Standing at the entrance to Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, Australia is a majestic bronze statue of one of the country's greatest sporting icons. Indeed, there is a case for saying that he is the most famous sporting legend of all in a country that is awash with sports stars. For, as far as we know, he is the only one who has been stuffed and has become the main attraction at the city's museum - and has been for the last seventy years.
Although foaled in New Zealand, Phar Lap is described as Australia's wonder horse. He triumphed during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, he conquered the local racing scene - 36 wins from his last 41 starts - and then won North America's richest race, the Agua Caliente Handicap, in 1932.
He strolled in to win the 1930 Melbourne Cup, starting at 11/8 on, the shortest priced winner in the 145 year history of the race.
He died a fortnight after winning the Agua Caliente, struck down by a mystery illness that many suspected was the result of gangland rivalry. The horse had previously escaped a death attempt prior to the 1930 Melbourne Cup when he was shot by local gangsters.
Of such heroics and intrigue legends are made.
So, it was, suitably impressed, that I made my first ever journey past the statue and into the impressive Flemington Racecourse, considered by many to be the premier racetrack in the Southern Hemisphere. Accompanying me on my visit was Bruce Stephens, of Anco Turf. He had arranged our meeting with Track and Operations Manager, Mick Goodie, which was taking place just two days after the course's most prestigious event.
The Spring Carnival is one of the world's premier horse racing festivals, with the feature race, the Melbourne Cup, with first prize money of A$5 million (£2.25 million), attracting top horses from across the globe.
There are four days of racing over an eight day period, with the Cup itself being staged on the first Tuesday in November. For the city of Melbourne the day is an official public holiday, and a crowd of 120,000 packs into the racecourse whilst millions watch the event on television.
This time last year the course was undergoing a major refurbishment, which included a complete track rebuild, its first since the racecourse was established 160 years ago.
In issue 13 of our magazine we had a report from Bruce on Anco's supply and laying of the 125,000 square metres of turf required for the new track and other areas around the course. The turf was a mix of kikuyu, ryegrasses and Kentucky bluegrass, meticulously prepared at the turf farm before being cut and trucked into the course. As per the specification of the course owners, the Victorian Racing Club, the turf for the track (100,000 sq m) was supplied in 1.4 x 0.6 metre rolls, and all laid by hand! No big roll or machine laying was allowed. Unsurprisingly, the track turfing alone took in excess of two months.
On our walking tour of the track, one of my first questions to Mick and Bruce was whether the track renovation had been free of problems. There was a moment's hesitation followed by a loud laugh from Mick and an unequivocal "No, it wasn't."
"It didn't all go to plan but, on a job this big, it never does," he continued. "We had four major contractors working here at the same time. The place looked like a bomb site with mountains of 7mm blue stone and soil profile. One of the issues was doing the work during the Christmas and New Year period, the peak of our summer, with some very hot days. There was tension there sometimes but, in the end, it worked out well."
"The renovation was well overdue," he added. "The old track was well past its use by date; it was pretty tough maintaining it sometimes. Over the years a lot of work had been done to different sections, so there were different profiles we were trying to work with. When it came down to fertilisers and watering it was, let's say, challenging, because you had different profiles and drying capacities."
The renovation work to the course cost A$25m (£11.25m), almost half of which was spent on the track itself. The other work included the building of state of the art horse stalls and parade ring, a tunnel to connect the parade ring to the mounting yard, a flood wall and a stunning winning post (alone costing A$500,000).
The turf was laid on 300mm of a specialist soil profile designed so that it would retain 9% moisture. "The soil came from Nyora in Gippsland (approximately three hours drive south west of Melbourne)," explained Mick. "We did a lot of testing during the reconstruction; we tested all the material in and out, twice, and if it didn't comply it was rejected. A third of the material was rejected and had to be reblended; so, it was costly but, in the long run, it will prove to be cheap."
Under the soil profile is 100mm of bluestone and below that a total of 25km of herring bone drainage. These feed into a collector drain that has a pumped storm water system attached. The previous system relied on gravity and the course was at the mercy of the river level to drain in the event of flooding. "All the drainage runs across the track at a 45 degree angle, so any rain falling from the outside of the track has got to cross four drains to reach the collector drain on the inside," Mick continued. "In the new track we have also designed in a fall of 1.5% in the home straight, 4.5 % on the first bend, 2% on back straight, and 2.5%/3.5%/2.5% transitional on the top turn, which also evens out the running for the horses, particularly on the bends."
Mick has over 25 years of racetrack expertise behind him, working for the Melbourne Racing Club before moving to Flemington in 2002. I suggested that the track will be a fitting legacy to pass on to future generations (one of whom was accompanying us on the walkabout, Craig Isaacs, the Trainee track manager). Mick didn't agree, "The drainage and profile is spot on, so that's ok, but I reckon after ten years we will need to re-turf; it would just be a case of tickling up the top to get the root system going, there's a lot of organic matter in there that will blend up and grow with the new material. I would never advocate re-seeding, I tried that once in about 1989, it was just a disaster. It's a cheap man's way of doing things. I know sometimes there's a budget you have to work with, but it does allow a lot of poa in very quickly. I really believe the way forward for these major tracks is to strip the turf off every ten to twelve years. They need to allocate the money to do it the right way."
