduced stable quotas and caps on numbers, all the better for the state of Sha Tin as we get deeper into the season.

The other complaint from a few jockeys and trainers on Sunday was that the surface presented was too hard. Though only a few horses appeared in the stewards' report as officially feeling the ground, there were others whose performance might have been reflected the same issue and might have shown the effects on Monday.

And before the question asks itself - why would the track be so firm on the day when so many of our best resume heading towards the internationals?

Essentially, it was about the time of year and an issue that crops up at this meeting or hereabouts every season.

The Jockey Club track staff are forced to take the grass off the surface as the type of turf changes from the Bermuda summer grass to the winter rye grass.

The director of racing operations, John Ridley explained that the track would normally have just under 13 centimetres of grass cover but that was sliced down to about 7.6 centimetres for the weekend. As the rye grass is just growing through, the Bermuda has to be cut much shorter or it will strangle the rye before it gets a chance.

Thus we get a track like Sunday's surface, with no length of grass on it and no cushion, and it's also the reason we had Happy Valley and all-weather meetings and didn't race at Sha Tin on the turf for the two weeks prior.

While race times were good, they weren't especially fast - quite a bit slower than National Cup Day for instance - but that doesn't mean it isn't firm. In the past, we've noted that faster times are actually run on tracks which have been wet and dry out, still with a degree of comfort underfoot for the horses, than on bone dry tracks on which plenty of horses won't stretch right out.

All in all, the surface played well enough, but, in the name of track management, punters may want to treat with caution any of the more disappointing runs on the weekend as we go forward.