We recently caught up with Liam O’Keeffe, the Senior Manager of Flemington Racecourse. In his role, Liam is charged with maintaining the quality, condition and upkeep of our world-famous track, which is one of the racing world’s very best. In the following Q&A, Liam talks about all it takes to maintain this standard, some of the challenges he faces each season — and his thoughts when he saw the heavens open the morning of the 2018 Lexus Melbourne Cup!
There were extensive renovations done last year to the track, that you oversaw. Can you give us an overview of what was undertaken last year, and why?
Sure. We mow the track down to 60mm, sweep up the grass, and then hollow tine core the track at 80 x 80mm spacings to a depth just below the thatch. We sweep up the cores and remove them, then top dress the track with the exact same sand that is in the track currently. We then verti-drain the entire track to a depth of 190mm, brush the sand into those holes, oversow the track with Perennial Ryegrass and Kentucky Bluegrass and then fertilise according to our soil reports. Finally we irrigate and let the track rest from there and recover.
How often would you undertake major works such as this?
Every 6 months following both our Carnivals - so straight after our November Carnival and straight after our March Autumn Carnival we conduct a full renovation on the course proper.
How different is your work slate this year from last? What was it like last year heading straight from Carnival into major track works?
It’s different this year in that we race in December on the 15th and the 22nd — whereas last year we had a full 7-week break leading into New Year's Day.
We haven’t altered our renovation as such because the renovation is so important to us to provide a world class racing surface that is able to handle heavy rainfall — such as Lexus Melbourne Cup Day where we received 52mm of rainfall and were still able to conduct the race meeting! So it’s really imperative that we renovate the track. The renovation last year is exactly the same as the renovation we’ve done this year.
With so much ground to cover (literally) what was the scale of the project? How many people were involved and what are some of the key stats e.g. materials used, machinery etc.
The course proper is 10 hectares. We engage contractors to come out for renovation works - it takes 10 semi trailers to bring over 25 machines to renovate the track in 48 hours. There’s 12 people operating the machines and 300 cubic metres of sand top dressed on to the track, which is the equivalent of 3mm across the entire 10 hectare racecourse.
How long did the project take to complete in its entirety? What were the major milestones within that?
On the Sunday we mow it down and remove the running rail. The renovation is done in 48 hours on Monday and Tuesday with the contractors, and we fertilise late on Tuesday afternoon. Then obviously water Tuesday night and let it recover for a month.
What were you aiming to achieve when undertaking this work? How did you know if you were successful?
We renovate the track to ensure first of all can continue to drain well. And what stops it draining well and also what inhibits good regrowth is the thatch layer in the turf. That’s what we aim to reduce or maintain at each renovation period.
Our thatch levels or root depth are put up on a graph to see how renovations are working and if we need to adjust anything to correct any imbalances.
The thatch (can) slow down your drainage so if we didn’t renovate the track, we wouldn’t have raced Melbourne Cup Day. All races would have been abandoned!
By reducing the thatch in the profile, and the top dressing of the sand, it breaks down that thatch and allows the water to penetrate through the sand profile so that we don’t have surface water across the track.
We’re growing grass out of its natural habitat; it’s not used to growing in sand. It’s used to growing in a nice, loamy soil that’s very rich — but obviously we want a track we can race on all year round and in any weather condition, so it takes a lot of maintenance to ensure that it can perform well on race day.
It was unbelievable to see the recovery on Lexus Melbourne Cup Day after so much rain…
It was, and not a lot of people would think about it, but to me it just comes back to renovation, and how everything we’re doing is working really well. People wouldn’t know that if we didn’t do this sort of work, we wouldn’t have raced — simple as that!
How does this type of track work ensure Flemington is a world class racing venue? Is there anything special about the track itself, that sets it apart from others around the world?
Two main things: Sydney, for example, their tracks are very old, and have an old, heavier profile that is prone to getting wet fairly easily. So here [Flemington] we’re built to cope with the rainfall.
Secondly, it would be very hard to turn an old track around to get it to drain really well, because you haven’t got the profile to work with. So if they (Sydney) had done our renovation on their track, they probably wouldn’t get as big a bang for their buck because they’re not our natural sand profile. They would probably need to rebuild the track, and then carry on with these renovation practices to really get it draining well.
Roughly how old is our track, was it a rebuild that was done with current sand approach?
Our track was rebuilt in 2006, with the rebuild we brought in the sand that was able to withstand heavy rainfall and it’s why we race on good tracks almost all year round.
We are a proud bunch at the VRC and many, including yourself and your team, devote a lot of hard work, time and effort behind the scenes to ensure everything’s just right for our racedays. Can you share with us what it’s like to stand back at the beginning of Carnival, and see all that you and your team have achieved?
Melbourne Cup Day was one of those once-every-ten-year events that you can get with extreme weather. So to see the ground staff work so hard over the week to get the track back to a state where we actually had to irrigate it the night before Stakes Day — that was unbelievable. We’re very fortunate to have such a nice track to work with, a really supportive board that really allow us to carry out the works we do on the track, to ensure the track can perform at its peak on race day.
Taking the moment in, the hard work we’ve done, I always try to stand in front of the stands before the Cup to really get a feel of the crowd as the horses are moving in to the barriers, it’s certainly a big buzz and then it’s quiet and you get goose bumps. That sort of period there really makes the job worthwhile - I couldn’t be happier with how the Carnival went.
Any hot tips for this Saturday (Dec 22)?
Flemington trained horses have performed really well over the Carnival and I’d expect the trend to continue.
Don’t miss the fun at Flemington this Saturday. Book your tickets here or purchase at the gate on raceday.