12/11/2003 1:00AM

Forward ever, backward never

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HONG KONG - "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," the axiom goes. But if that is the case, why is the Hong Kong Jockey Club tinkering with its supremely successful, state-of-the-art facility at Sha Tin Racecourse?

Sunday's four Hong Kong International Races, worth a total of $7,728,000 in U.S. currency, will be run with a temporary paddock installed in front of a grandstand that can comfortably accommodate 55,000 people.

The reason for the temporary paddock - which, by the way, has been inserted onto the track apron so well that it looks as if it has been there since Sha Tin opened in 1978 - is that the HKJC is in the middle of a 14-month project to build a new paddock that will redefine the term "state of the art."

To be completed in time for the opening of Hong Kong's 2004-05 racing season in September, the new paddock will have a capacity of 4,700, more than the usual number of people who attend Belmont Park or Aqueduct on weekdays.

It will be six stories high and, believe it or not, it will be equipped with a retractable roof that can be opened or closed in eight minutes.

It will also have smaller version of the world's largest Diamond Vision screen, trackside at Sha Tin, enabling the new facility to be used for other events like the Hong Kong International Sale, which is currently held at a convention center in ultra-congested downtown Hong Kong.

"Progress is our most important product" was a slogan popularized by General Electric in the 1950's. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, like their forward-looking cousins in the Japan Racing Association, know a thing or two about progress.

They realize that not making changes until they are absolutely necessary is a form of treading water, and that it is an exercise that inevitably leads to backsliding.

HKJC executive director of racing Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges will unveil other innovations, too.

"On Sunday, with a capacity crowd on hand, we will have a trial run of our new sectional timing system, which we call 'STRIDE,' " he said.

"Each jockey will have a small transponder tag placed in their helmet. As they pass one of the 31 strategically placed radio frequency receivers on the racetrack, their location will be calculated to within 10 centimeters."

This will enable the HKJC's timers to produce what it believes will be the most accurate sectional times in the world.

Produced by the Hong Kong Jockey Club in partnership with an Israeli-based company called Orad, STRIDE is an acronym for Sectional Timing, Racing Information, Dynamic Entertainment. As the sectional times for each horse are recorded, the results will be posted almost instantaneously on Sha Tin's huge Diamond Vision screen, thus enabling fans without binoculars, or close access to a television screen, to see exactly where each horse is at every stage of a race.

It is all rather breathtaking, but then, isn't that exactly what horseracing is supposed to do? Take your breath away? That's what the Hong Kong Jockey Club is in business for.

With an expected $9.2 billion in handle in 2003, both ontrack and offtrack, from only 78 days of racing at Sha Tin and Happy Valley, the HKJC knows how to keep their customers wanting more and more and more.