Ellerslie farewells racing for 18 months

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Paul Wilcox

Horses will be an absent sight from Ellerslie racecourse for at least the next 18 months.

A StrathAyr track will be put in at the Auckland venue as part of several measures agreed after the amalgamation of Auckland Racing Club and Counties Racing Club into Auckland Thoroughbred Racing last year.

While the club has given the industry the estimated timeframe, Auckland Thoroughbred Racing chief executive Paul Wilcox said it may take longer if needed.

“Our plan at this stage is 18 months but one thing I have been vocal about is that we won’t be back to race unless the track is signed off that it is ready to race,” Wilcox said.

“We will go through a period of working with senior jockeys and the 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.”

The curtain was pulled down on racing with the Auckland Cup meeting on Sunday, while Monday’s trials marked the last day of the current track’s operation.

Construction of the StrathAyr track is set to get underway in the next few weeks.

“Towards the end of March – early April, the track will start to be dug up,” Wilcox said.

“Our first priority is the track, but we are putting in a new underground entrance down by the 600m mark. That will be the entry and exit for anyone coming to Ellerslie. We want to remove the crossing.

“We have got the underpass already at the 150m on the home-straight where people come into the track. All our parking will be on the inside of the track.

“There is a lot going on, but our priority is to get that track right. We will then start to be looking at increasing stakes, which is incredibly important for our industry.”

The club is currently working with New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing to decide where the club’s feature meetings are held over the next two years.

“We are still working out where individual races will move to,” he said.

“Counties will be taking some of our bigger days, as well as Te Rapa and Te Aroha, when that is back.

“We will also be looking further afield and what is best for the distances of those races and making sure it is close to the proximity of trainers and owners.

“But Boxing Day will be at Pukekohe and New Year’s Day will be at Te Rapa.”

Wilcox said the club will take a phased approach to return to racing.

“Right at the start we won’t be having a full schedule of meetings like we normally would,” he said.

“You still have to give the track the time to bed in, and that is making sure the grass is rooted properly so you get the structure and strength of that grass.

“We have seen examples of tracks coming back too soon, so my priority is to make sure it is done properly.”

The sale of the Ellerslie Hill has been a controversial topic, but Wilcox said the industry will see the benefits of the sale, particularly with increased stakes.

“The Ellerslie Hill is a part of our history that is no longer here,” Wilcox said.

“I love our history, I support our history, I respect our history, but my thought process is you don’t live your history, you live your future.

“It (sale) is a decision we made that I knew wasn’t going to make me popular. Unfortunately, you have got to make changes to have a sustained long-term success in this game and what we have done is going to do that.

“Now it is on my, the board, and the team here’s shoulders to make sure it is done properly.

“While people are upset about it, when they are winning those races when we are back here on a really good track for decent money, hopefully that will help heal some of those wounds.”

It has been a tough few years for the club as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions and Wilcox said it is nice to finally get underway in investing in the club and industry’s future.

“It has been a hell of a two years here and we have been restricted more than most clubs around New Zealand in the fact that we only had a New Year’s Day and Karaka Million and the rest have been pretty restricted,” he said.

“It has been tough, but after the trials (on Monday) it is a matter of working with civil guys and girls (engineers) and we will start going from there.”

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