Relief all round as racing readies for return on July 11

Singapore Turf Club will welcome spectators back to live horse racing action. Photo: STC

By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club

The long wait is over. The news Singapore horse racing will be back on track on July 11 was received with a collective sigh of relief at Kranji on Monday, even if it will still be held behind closed doors.

It’s been 80 days since Sweet Angeline signed off as the last Singapore winner on April 3 – when they were already racing before an empty grandstand – but it probably felt more like 80 years to hardcore racing fans.

A sweet note it might have been, but it did little against a very bitter pill racing industry participants and punters alike were about to swallow – a raging pestilence that was about to turn racing into a non-starter for months!

With COVID-19 bringing the world to its knees, almost every country had to wage a totally newfangled war against a little-known invisible ill befalling them. Singapore coined theirs Circuit Breaker, and as its name suggests, it pulled the plug on almost every business activity, except for essential services.

Our little equine enclave at Kranji was not spared by that curveball. Racing is entertaining but it doesn’t save lives, and so the Kranji lights also went out.

But with the recent introduction of Phase Two and its easing-down of COVID-19 restrictions, telltale signs the end of the tunnel was near began to pop up.

While trackwork had fortunately been allowed to continue, albeit at a slow pace only, horses were allowed to gallop a few weeks ago, countries like France, England, New Zealand were racing again, Singapore Pools reopened wagering on overseas races last Wednesday.

The main giveaway was, however, the return of barrier trials this week. Putting two and two together, such hit-outs walk hand in hand with racing, and true enough, the authorities have finally given the green light for racing to resume.

No dates have yet been given – the Singapore Turf Club is busy hammering out the fixtures for the first three months and will put them out soon – but as a heads-up, trainers have already been informed July will comprise two meetings.

“It’s great to finally get the information we will be racing again from July 11 onwards,” said Michael Clements (pictured above), current leading trainer and also president of the Association of Racehorse Trainers Singapore (ARTS).

“We were all anxious to get going again. At least, we now have a start date to work towards, we can start programming the horses accordingly.

“Before that, we were following an open-ended training without a programme, it was not easy and it was frustrating.

“But we’ve been able to keep the horses working every day and keep them ticking over, even if they worked only up to half-pace. We were able to get out of the house every day while socially, it was tough, but in saying this, we did get to spend more time with our loved ones like everyone else – it had to be done and it’s paid off.”

First full-year trainer Jason Ong is also thankful for the opportunity to use the training tracks during the shutdown, though it was a bit of a stab in the dark when it came to planning out the workload.

“The important thing is the Club has allowed us to still work the horses, of course with all the sanitary precautions in place,” said the young Singaporean handler.

“The horses did enjoy going out every day. I’ve put in mainly conditioning into them just to keep them fit.

“Even when we heard news that the trials would reopen and we could do fast work to get them fit for those trials, I didn’t rush them to gallop as we were still not sure when we would resume.

“I did a few faster gallops last week. I think it’s worked out good the horses have come out and worked and then got plenty of time to rest, they were not wound up, they were more relaxed, more focused on their job.”

It was also “business as unusual” at the Clements yard, but though the preparation had been unorthodox, the horses have emerged as fit as they can be.

“I have to thank the Singapore Turf Club who have been proactive and have worked closely with NParks in allowing us to resume our first gallops,” said the Zimbabwean-born conditioner.

“Obviously, we didn’t know when racing would start, and we didn’t want to overcook our horses too soon, but we followed that programme, hoping we’re doing the right thing, and fortunately, everything has fallen into place.

“And this week, we can resume trials, which will enable all the trainers to step up their work towards racing, albeit without a programme yet.”

With the loss of around 30 meetings during the lockdown impacting all stables and owners, big or small, the restart button will come as a welcomed oxygen mask on top of the still mandatory facial mask, but some feel we’re not out of the woods yet.

The spectre of a pandemic relapse still hovers, but three-time Singapore champion trainer Mark Walker, who handles large numbers of horses year in year out, is for once more worried about that old chestnut of supply and demand.

“I’m relieved more than anything we will race again, but I also have mixed feelings about the two meetings in July,” said the New Zealander.

“With the makeshift programme made up of 1000m, 1100m and 1200m mainly, the fields should be full. There are a lot of horses who would want to run.

