New Zealand's first synthetic race track has started construction which means thoroughbred racing could return to Cambridge next year.
The long-awaited construction of what will initially be a new training surface, then trial track but eventually a race track started yesterday as excavators moved in.
It is a pivotal step in the restructuring of New Zealand racing, providing a consistent winter racing surface with the ultimate aim of ending bog track meetings in the region, or worse, those meetings which have to be cancelled because of the extreme wet.
The synthetic track is one of the key strategies around venues for racing in New Zealand raised in the Messara report.
While some aspects of racing's future venues plan are still very much up in the air it will be encouraging for industry participants that construction has begun at Cambridge and the track should be open for training, after some testing, by July or August.
The synthetic surface will be Polytrack, which is the brand name for a specific type of synthetic track.
Randwick has a Polytrack surface inside its racetracks and champion NZ jockey James McDonald is a huge fan. "A lot of winners are starting to come off that Randwick Polytrack now because it is a consistent surface for them to train on," says McDonald.
"And they are good to ride on."
The construction which started yesterday will see the main Cambridge grass trial track dug up and over 10,000 square metres of the Polytrack surface laid.
That is expected to take until July but with Cambridge having other training tracks trainers are working with the club to ensure horses currently in training are not greatly disadvantaged.
"The trainers have been great, very supportive," says Cambridge Jockey Club chief executive Mark Campin.
"We would have liked to have started earlier to be finished for the start of this winter but we are under way now.
"We had a Maori blessing of the track after the trials on Monday too."
The new surface will eventually allow for consistent training in all weather conditions and Cambridge will have a special conditioner to maintain it, with that initially overseen by the Polytrack company.
"We dig up what is now the trials track and put in the new surface and then once that is finished we will start it off slowly," says Campin. "But eventually, once it is bedded in, we should be able to have horses trained on it, then we can have it conditioned and trial that same day then, theoretically, you could condition it and race the next day.
"A lot of people have worked to get us to this stage and we are thankful we have a Racing Minister in Winston Peters who cares enough about the industry."
While the track could be in full training use by August, the Cambridge facility will need some other work, including resource consents, before the Polytrack can be used for actual race meetings.
The new track will not be programmed for major or Saturday race meetings but for predominantly mid-week or smaller meetings, termed industry meetings, in the winter months.
That will help take the work load off other northern tracks that struggle under wet conditions.
"First and foremost it is a training and trials track for the over 1000 horses we have in work here at Cambridge," says Campin.
"But we hope to race those type of race meetings here by May 2021, exactly how many per season we don't know yet.
"That will require some more work to bring the other facilities up to raceday standard. Things like television camera and stewards' towers, the jockeys room and we are looking into options now around how to look after racegoers.
"But we are not talking about big crowds for mid-week winter meetings.
"We had a huge number of horses at the trials here on Monday and the crowd would have been just as big as a mid-week race meeting in winter.
"But yes, we are working on plans at the moment to look after people who come along and, because a lot of the race meetings could be in winter, give them somewhere warm to enjoy the day."
The new track will be around 2000m with its sweeping bends having a camber of approximately six degrees which will provide more even transition into a shorter home straight than most New Zealand tracks because of restrictions imposed by the property boundaries.