21 August 2019
Kiki Lau says unstable weather and a busy race schedule make tracks management particularly challenging in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ
Kiki Lau says unstable weather and a busy race schedule make tracks management particularly challenging in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ

The lady and the turf

In the financial world, QE means quantitative easing, a program to bolster growth in leading economies like the United States, Europe and Japan that fund managers cannot afford to ignore.

In horse racing, there is another QE that the international racing community and punters won’t want to miss.

This is the QEII Cup, short for Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup, which was first held in 1975 to commemorate the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Hong Kong. This year, the QE Cup will be held at the Sha Tin racecourse on April 26.

The focus of the big tournament naturally goes to the competing riders from around the world, and also the sizable prize money, but lots of credit should also be given to those who work behind scene to ensure a smooth and safe race.

EJ Insight talked to assistant tracks officer Kiki Lau, one of the tireless crew members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club who get the job done.

Kiki has always wanted an outdoor job, one that keeps her close to nature. She worked as an intern with a golf club but she couldn’t find a full-time job in that line of work after she graduated from the university in 2010.

She worked for a law firm for a while, but when she heard of an opening at the Jockey Club, she jumped at the chance immediately.

You might wonder what’s the big deal about racecourses, why is there a need to get specialists like Kiki to take care of them.

Consider this: 12-14 horses, each weighing more than 1,000 pounds, keep striking the ground at the top speed of 60 kilometers per hour during a race. This results in lots of damage to the tracks. On any given race day, about 150 horses pound the track, leaving the area full of holes.

A track with holes is dangerous. But a track that is too firm or too slippery could also cause injuries to horses, or increase the likelihood of accidents. Remember, a racehorse can be worth several million US dollars, so an accident could be very costly, aside from causing huge damage to the reputation of the race organizers.

That is why tracks matter a lot.

But how difficult is it to maintain a lawn?

In Hong Kong, a big challenge is the weather. We have distinct seasons and a single type of grass can’t survive all seasons. The complex task of transitioning between so-called winter grass and summer grass is therefore a must, Kiki explains.

The second challenge also comes from the territory’s often unpredictable weather.

“There was a time when typhoon signal number eight was hoisted but the next day was scheduled to be a race day. Though the tracks team was off, all members had to follow the weather forecast closely at home and get ready for emergency restoration work for the tracks when the weather condition allowed.

“As soon as the storm warnings were cancelled, we all rushed back, reassembled the rail, removed the debris and cleaned up the turf within a very short period.”

Even when things are normal, the tracks department is in a constant race with time.

Staff would survey all sections of the track after each race and do some quick fixing during the short recess before the next race starts.

Unlike other places with lots of racecourses, Hong Kong only has two—one in Happy Valley and one in Sha Tin. That means racecourses here are frequently in use. (During the race season, races are held every week, alternately in the two racecourses). Such a busy schedule puts a lot of stress on the tracks team.

The city’s skyscraper-crammed landscape can pose problems too as the towers block the sun and impede the growth of grass. It’s again the tracks team’s job to come up with ways to get around such obstacles.

Meticulous care is constantly needed to keep the track fit.

“The height of grass on the turf is about 4.5 inches, slightly longer than those on the golf course or soccer field. If they are too long, drainage becomes bad and horses would slip. But if they are too short, there will be a lack of shock absorption, putting tremendous stress and strain on the horse’s legs,” Kiki notes.

Grass does not take a holiday, and the turf is a living form in constant change. The 80-odd staff of the tracks department must therefore keep a close watch all the time.

Walking the track is part of the daily routine, and they are pretty big tracks to cover–it takes Kiki a couple of hours a day to patrol the Sha Tin track, which measures 1,898 meters long with a surface area of 9 hectares.

Despite the hardships and long hours under a scorching sun during summer, the young lady loves her job.

“There is a lot of interaction with people, I get to work with nature and there is also some management element, so it’s three things rolled into one.” 

Kiki also works with a number of long-time partners such as internationally recognized labs, which regularly “audit” the soil and grass conditions and make recommendations to the Jockey Club.

She would look at their reports and compare the numbers with her field observations, as well as look for the best way to adapt the latest racecourse technology to fit local conditions.

In her fourth year on the job, Kiki said she is beginning to get a hang of it. But she is still building up her tracks knowledge through distance learning programs.

“There is just so much to learn.”

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The top six horses will share HK$20 million in this year’s Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup scheduled for April 26. Photo: HKJC

Holes left by racing horses could be dangerous traps if left unattended. Photo: HKEJ

EJ Insight writer

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