STORMING AHEAD

TRACKS & TRADES TEAM (@flemingtonvrc

10 June 2020


Flemington awash

In 1974 flood levels in the Maribyrnong River rose rapidly after 350mm of rain fell in a 48 hour period, rendering the racecourse completely under water. It also forced the evacuation of 200 who were stabled on-course and in training. Fortunately it was not during spring, as the tracks and grounds took months to recover.

On Melbourne Cup day 1976, a storm of biblical proportions broke out at Flemington just hours before Australia’s most famous race was due to be run. The crowd scattered, trying to find shelter as the worst of the deluge was unleashed across the grounds. With thousands in attendance to watch the biggest race of the year, shelter was limited and the majority settled in to get an inevitable drenching.

Those who looked for suitable wet-track form in the field and found noted New Zealand horse, the eventual Cup winner Van Der Hum, were at least able to afford the dry cleaning bills for their soaked suits and dresses.

The 1992 Melbourne Cup was also a wet one, with Subzero relishing the conditions, as the legendary grey claimed victory.

There were other moments in Melbourne Cup history that were nearly washed out, too. The 1870 Melbourne Cup went ahead but was postponed due to wet weather, as was the 1916 race. Inclement weather also nearly caused the postponement of the 1993 Cup, the year that Vintage Crop became the first overseas-trained horse to win, heralding the beginning of the internationalisation of the race. Had this date been changed and Vintage Crop not won, the course of history may have not been altered that day.

Most recently as 2018, Cup day was awash as 57mm of rain fell between 8am and 12.30pm. Thankfully it was not raining for the Cup, and the track was rated a Soft 6 for the big race, testament to the track’s ability to drain quickly due.  

Super Saturday 2010 saw another wild storm lash Flemington, with more than 40 millimetres of rain falling in just 10 minutes. The storm that swept across Melbourne that day was described by meteorologists as a once in a 150-year event. Flash flooding turned many city streets into raging torrents, bringing traffic to a halt and causing chaos in the public transport system. The track at Flemington was covered in a thick blanket of hail and, in parts, was completely sodden due to the deluge, so a decision to abandon the program was made. It was one not taken lightly for a day as significant as Super Saturday, but in such conditions the safety of horse and rider was the VRC’s paramount concern.

Events such as these cannot be prevented, but every precaution is taken to ensure the track remains in the best condition. In the 2006 redevelopment, a 2km floodwall was installed: these are rock-filled walls, which have a compacted clay core to provide the watertight seal.

In this refurbishment the track was also revamped. Stripped down to a depth of 500mm, a new base was created by using some of the old track’s sand along with a combination of lime and other materials. Drains were installed and a 100mm drainage layer added. More than 25km of agricultural drains run across the track and these feed into a drain that has a pumped stormwater system attached, with five pumping stations. The drainage system ensures racing can continue in any weather. The Flemington wetlands were also installed in 2006, landscaped beside the Straight Six track. Naturally at the lowest point on the course, where water could be collected after a heavy rainfall, the wetlands reduce flooding in other areas.

Flemington Track Manager Liam O’Keeffe credits the rebuilding of the track in 2006 with creating the spectacular surface we have today. With the meticulous care and maintenance he and his team bestow on the turf, including a full renovation post-Spring and Autumn carnivals, it ensures its the best and safest surface. “This season we’ve already had 475mm of rain,” said O’Keeffe at the start of this winter. “The rain is welcome but we just don’t hope it falls on race day.” Every Sunday after a race meeting, divots are removed, holes are filled in with sand and seed and the running rail is moved, among other maintenance to get the track back to its best. 

Mudlarks

Subzero’s record showed that he was suited to a wet track – he won his three Group 1s on soft tracks. Horses like Subbie, who do well on soft and heavy tracks, attract the nickname of ‘mudlark’. Some other notable ones are the aforementioned Van der Hum, Rough Habit, Sunline, Sacred Falls, Winx and recently, Jungle Edge. 

Wet-weather guide: track ratings

Racing Australia has a track-grading system that assigns a numerical rating to a track, according to how wet or dry it is.

  1. Firm. Dry hard track
  2. Firm. Firm track with reasonable grass coverage
  3. Good. Track with good grass coverage and cushion
  4. Good. Track with some give in it
  5. Soft. Track with a reasonable amount of give in it
  6. Soft. Moist but not a badly affected track
  7. Soft. Rain affected track that will chop out
  8. Heavy. Rain affected track that horses will get into
  9. Heavy. Wet track getting into a squelchy area
  10. Heavy. Heaviest category track, very wet, towards saturation

For further information about track preparation guidelines, visit Racing Victoria.