With the doors closed on the Ellerslie track for at least the next 18 months, we felt it timely to pull back the curtain on what exactly is going on at the Big ‘E’ and what we’re hoping to achieve with this significant piece of work.
The track upgrade is the most significant part of a larger strategic plan that will also see a new irrigation pond - to water the new track - whilst upgrading our current egress points into Ellerslie. This will also result in some changes to both racing and the event centre parking over the next few years.
It’s been well reported that the project involves the installation of a StrathAyr track. For those not familiar with this product, in layman’s terms, a StrathAyr track is a grass track with a mesh, sand and peat moss component that gives consistent racing conditions year-round.
A StrathAyr track has a quality drainage system and can cope with all weather conditions thus it resists damage better and recovers faster. The ReFlex® mesh technology (a key component to a StrathAyr track) ensures the track has a greater surface uniformity and cushion impact, lowering injury potential for both horses and jockeys. Sounds pretty good right?
So how certain is the team that it was the best and right fit for our goals here at Ellerslie?
Craig Baker, GM of Racing & Operations at Auckland Thoroughbred Racing says “globally, premier thoroughbred racing is run on grass tracks (excluding the USA) so we were always looking for a product that enhances a grass track. StrathAyr has been widely used for decades now and has a robust reputation.”
Jason Fulford, Track Manager, agrees “you can make lots of tweaks and improvements to tracks but given we were looking to future proof the track and have something at the top level, StrathyAyr was the best option when looking for a product that would allow us to race year-round with more consistency of surface.”
StrathAyr tracks have been successfully used at Sha Tin & Happy Valley Racetracks in Hong Kong, Moonee Valley in Melbourne and Kranji Racecourse in Singapore (amongst others) and the Ellerslie track will be the first of its kind in New Zealand.
The major perk of a StrathAyr track is the superior drainage the product provides. It is a sand profile so water can quickly move through the profile and into the drains. Jason commented that the inclement weather we had last week, some 84mms of rain in two hours, would have been easily handled by a StrathAyr track and we’d be ready to race a mere day or two later.
Jason does caution that the StrathAyr track isn’t without its challenges and that its maintenance is slightly different to a standard grass surface. He comments “it will take a more frequent, rigorous routine to keep it in top shape. It’s a different type of maintenance with keen attention to detail required for things like weeds and fungus. As a track manager, it’s something I’m nervous but excited to tackle.”
Keen racing fans might remember Ellerslie has already had a period of closure for a track upgrade, within the last five years in fact. Craig Baker explains “the work carried out a couple of years ago was purely just a drainage upgrade meaning that the native soil type remained. This project includes removing the native soil and replacing it with superior drainage, topped with a layer of sand topped with ReFlex mesh and peat moss. It’s a much more indepth track project.”
“That earlier project was largely an interim solution to give us time to consider all options and evaluate the Club’s goals in order to make the right decision as to the direction of the improvements” added Paul.
The cost of the wider project (aforementioned above) is costing the Club somewhere in the realm of $40million – a significant sum. However, Paul Wilcox, CEO of Auckland Thoroughbred Racing is confident it’s worth it.
“It’s no secret that abandonments and track safety have become of great concern in recent years, and this is our opportunity to provide New Zealand racing with a high quality surface that will go the distance”.
“With the track upgrade and the Club’s commitment to better stakes, we’re starting to put into practice some of the things agreed to as a part of last year’s merger”
“We’re excited about the future of racing here at Ellerslie.”
With a return to racing tipped for about the 18month mark, Paul has been clear in his intention to not return to ‘business as usual’ until the track is signed off as ready to race.
He said “we will go through a period of working with senior jockeys and trainers and make sure the track is ready for racing - doing jumpouts and moving into trials.
“We will have smaller cards to start off with before we build into a 10-race card.”
Both Craig and Jason were unanimous in their feelings of excitement but also nervousness moving into such a significant period of change here at Ellerslie with the opportunity to be a part of what’s a first in New Zealand.
Jason commented “I’m excited that I have been given the opportunity and the challenge to do this as a track manager. It’s the first time this product has been used in New Zealand racing, it’s pretty big and it is history in the making”.
Craig agreed, “there is no doubt that this project is one of the largest ever undertaken in New Zealand racing so, as such, certainly proud to be a part of it.”
And whilst all tracks have a finite lifespan, this undertaking is set to future-proof the track here at Ellerslie for the next 20 or so years and the sense of progress is motivating for a team who’s been treading water for much of the past season and a half due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s been a hell of a few years here at Ellerslie but looking forward to having this period in the rear vision mirror. There’s a lot to look forward too” said Paul.
So here’s to the future! It’s looking pretty bright from where we’re standing.