Galloping ahead

14 December 2021 Written by Michael Manley

Flemington cemented its position as one of Australia’s premier training centres when it opened its new synthetic training track at the start of spring.

Flemington’s track manager Liam O’Keeffe said the opening of the new track, called Gallop Track, continued the VRC’s commitment to its trainers to provide the best possible training surfaces for their horses.

Opened at the end of August, it has given the 20 trainers based at Flemington another exceptional track option to work the 600 horses trained there.

Trainers love the Gallop Track surface as it represents the latest chapter in the evolution and improvement of synthetic tracks. 

O’Keeffe explained the make-up of the surface was different to other synthetic tracks and would lead to a more consistent and safe surface year-round for horses to gallop on.

“It’s a synthetic surface made up of sand and emulsions, which is an oily, wax type material that binds the material together. There are some fibres in that sand that soften the footing,” O’Keeffe said.

High-quality sand sourced from a You Yangs quarry is used, which is another one of the improvements.

“It’s a beautifully coloured sand and it will give a nice cushiony surface for the horses to gallop on.”

Currently, Flemington trainers have the option of galloping their horses on ten different training tracks.

“Eight of them are sand or synthetic tracks and the other two are grass training tracks,” explained O’Keeffe.

“It provides trainers with a lot of opportunities to work on different courses for their horses. Horses can stay nice and fresh on different training tracks without doing the same thing every day,” he said

The new Gallop Track has replaced the old Pro-Ride track.

O’Keeffe said over its 11 years the Pro-Ride track had done a great job, withstanding more than 200,000 gallops, but during that time the surface particles had become finer and the fibre had worn away.

Synthetic tracks became popular in Australia about 15 years ago as an alternative to grass tracks, which were being over-used and needed time to recover.

O’Keeffe said one of the advantages of the synthetic track was that it gave horses consistent footing.

“That’s what the synthetic surface provides underneath with the fibre and the oil and the wax. It also allows a high volume of workload to be performed on the track.”

Synthetic tracks have slowly evolved from basic fibre sand tracks to surfaces that now contain different types of oils.

“They’ve gradually improved and improved as science has gotten better and they will continue to. Also, we’ve got feedback from trainers on what they think and that’s also been important.”

O’Keeffe said injury rates with gallopers had fallen due to the synthetic tracks. “At the volume and the speed that horses go, you will always have injuries so we’re always trying to improve our maintenance programs to reduce this.”

“As time has gone on there have been less and less injuries due to the great new tracks and the products we have to maintain them. We also take feedback from the trainers, the riders and the vets as to what we can do better.”

O’Keeffe said track maintenance was the most important role of his staff, which is made up of 25 full-time workers, and a handful of casuals.

“It’s certainly the largest part of our working week that is spent maintaining all of the tracks.

“Each morning we go and measure all the surfaces. We get feedback from all the trainers and riders on how the tracks are riding. All of the tracks require different maintenance at all times of the year and we try to present them at 100 per cent every day in any type of weather condition.”

O’Keeffe said the synthetic tracks require a lot of maintenance during winter when the weather is colder as the track firms up and conversely when it is hot in summer it tended to soften up.

The new Gallop Track, however, is designed to handle these weather scenarios.

Supervising the installation and laying of the Flemington Gallop Track is Ian Pearse, known as the father of synthetic surfaces in Australia.

2021 has proven to be a momentous one for Pearse as he received a kidney transplant at the start of the year.

After his health improved Pearse decided to get back into building synthetic tracks and he started a new company called Gallop Track.

Pearse was the founder of Pro-Ride, the company that introduced synthetic tracks to Australia, but due to his ill health, he sold out of the business.

Pearse said he has loved being involved in the installation of the Flemington track.

“We see the opportunity as really exciting to be able to get back into the industry after five years off. We’ve done a few renovations at Newcastle, Lindsay Park and now the new track at Flemington.

“I’ve taken the best out of what we did in Pro-Ride and I know where some of the weaknesses were so then we’ve inculcated some other technology into it. We only use a small amount of wax – we’re more of a polymer-based binding system.”

“With the Gallop Track, we’ve created a system where under colder temperatures surfaces stay more flexible. We’ve added some UV stabilisers into it, so it’s got better resistance to heat and more stable under heat, but is more flexible when it’s cold.”

For Flemington’s Gallop Track he said the new sand type they had sourced was a lot cleaner, which would assist in lower compaction of the surface and result in a more consistent performance over a longer period.

“We’re a little bit more stable than other surfaces. We make them a little bit firmer which leads to more sure footing and a more stable surface.”

Installing the new track, which is 2100 metres by 7.5 metres in circumference, and replacing the old track was a $1.6 million project funded by Racing Victoria and the VRC.

The VRC allocated the entire old Pro-Ride track to other training establishments, which O’Keeffe had been an enjoyable and satisfying project to work on.

“Firstly, we gave the local trainers the chance to use it for their properties and some have used it on their training farms,” O’Keeffe said.

“After that, it’s been split. A portion went to Godolphin to use at its stud farm for mating barns, stallions and mares. We also donated some to the Riding For The Disabled at Pakenham which will help them build a new arena for the students to be able to ride on.”

O’Keeffe said Jamie Kah had also taken a portion of it to use at her dressage area and Lauriston Park pre-training centre at Corinella had also taken a portion of the Pro-Ride track.

Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Mike Moroney said he viewed the installation of the Gallop Track as a continuation of the VRC’s commitment to Flemington as a training centre.

“There are so many options for a trainer to use. There are so many tracks to use and the best thing about it is they are big spacious tracks.

“They are also well marshalled. Everything is railed and there’s the tunnel for the horses to use to get to and from the track. It ticks all the boxes.”

Fellow Melbourne Cup-winning local trainer Danny O’Brien said the VRC made training a priority, especially since Neil Wilson became chief executive and Steve Rosich was continuing that legacy.

“Training’s a priority for the VRC. We’re lucky to be using a world-class facility,” he said.

O’Brien said the installation of the Gallop Track only enhanced Flemington as a training base.

He said the other key aspect of training at Flemington was the excellent track supervision and management of it by Liam O’Keeffe and his team.

In fact, he is confident that Flemington trainers enjoy great success because of this excellent training facility.