The state of the Happy Valley racetrack has now reached crisis point and the Jockey Club must react in a fundamental manner with a policy not just for the Valley but also for Sha Tin which considers the role of sandmesh, grass and dirt surfaces. The first thing which has to be done is to identify the problem. What is wrong with Happy Valley? Well, there is a number of things which are wrong, some are more wrong than others and some are more important than others. The biggest problem is the sandmesh surface itself which, from the moment the track was reopened after a much-heralded $1 billion revamp, has been unable to stand racing. After just a few meetings it degrades into a sand surface with all the properties of an artificial track. There has been such a bias to those racing on the speed at recent meetings that unless a horse has the pace to race handy, he simply can't win. The reason for this is that the kickback is so fierce that it's insurmountable. In many ways dirt racing at Sha Tin is fairer than the alleged grass racing at Happy Valley. At least they can come from behind on the Sha Tin dirt over a mile or farther. It doesn't matter what the distance is at Happy Valley these days, those on the speed stay there to the line, the kickback sees to that. This is turning the clock back some 25 years to when there was joyless sand racing at the city circuit. The kickback is bad for horses, especially young ones, and makes for very poor quality racing at a time when the Jockey Club should have been able to promote the $1 billion refurbished city circuit as a track of international repute. Because the Valley can't take racing, more midweek meetings have had to be programmed to the main dirt work track at Sha Tin - again because the sandmesh track there can't take much volume. This comes at a time of falling attendances and will only serve to exacerbate this feared trend which, if similar to elsewhere, is a likely precursor to falling betting turnover in real terms. The midweek journey to Sha Tin is a nightmare by road or by train as it coincides with the rush-hour commuter traffic from Hong Kong island and into the heavily populated New Territory conurbation. And once at Sha Tin for a night meeting, there is no atmosphere and no spectacle compared with Happy Valley, which is the best racetrack in the world for a night meeting due to its natural amphitheatre and neon-lit background. So not only does the awful state of the sandmesh at Happy Valley produce a poor racing product, with as biased a track as is possible to imagine, it will also lead to a further decline in crowds by forcing more midweek meetings on to the Sha Tin dirt. The awful state of the Valley sandmesh also means that $1 billion worth of capital equipment has to lie idle on a number of Wednesday nights when it should be being employed. This is something that must particularly rile the Jockey Club chief executive, Lawrence Wong, with his business background. It is impossible to imagine his old company, Ford of Taiwan, having $1 billion worth of capital equipment lying idle. This all comes at a time when the Jockey Club's stewards and management are looking for more race fixtures or at least more races on each programme. This is untenable given the current state of the tracks with the sandmesh unable to sustain racing. Thus, the main problem is the sandmesh surface at Happy Valley and it is a very serious one as it threatens the quality of racing, it will surely lead to a further erosion in crowd levels by forcing more midweek meetings to Sha Tin, and thus to a possible fall in betting turnover in real terms, and it leads to $1 billion of capital equipment lying idle. There are other things wrong with the Valley track, such as the 1,200-metre start which is a nightmare for those drawn out wide, especially when the rail is out; the heavy camber in the straight is unnecessary and forces too much traffic back to the inside rail, and the new grandstand is very poorly designed with the balconies unusable on some floors as they are too shallow and not built to cater for the volume of public they have attracted. The stand is also very badly appointed, affording a head-on view and no access to the paddock without actually leaving the course. Indeed, the stand could only have been designed by someone who's never gone racing. But these are more minor points compared to the surface itself. So what is to be done? The Jockey Club's management and stewards could well be best advised to look at the problem of the Happy Valley sandmesh in context of the racetracks as a whole. They must come up with a blueprint for racing in its entirety. Surely the time has come to have at least one natural grass track and the best place for that is at Sha Tin as the land there is reclaimed and drains that much more quickly. If there is a move to dirt racing then surely that should be at the Valley which is the most natural place imaginable for night racing. The backdrop and the punch-bowl setting provides for sheer theatre. And on the subject of dirt racing, don't be taken in by the red herring that more dirt racing is being programmed because the trainers have requested it. When it suits management to say this, they will. The real reason is that more dirt racing is in the offing because the Happy Valley and Sha Tin sandmesh can't take racing. So the way forward into the next millennium is to write off much of the $1 billion that was spent on Happy Valley and come up with a new medium-term project. Put back the dirt track at the Valley, with a new sandmesh surface outside it which is given a longer time to settle in, and have a natural grass track at Sha Tin. There are those who will argue, with some degree of persuasion, that both tracks should be natural grass and that the experience of Macau, which has similar climatic conditions, shows that very few meetings on a grass track are lost to rain provided the track is properly drained.