“That’s why a lot of horses will be balloted out and I understand owners if they feel frustrated. They have been very patient during the lockdown, but sooner or later, their patience will wear thin.

“I know the Club has worked hard to get the races back, but we need to have more meetings, and the sooner we return to normality, the better it will be.

“Right now, the owners don’t have the confidence to buy horses under these circumstances. There is too much uncertainty, their businesses have already taken a big hit with the COVID-19, and some of them have left me.

“It’s very challenging times and I’m worried the worst is still to come. These are unprecedented times, and the last thing a businessman needs now is a racehorse.

“I’ve lost 15 horses and I’m leasing those that some owners have left behind. The problem is also in finding replacements as we can’t get horses out of Australia and New Zealand, nobody’s buying horses.”

A regular buyer at the sales, Clements was on the other hand, a little more optimistic about new shipments even if borders are still closed in most countries.

“I think the movement of horses can resume fairly soon. Horse handlers on planes normally turn around, so we don’t have to worry about them entering the territory,” he said.

“I’m aiming for the October breeze-up sales in Australia. I usually go there myself, but I have a bloodstock manager who can buy on my behalf.

“As for my stables here, I had a few new horses who were able to clear quarantine before the lockdown. Two are due for Malaysia, but the borders are closed. So, I have more or less the same horse population we had three months ago.”

Clements had only one horse taking part at the first post-Circuit Beaker barrier trials on Monday afternoon, coming away pleased with what he saw – a comfortable all-the-way victory from a Tivic Stable-owned two-year-old newbie, Ablest Ascend (Louis-Philippe Beuzelin).

“He went pretty good. He is a two-year-old but he is a raced horse,” he said.

“He will get to do one more trial. If he comes through well, he may run on the first day back.

“Obviously, not every horse will be ready, and it will also depend on the race programme. I think the three weeks give us ample time to get them race-ready.

“Some are already fit and just need a trial to top them off.”

There were no Ong triallers on Monday, but Bruce Marsh’s former protégé was in no rush given barrier trials will be chockablock in the next three weeks.

“I don’t usually trial on Mondays, but I will have horses trialling on Tuesdays and Thursdays this week and next week,” said Ong.

“I take this opportunity to say a big thank you to my staff for looking after the horses so well, not forgetting (jockey) TH Koh (Teck Huat) who helped me out during that time.

“I have retained all my workers, even the Malaysians who decided to stay here instead of going home. I’m fortunate to have good workers.

“Unfortunately, I’ve lost a couple of owners even with the Club’s relief package of $1,500 per horse.

“We’re thankful for that as it really helped, but with no racing, it’s still tough for some of them. They have to keep paying the bills, which only covers maintenance costs for us.”

Despite the hard times the racing fraternity has fallen on, the human factor has been safeguarded by most.

“All the jobs are safe,” said Walker. “Some went back to Malaysia, but their jobs are waiting for them when they return.

“They have families to feed and it was important for me to make sure nobody loses his job.”

One category who, however, felt jobless during the lockdown were the expatriate jockeys. While four (Daniel Moor, Michael Rodd, Alysha Collett and Patrick Moloney) of them flew to Australia to continue riding, five of them stuck it out here, unable to even ride trackwork due to visa restrictions. Australians Vlad Duric and John Powell being Singapore permanent residents were able to ride earlier.

French jockey Marc Lerner for one felt like a caged bird who could fly the coop when he (and the other four namely Juan Paul van der Merwe, Ryan Munger, Ruan Maia and Beuzelin) was given the nod to ride trackwork from Saturday.

“I’m very happy we’re back racing soon. Staying at home while waiting without knowing when racing will be back was very tough,” said Lerner.

“At least now we have a date. I hope the worst is behind us.

“As for my weight, I am now at 61kgs but I’m confident I’ll slim down to my normal riding weight by July 11.

“This morning, I cycled eight kilometres to the track, rode nine horses, cycled another eight kilometres back home. In the afternoon, I did the same journey back and forth for the trials, but on foot!

“Actually, physically, this break has done me a world of good. I feel fit and strong, I just need to lose weight.

“I can’t wait to be back riding in races.”

Author: iRace