An All-Weather Creek
With racing loosing thousands of pounds every time heavy rain falls, we can probably learn a lot from the record of Brisbane's much-loved all-weather track. With a big outlay, too!
Now, if ever, Sydney must get its all-weather race track, or at least an all-weather race track, or at least an all-weather training track. The catastrophic losses of the past wet season should convince all but the most sceptical that if it can be done, it should be. Stake losses alone are placed at £60,000, and that is only a fraction of the total.
The energetic George Ruder has spearheaded a move for a training track on the American model, made mainly of a loan composition on complicated formula. However, it might not be necessary to go that far.
Brisbane has had an all-weather track for 70 years – the one and only "Creek", or, to five its official title, Albion Park. In all that time, rain alone has never caused the slightest concern. Only floods can stop it.
There is nothing complicated about the Creek. The galloping surface is simply fine sand.
Its admirers claim that it is better than the American dirt tracks, and has great advantages over grass tracks, even aside from its immunity rain damage.
Brisbane also has a dirt track, Deagon, now used only for training. Rueb Gray, inventor of the widely-used starting barrier, who knew American tracks well, pronounced it almost identical with them, but it is not ranked as highly in Brisbane as the Creek.
One man who really knows the sand track is Steve Kelly, course manager and starter for the Brisbane Amateur Turf Club, which controls it. He has had a lifetime of experience.
His father was caretaker there when Steve started work 50 years ago, and Steve has been associated with it ever since.
The main objection raised to any change in the present grass tracks in Sydney is the possible effect on the horses, particularly on their feet and legs.
Ryder has admitted that the American formula has some disadvantages here. "It is a bit harder on the horses than grass, but not much," he says. However, Kelly gave this point no support as far as Albion Park is concerned. "Why, cripples can race there better than on grass," he said.
This is undoubtedly true. Yet while the sand is kind to horses with leg weaknesses, might it not also cause chafing in some cases? What about the galloper who "gets down on his heels", for instance?
I put the question to Frank Davis. He should know; he has trained horses there for 32 years.
"Yes, horses with long pasterns do go down a bit," he said. "It is no bother, though; we just have shoes for them built up a bit, and then use bandages or gapes and cotton wool.
"It is a case for prevention rather than cure, because the trouble is hard to heal up, once started."
Frank has won races at many tracks with he Creekers, and makes an occasional raid on Sydney. The best horse he took down there was Prince Charming, who showed his quality with a close up third at Warwick Farm to Carioca and Silver Phantom. The Doncaster was his mission but in that race he bled, and had to be pulled up.
Steve Kelly believes that the reason cripples find the Creek so agreeable is the sandstone base on which the sand is laid. "It has a spring in it; you can feel the vibration when horses are galloping." He points out that much of Sydney is also built on sandstone.
Fine sieved sand is used, with a depth of 1 ½ to 2 inches, and there must be no clay in the base. The Creek, of course, has always been, in more senses that one, a "poor man's racecourse". It gives racing without frills. The appointments are sufficient, but they are for use rather than for ornament. In the early days it was built to provide cheap racing, which it did. Its present owners, the BATC, have not attempted to add any glamour – wisely, I think, because it just would not fit in.
However, this has perhaps tended to five it a lowly "image" in the minds of interstate racing men, and they react strongly against any suggestion that they should imitate it, although their objections are based on the surroundings rather than the galloping surface.
It is also the smallest of Australian metropolitan tracks, only 13 yards over six furlongs in circumference, another point held against it by racing traditionalists. The straight is just a furlong in length.
Because of its size and the sand surface, it is often regarded as dangerous. This is quite wrong. Bert Wolfe, now with the Melbourne Herald, was one who came to its defence when he was Chairman of Stipendiary Stewards in Brisbane. He produced figures to a Royal Commission showing it to be one of the safest of all tracks.
Steve Kelly goes further, and says it is the safest in the world. "Only one bow has ever been killed there, and that was Bobby Williamson, back in 1911 or 1912," he says.
Albion Park was certainly the "poor man's racecourse" back in the depression days. Hard by the city as it is, the punters not only walked home, in a way that has become a racing tradition, but they walked there, and among the small punters it kept racing alive in Brisbane in those dark days. It was also a lifesaver during the last war. With Brisbane practically an armed camp, both the other courses, Doomben and Eagle Farm, were under military occupation, and all the racing was done at the Creek, and all the training, too.
They would gallop 400 horses there on the course proper in the morning, and race on it in the afternoon, and the sand would be as good at the finish as at the start.
It was made a sand track in the first place because nothing else was possible. It was part of a tidal swamp. Even now, tides are one of its problems, and it has four floodgates to control them. Although rain alone cannot stop racing there, a combination of heavy rain and a big tide can.
The man who constructed it in 1893 was a contractor named Thomas O'Shea. It began its move into the big time in January, 1910, when it was taken over by the one and only John Wren, from Melbourne.