And did the new track perform well, did it live up to the high expectations?
"To be honest, the track probably exceeded our expectations," said Mick proudly. "There were winners coming from the middle of the track, the outside and the rails. We had two meetings before the Carnival - the first one in September, we thought it would cut up, but it didn't, so we were surprised then. At the second meeting in October, we thought it would race really well, but they raced out wide for some reason, and we got a bit of a battering. So, leading into the Carnival, we didn't know what to expect, but to the track's and staff's credit, who've done a lot of work in the last month, it raced really well."
The day after the first day's racing, Melbourne was hit by a freak thunderstorm, dropping 28mm of rain on the course in less than twenty four hours. I asked Mick if there had been any concerns about its affect on the track just two days before the Melbourne Cup itself. "I don't think there was any stage did we doubt that the track would be alright," was the response. The going on the day was officially declared good.
"In fact, we applied 6mm of water during the night following Cup day, as part of our planned maintenance," he continued. "We mowed between race days at 100mm, we used the heavy roller on the Wednesday and Friday, applied irrigation of 6mm on Cup and Oaks nights (Tuesday and Thursday) and another 3mm on Friday night before the last day's racing."
Mick has 26 full-time groundstaff. At this time of the year, leading into the summer, six of them are working at night just on track irrigation. In addition to the main track there are two further grass training tracks on the inside, which takes four of the team to water those, and the other two are watering the artificial tracks.
The grass tracks, for the time being, are irrigated direct from the mains supply, whilst the water for the artificial tracks comes from the Maribyrnong river which borders the complete back straight. In the past the course has suffered flooding and racing has had to be abandoned.
"In fact," continued Mick, "In September we completed a two year build of a stone flood defence wall, a metre wide, two metres high in places and around 2km in length; and each stone was laid by hand. "The new drainage system, coupled with the flood wall, has effectively flood proofed the track and will ensure racing can continue in any weather."
Mick has strong views on how a racecourse should be irrigated. "We've got a 30 metre boom irrigator, towed by a tractor. I don't use sprinklers, I refuse to use them," he emphasised. "I started using boom irrigators in 1993 and have used them ever since. I can control exactly the amount of water that's going on the track, it doesn't matter where the wind is I can just offset it. Some of the older automated sprinklers lose their strength towards the end, and can start putting 6mm on but finish putting on 8mm."
During Carnival week Mick's staffing levels are increased to 67. "We have a good relationship with the guys at two neighbouring tracks, Greg Barker at Mooney Valley and Paul Downes at Werribee. They have a week's holiday at their place to come here to help out. Their experience and know how is invaluable."
And what about maintenance work on race days itself? "Forty or so of the team were out on the track doing repairs between races, putting divots back and so on," explained Mick. "But, to be honest, there wasn't a lot to do. There were a few deep scars, but these were repaired with special tools we've had made. We push it into the ground where there is damaged turf, remove a plug eight to ten inches deep, then replace it with another plug using the fresh turf from the inside of the track."
As part of the course renovation, a special turf nursery area was created, it was laid with the same turf mix and the same soil profile to allow for repairs to the track. "It's only been down seven months and there is no need for me to rush this area," Mick added. "I know that may sound silly when we raced on a track that was only six months old, but that was out of necessity, this isn't, so I can be a bit more patient with this."
So, post Carnival, is it burning the midnight oil for Mick and his team to get the track back into condition? Not exactly, as he explained, "The last race on Saturday was at quarter past 5. By the time we'd cleared everything from the track it was half past 5; at 6 o'clock we began mowing to 50mm, that finished at 2.00am and then we handed over to our contractor, McMahons, who came in on Sunday morning at 6.00am. They brought in seven operators, three coring machines and four de-thatchers (scarifiers). The corers were finished at 2.00pm and the scarifiers at 3.30pm - job done."
"We hire in to get the immediate renovation work done straight after the meeting," explained Mick. "If we did the work ourselves it would take a week; to get a contractor in to do it, it takes one day. Time is important, with the amount of racing we do, so the quicker we get the major renovation work done the better. We used to do it ourselves, and the guys loved doing it, but it is just the time factor after the Carnival. All the repair and renovation work throughout the rest of the year - dethatching, vertdraining, anything - we do ourselves."
And so, for Mick and his team, and Bruce for that matter, the 2007 Melbourne Spring Carnival was an unqualified success. All the upheaval, stress and agonising had paid off. Mick modestly underplayed the outstanding achievements of everyone involved with his final comment, "It's a long week, but rewarding when it goes well."
It would have been fitting to get an independent view from a local horse racing legend but, as the only one I was aware of was in Melbourne museum and incapable of commenting, for more reasons than one, I opted for someone current and quotable.
"I was very impressed, it's a big galloping track, with super consistency throughout the ground. There are not many better tracks in the world; if there are any, I can't think of them." Irish trainer, Aidan O'Brien, whose runner, Mahler, was one of the Melbourne Cup pre-race favourites, and finished third.