Why so many tracks are in such poor condition

by David on July 30, 2014

The terrible state of so many tracks was discussed in a Rob Waterhouse article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week where he broke the issue down into five areas and then suggested solutions.

It prompted a very interesting response from Lindsay on the Ausrace forum:

Yes, a very good and interesting article from Rob.

Pasture and track management is one of my interests and I have advised on training tracks and the building of arenas.

There are a number of considerations and contradictions to what has taken place at Randwick.

Firstly, the track has been ripped up and modified many times, all weather, Randwick inner, Kensington and the course proper itself a myriad of times.

They are over watering the track to compensate in the hope that there are less breakdowns from hard fast tracks and to keep the grass from going off.

The problem lies not in the grass, but in the subsoil.

The subsoil at Randwick contains very little nitrogen and is basically a sandy clay, thereby discouraging root growth and the water stays on the surface and is simply dried by any wind. Take a sample of the soil a few centimetres down and there will be no root structure and no quality soil.

Without sand, as part of the substructure, the track could become an unsafe bog, so I see where they are coming from, but frequent watering to keep it green, is not the answer. It’s draining away from the roots entirely.

Secondly, it is contributing to softer boned horses, because they don’t encourage strong bone growth (much like a stressed Kung Fu artist who hits hard objects and the bones become stronger and grow to withstand harder impacts).

This is the reason why they can break blocks of bricks and hardwood easily with plenty of years of practice.

Of course Gai prefers progeny from non irrigated studs, the horses need to be exercised on harder surfaces to build strong bone, as in the above example.

Take a horse that’s been brought up in boggy areas and they are prone to soft bones, the moment any stress is put on the bone or they race under a harder surface, shin splints and breakdowns occur.

Why do you suppose the English invasion has failed so miserably at Cup time and UK trainers scream to water the tracks.

With one notable exception, but the whole surface was an exception that day.

English horses are brought up and raced on soft surfaces.

Our harness tracks are crushed granite which is often watered for conformity of surface, but it’s a lot harder than our “good” tracks.

The ratio of breakdowns in harness racing circles is a lot less than the gallops.

The possible and professional opinion…..

Give the track a rest for at least one month.

Don’t spend millions ripping up the track yet again, the same problems will manifest themselves.

Stop lightly watering the track on a daily or every couple of days basis.

It’s a complete waste of time and water given the subsoil.

Invest in an aerator which pulls small but deep diameter plugs from the turf and fill those plugs with sand.

Spread chook manure or compost regularly over the entire course proper, (there’s an easy way to do this;).

No, not commercial fertiliser!

They could even use some of David Hayes’ worm juice – he’s miles ahead in this regard.

Give it a damn good water once a week for four weeks and after replacing divots, the day after racing.

This will allow the nitrogen and water to sink beyond the topsoil and encourage strong root growth.

Ask any groundskeeper at a golf course!

The subsoil will become nitrogen rich and allow penetration of water to be held in the subsoil, whilst still allowing drainage on wet race days.

They already have the drainage in place.

It will also conserve the use of their bore and dam water, which can only be a good thing.

I’d put money on the fact that during Winter, if the program were followed correctly, that grass would never turn brown!

Lindsay.

This was followed up by a great contribution from Phil Buckland:

Hi All,

A great topic very close to my heart as well.

My former life until 7 years ago, being a Qualified Horticulturist and also a Qualified Greenkeeper, and also a Qualified Landscaper (Parks and Gardens), being Trade and Tertiary Qualified, and also did permaculture, but really not sure what that has to do with it at all, I have in my time built and maintained many a sports pitch, eg Tennis Court, Croquet court, bowling green, but never a race track, the closest being football fields. I still do consultancy work and was employed by NSW Agriculture and DAFF during my 30 years green thumb career

There is 1 premise with turf, water it heavy and deep, and do it regularly, but not often.

An old saying the roots of grass should be the same length of the turf on top – this is not true all the times, but Kikuyu does have long roots.  With light regular watering, the roots do not go looking for the water, they don’t have enough time to grow and water then comes along. If the hit a dry spell or there is a hot day, they will transpire to much water and go into basically dehydration as we know it. Deep and not regular water will encourage the roots to go looking for water, so they will survive when the going gets tough.

Turf is a hard thing, the shorter you cut the leaf, the harder it is to maintain, the leaf is survival part of the plant, it produces the energy through Chlorophyll to keep the plant alive, and helps keep diseases away dues to many things, the main thing, it keeps it healthy, the shorter you cut the leaf, the harder it is to maintain and keep healthy and alive.

