Last year was Liam O'Keeffe's first year in charge as senior racecourse manager at Flemington for the Melbourne Cup Carnival. In article's from Volume 20.5 (Septemeber-October 2018) and Volume 20.6 (Novemeber-Decemeber 2018) of the ATM we looked into the lead up and results of his hard work.
What happens when a young lad grows up in Warrnambool, is more interested in outdoor activities than schoolwork and has a particular liking for golf and horse racing? Well, when the opportunity arises to undertake work experience in sports turf management one day a week at the Warrnambool Racecourse, the die is pretty much cast.
Such was the beginning for Liam O’Keeffe’s involvement in the ‘sport of kings’ and it’s fair to say in the years subsequent he has made, pardon the pun, every post a winner.
Getting the jump
Provision of the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning program enabled study of a trade of choice.
After working casually at Warrnambool Racing Club while completing his apprenticeship in 2007, O’Keeffe was promoted to leading hand. The following year he was promoted to assistant racecourse manager while completing his Diploma of Sports Turf Management through The Gordon TAFE which he achieved in 2010.
O’Keeffe would later be named as one of five finalists in the then AGCSA Academic Achievement Award sponsored by PGG Wrightson, alongside the likes of now Adelaide Oval curator Damian Hough and current AGCSATech agronomist (and eventual winner) Tim Fankhauser.
In October 2013, O’Keeffe departed Warrnambool after accepting the role of assistant racecourse manager at the VRC under Goodie.
Moving from a regional track to ‘Headquarters’, as Flemington is affectionately known, was quite an adjustment and O’Keeffe admits it took him a good 18 months to adjust to the Flemington style working alongside Goodie and foreman Tim McSweeney.
Then in March this year, Goodie departed after more than a decade in charge and O’Keeffe was thrust into the senior role with the prospect of his first Spring Carnival in charge just nine months out.
Flemington is a vast and very busy racing complex with activities going on 24/7 throughout the year. The facility comprises a total of 10 tracks, including:
Flemington hosts 25 race meetings each year with the Spring Carnival and, to a lesser extent, the Autumn Carnival, being the feature events. Track renovations take place twice a year after each carnival and the type of renovation is based on annual benchmarking reports (i.e.: thatch and Poa annua levels) and also governed by the length of break after the carnivals (read more below on the upcoming renos post Spring Carnival week).
Recovery after each race meet is pretty standard. A Toro Rak-o-Vac will go out to sweep up any loose debris, with staff then repairing the track via filling (using a seed/sand mix) or sodding.
Depending on the length of break between meets and the race schedule, that will determine other practices such as cutting heights and fertiliser/water applications (desalinated water is used on all the tracks).
“The main challenge we face here at Flemington is uniformly applying irrigation in windy conditions for nine months of the year,” says O’Keeffe.
“This is difficult because of the ‘straight racing’ factor and horse training hours and is something that I have not encountered at any other racecourse. Flemington is one of only two ‘straight racing’ courses in Australia (the other is Pinjarra in WA) and until you are exposed to preparing a track to host straight races it can be very hard to describe and very tricky to manage.
Up until the morning of the Cup, the Spring Carnival had gotten off to a great start. Derby Day on Saturday had run without incident, with the track starting out at a Good 4 rating before being upgraded to a Good 3. The track pulled up well and staff put the rail out to 2m from its ‘true’ position in readiness for the Cup.
In the weeks leading up to the Spring Carnival it had been warm and dry and in the week before Derby Day O’Keeffe had chucked out 34mm of irrigation across the Course Proper, a lot for that time of year.
The Bureau of Meteorology had forecast rain for the Monday and Tuesday (Cup day) so after Derby Day had concluded O’Keeffe gave the course a light drink to keep it ticking along.
Come Monday, the forecast for rain had been pushed back, so O’Keeffe put out 5mm that night to ensure the track was at the optimum Good 4 rating come inspection at 5am on Cup Day. Four hours later the rain set in and it didn’t abate.
In total the Flemington track would cop 51mm in four hours up until Race 4, with the track quickly going from a Good 4 down to a Heavy 8. With surface water on the track and jockey visibility an issue, it was a stressful time for everyone – stewards, jockeys, owners, trainers as well as O’Keeffe and his track staff.
“The forecast was for only 5mm-10mm, so to get 51mm in four hours was a big surprise,” reflects O’Keeffe. “It’s the biggest fall I’ve experienced during a race meet since I have been at Flemington. We have had rain like that before but not during a race day.
“Originally there was rain forecast from 11pm on Monday which meant we could have held off putting water out. But when I spoke to the Bureau at 2.30pm on Monday they had pushed that forecast back to 8am on Tuesday which was too late.
We have to have the track ready to go at 5am on the day to meet Racing Victoria guidelines to have it at a Good 3 for the majority of the day. To meet those guidelines we put had to put out 5mm of irrigation on Monday night.
“The track was rated at a Good 4 when we did our inspection, but then the rain started. We got 4.2mm in about 20 minutes around 7.30am before there was a break in the weather. I thought, ‘This is going to work out absolutely perfectly’, but then at 9am the heavy rain set in and remained steady for the next four hours.
“The track needed just half an hour for the surface water to get through the thatch and into the sand profile. Once it did that we knew the track would be okay.
Unfortunately we couldn’t just stop racing because the Melbourne Cup has to be run at 3pm to meet commercial broadcasting rights.
“If it was a normal race meet we probably would have just stopped for 90 minutes and then started again, but we didn’t have that luxury. They delayed the start of the earlier races by 10 minutes which was as much as they could.
They had to keep pushing through and hope that the weather cleared which luckily it did after Race 4.
“The track performed unbelievably well and once it had a chance to absorb all the rain it went back up to a Soft 6 at the end of the day which was a great result. I guess it was a blessing in disguise that we had such a dry lead up to the Carnival, because the subsoil would have been bone dry and it really would have sucked up that first inch of rain which held us in good stead for the next inch that came along.”
Under the headline ‘O’Keeffe the unsung hero of Cup week’, Racing.com correspondent James Tzaferis wrote: “When more than 50mm of rain – most of it unpredicted – fell in the lead-up to the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday morning, there were plenty of grim looks and plenty of nervous chatter around Flemington… It would have been an impossible task for most tracks and many curators. But not for Liam O’Keeffe and his track staff at Flemington.
“In his first Melbourne Cup Carnival in charge of the hallowed turf, O’Keeffe was the unsung hero and prepared a track that was the subject of high praise from jockeys, trainers and, importantly, punters all week. On the biggest stage, when the world was watching, O’Keeffe and his team delivered a world class track.”
“It was a big week and I definitely learned a few lessons, but I wouldn’t change much for next year. It was just one of those weeks where you had to roll with what the weather dealt us and trust in the structures and procedures in place to set us in good stead, which they did.”
ATM wishes to thank the Australian Racecourse Managers Association (ARMA), Arthur Stubbs and Liam O’Keeffe for allowing the publication of this article. This article has been adapted from an article of the same name that was first published in the September 2018 edition of ‘Courses for Horses’, the ARMA’s official publication (‘The Boy from the ‘Bool’, p18-21).