Huge leap forward
By Michael Guerin
The return of harness racing in the north takes a huge leap forward when the region’s main three training tracks re-open on Tuesday.
The north has had enough horses being looked after on private properties during the Covid-19 lockdown to potentially meet demands for the first meetings scheduled at Cambridge and Alexandra Park in May and early June.
But nearly 300 horses are trained at Franklin Park, Cambridge and Scott Reserve in Morrinsville and all three tracks are good to go from Tuesday.
Training of horses, and even racing, will be allowed under Covid-19 level three but with strict protocols associated with training tracks being workplaces. Those protocols include social distancing, keeping records of who works with and on the horses and the usual hygiene protocols that apply to the entire country.
While racing at level three may be a moot point as the country is expected to be at level two well before the first harness meeting on May 29, harness bosses say the northern tracks are ready to meet the training protocols from Tuesday.
“We have systems in place and our team at Franklin Park (Pukekohe) are very satisfied,” says the Auckland Trotting Club’s Jamie McKinnon.
“The most important thing is all the trainers and staff stick to the protocols and we can get training back going again.
“But yes, we expect to have trainers at the gate ready to go at 6am on Tuesday morning.”
While the Pukekohe-trained horses may not be able to race until potentially mid-June adding them to the pool of horses privately trained in the Auckland region should ensure winter meetings are sustainable, although the first three or four meetings could be lighter on numbers.
Cambridge boss David Branch says only the jog track at the back end of their complex will be open next week as the trainers spoken to suggested there was obviously no need for fast work yet.
“So we will have horses jogging and getting fitter here and then we will open up the main track a week after,” said Branch.
“We are really comfortable with the measures we have in place and the horsepeople have been great to deal with.
“So we will have horses back here and Scotts Reserve will be open and there can be up to 45 horses in work there are its peak.
“So we are excited about getting the horses back to work.”
Branch realises Cambridge, who have been given the first northern harness meeting and a busy schedule over the comeback period, may have to make the best of smaller horse numbers for the first meeting.
“We realise there might only be 5-6 races at the first meeting, even though we obviously want more, because we won’t have that many horses from down here ready,” says Branch.
“But there will be some, just not the horses trained on the track for the first meeting. But like everybody we want to get racing again.
Cambridge hope to be able to card mobile sprint races to make them easier on the horses and avoid handicap racing so horses aren’t asked to chase too hard in their comeback races.
Like everybody in the industry Branch is unsure yet what stakes Cambridge will be able to race for.
Cambridge has been given a higher proportion of the northern winter meetings because the track also runs greyhound racing, meaning it can hold dual code meetings whereas Alexandra Park can not.
There is no suggestion the Cambridge/Alexandra Park ratio programmed for the winter will continue long-term as the dates for the last two months of the season have been especially put together to minimise costs as much as racing can through the comeback period.
Also concerns Alexandra Park will lose a lot of its Friday night racing appear baseless, with that not being in the grand plan for harness racing’s future, especially once crowds are allowed back and the Friday night hospitality which is such a big part of Alexandra Park’s business returns as factor.