Kikuyu one of the best grasses that has ever been introduced to Australia, great for Golf courses, Fields, Race Tracks, and the best example I have ever seen as a closely cut Baseball Diamond in Sydney, with a leaf length of about 0.8mm. – Yes almost as short as a golf green

I shake my head in disgust when I see the states of some of our Racecourses and Football fields, they are often sparse and lack vibrancy in the leaf, they seemed to be managed by people who have really no idea of how to maintain turf. The longer a blade of Kikuyu, the easier it is to maintain, it is producing heaps of energy to maintain the health of the grass, and should be growing vigorously.

As Lindsay pointed out, substructure drainage is paramount, but also the base is also extremely important. – That is whole another subject – in fact Drainage I (think by memory took 2 semester just as 1 subject in one of the courses ) Another thing that should be mentioned, is frequency of cut. This is almost as important as nutrition, (fertilizer etc).

Typically a Golf green is cut once a day, same with a bowling green, Croquet court etc, if a competition is coming up, this increases to 2 times a day, in some cases 3 times a day in hotter areas – this is to increase blade density, and also stem division. This is to increase a thicker (Blanket) of turf, which inturn increases a larger surface area of blade, which then inturn increases more chlorophyll, which then increases more energy, which increases more cell development and a stronger turf – which then gives a better playing surface.

The same tactic should be employed with race tracks, I am not stating that turf should be cut 2 times a day, but if it was cut every 2nd day, this would be the start of turning around of race courses in Australia. Not only would it increase thicker grass, but also help the water issue faced by clubs, it will increase transpiration, which will increase a more regulated and manageable increase of water usage, and also increase a more even consistence of track condition from 1 side of the track to the other side -eg horses run wide in wetter conditions

With Fertilization and nutrient supply, this is extremely important, as this is what helps the grass to grow, think of it as food for your grass, like food for your body – it acts the same way, eat bad food, or miss meals, you feel down and out – same as with the grass, feed it bad or not at all, it wont respond. Organic Fertilizers are great, but expensive, they also add structure to the soil, but be carefully what you use, chook poo, is very alkaline, where as moo poo is quite acidic, and the wrong type of organic fertilizer can kill your grass, or knock it for 6. Kikuyu, prefers acidic soil, – that’s why Kikuyu flourishes in Cow paddocks.

Inorganic are good but also dangerous when not used correctly, to much and they can kill, not enough and they do nothing but build up salt levels – the right fertilizers are needed for the right job.

An example, it may be the problem that could lie, is that using inorganic nitrogen fertilizer, which is high in salt, can osmosis in the grass roots, which could cause it to die to lack of water. A balance is required when it comes to fertilizer between organic and inorganic and realistically inorganic gets used most of the time as it has the most diverse range of elements and strengths, and also is cost effective and very managable.

Organic fertilizers just don’t cut the mustard when you are trying to do something special for your turf, eg, harden the grass blade for winter – yes this is very important yet I would almost say no racetracks do this over winter, and an organic fertilizer will not do that as well as many other specific fertilizer treatments – its all good to go organic – but it does not work all the time, I was schooled in Mullumbimby, so I know all about being organic and probably had the best Permiculture teach in Australia when studying Horticulture, but you have to live outside the clouds of naivety when it comes to soil science.

Lindsay touched on Aeration of soil using an aerator, great idea for the surface structure as it will allow air to go down to the roots, as roots need oxygen to survive. – Use that in conjunction with a double washed river sand base structure to then increase soil structure

Another thing that should be done, if not done already is the whole track should be scarified once a year, I doubt this would be done, as it would put a track out for at least 6 to 8 weeks – but the benefits would be 10 fold – in fact is almost as good as a new layer of turf. This removes any dead turf (Thatch) for the turf, which causes disease, soil hardness (breaks up an impermeable layer) to allow water to penetrate the surface soils to allow deeper watering, and cuts stems to increase secondary stem growth, which increases turf thickness (Ultimate Goal)

I hope this may explain why some or most of our race tracks are below par.

If you are never sure, – some of the members of Golf clubs, Bowling Greens, Tennis Courts will soon tell you if your greens are not up to their liking.

It is really a wonder the racing members, Trainers and owners of horses have put up with such poor courses for so long. It is costing the race clubs a fortune in resurfacing and drastic actions, Owners and trainers have their horses breaking down to injury or scratching them to poor or changed track conditions,

Basic Greenkeeping and Horticultural skills and knowledge that should have been practiced and allot of these problems would not be faced by racetracks today and costing the industry allot of wasted money

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