John's first experience with his new purchases would have daunted anyone with less of the gambler in him. The admission was 2.6d, and there were 20 paying customers. "When do the people start to come?" he asked his lieutenant, and received the chilling answer. "They're here." Tote turnover for the day was £90.
His reaction was typical. "I'll make it good," he announced, and added that he was prepared to spend £100,000.
It had cost him £33,000 to buy, and, in fact, he spent £12,000 more. His first move was to increase the stakes. The previous owners had offered stakes from £7/10/- to £15, with one special race during the year of £100. John offered a £500 stake every couple of meetings, and in June of 1910 put on a £2000 race.
The response was quick. It started paying him dividends in 1912, and eventually proved to be perhaps the best investment he ever made.
It has proved, too, to be a money-spinner for the BATC, who took it over from Wren. It was money earned at Albion Park which enabled them later to lease and eventually buy Doomben from the Wren estate.
Low maintenance costs are the secret. Mr Kelly estimates that a sand track costs about one-third less to lay down than grass, but in maintenance costs there is just no comparison. Sand track maintenance is practically nil.
Provided there is no clay in the base or the material, all it needs is an occasional harrowing. On race days, or when a lot of horses are working on it, it is smoothed over from time to time.
The greatest saving of all is in training. Other metropolitan courses must have a number of tracks for early morning work, but the Creek has none. It is all done on the course proper.
Of course, tradition in Brisbane has it that some horses can race well at the Creek and some can't, although Steve Kelly will have none of this. He claims that any good horse can win there.
It is true that there have been champions where who could not win elsewhere, but probably the size and shape of the track, rather than the surface, account for these "specialists" – aside from the cripples, who can no longer gallop comfortably on grass tracks. It is, of course, no good to the awkward, long-striding horse who cannot handle the sharp turns.
Greatest of all the Creekers, in Kelly's estimation, was Amberdown. "He could go to Sydney or any track in Brisbane and win," he said.
"I suppose you would have to include Auction in any list," he added. "He beat all the good sprinters of the time in the Doomben Newmarket, which was run at Albion Park during the war. He won a Flying there once with 12 stone 6 lb. Venerable was another Creek champion."
To illustrate his point that any horse can gallop on sand, he mentions Ladomond. Trainer Tom Carroll prepared him there for a coup in the Hopeful Stakes, run at Eagle Farm, one of Brisbane's early two-year-old races. To keep him away from the touts, the colt never galloped on grass until the actual race, but he duly won.
Because of its smallness, the track does make demands on the quickness of the riders, and there have been some who have earned great reputations there. I asked Kelly who was the greatest.
"Well, this will be criticised, I know," he said. "But my pick would be Parky O'Neill, who rode about the time of the first World War. In recent times, Russell Maddock has been outstanding."
George Moore, Neville Sellwood and Noel McGrowdie, who afterwards made big reputations in the south and overseas, were successful Creek jockeys in their young days, and in Brisbane the track is regarded as the great training ground for riders.
The main obstacle to racing on sand, of course, is not he effect on the horse, but the blow to English tradition, always strong in Australia, and stronger in racing than anywhere else. The greed sward is part of the very soul of the sport – it is not often call "The Turf"?
However, the question just has to be faced of how much tradition is worth. The cost of maintaining English customs in an Australian climate can be very high, and in this case, for Sydney alone, they would run into hundreds of thousands a year.
Maintenance of the numerous racing and training surfaces at the four courses, Randwick, Warwick Farm, Rosehill and Canterbury, would be the costliest item, and losses over cancelled and postponed meetings the next.
However, muddy tracks bring other losses, even when racing is possible. A lot of punters will not go to such meetings, and many trainers and owners will not race at them.
Rain does not cut attendances much at Albion Park meetings. Punters know that the hazardous tasks of picking winners will not have the additional complication of deciding which horses will handle the mud.
If Sydney had a sand track at which some of the money saved in maintenance were spent on providing sheltered betting ring, rain need not cause much concern at all.
The benefit to trainers from all weather training surfaces would be immense. At present in Sydney in wet periods they must float horses from track to track looking for a suitable pitch, and they work in the dark, their measuring rod, the stop watch, is of little use, because of the variations in the conditions. Times on the sand are the same in wet or dry weather, and standardisation of tracks, for training or racing, would make the sport much more scientific.
Melbourne, of course, has more wet days, and in a way needs all-weather tracks more than Sydney, even though it does not have as many postponements.
Every capital has its weather problems, and when the country tracks, particularly those inland are considered, grass tracks become almost an absurdity. The fierce sun defeats all reasonable efforts at maintenance, and it is pathetic to see the scanty covering of grass on which so much care and money are expended.
All told, racing's Australian bill for being called "The Turf" must run into the millions a year. It is a lot to pay for a name.
George Ryder's policy of pressing only for an all-weather training track for Sydney seems sound, because if it is fully successful a race track must surely follow. It is good policy, too, to try out the American composition, but I hope there will also be a sand track. Properly laid down on the Albion Park model, on a proper base, I think it can stand the comparison.