Betting 360 Podcast

This week’s guest is Jason Kerr, General Manager Racecourses at Melbourne Racing Club.

Jason manages the track at Caulfield Racecourse, and also has oversight of the club’s tracks at Sandown and Mornington.  The state of racetracks is an increasingly discussed factor in racing, so we spoke to Jason to get some information directly from somebody who works on tracks every day.

Punting Insights:

  • What a track manager aims to produce in a racetrack surface, and the tools they have to do it.
  • How tracks may not change… but the amount of commentary around them does.
  • What the “going stick” is and what the readings mean.

Today’s Guest

Jason Kerr, General Manager Racecourses, Melbourne Racing Club.

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Podcast Transcript

Mark Haywood: My guest on today’s podcast is Jason Kerr. Jason is the track manager at Caulfield Racecourse. How are you going Jason?

Jason Kerr: Good thanks mate.

Mark Haywood: Just want to get you on Jason, it seems with racing, with punting, there’s always a hot topic of the day or of the month and at the moment it seems to be about tracks. So I thought we’d get you on and maybe try to bust a few myths and get a few opinions from somebody who actually knows what he’s talking about. Yeah thanks for coming on.

Jason Kerr: No worries.

Mark Haywood: I just thought we’d start a quick intro just for you and your background, how long you’ve been at Caulfield.

Jason Kerr: Yeah no problems. I’m the General Manager of Racecourses for the Melbourne Racing Club which obviously covers Caulfield which I’ve got direct coverage over then Sandown and Mornington have got their own racecourse managers, Michael Suey at Mornington and Kim Bailey at Sandown and I work in conjunction with them and obviously we look after the three tracks for the club. I’ve been with the club for just over 30 years, so I started here as a young bloke and they haven’t been able to get rid of me, so I very much enjoy it.

Mark Haywood: Sure, and did you have a family background in racing or in turf?

Jason Kerr: Yeah I did, Dad was actually a Melbourne rails bookmaker, John Kerr. He sort of worked up until about ’95 and then got crook, and his father before him was a rails bookmaker as well. The family tradition would have it that I went into racing somewhere and Dad wasn’t that keen for me to get into the bookmaking. He could obviously see the changes sort of coming through in the mid-90s with obviously the IT side of things coming on board fairly quickly and that. Things were becoming a lot more difficult for the bookies so he wasn’t that keen for me to get into the bookmaking but I was certainly always going to go into racing. Obviously loved it since I can remember, going to the races and you know the horse side of it particularly interested me and yeah I was lucky enough to get a role with the Victorian Amateur Turf Club back in ’87.

Fairly quickly took a shining to the racecourse management side of things. It got me outdoors out of the office which I was never that keen on, and obviously looking after the grass and seeing a fair bit of the horses and having a bit of communication with trainers and the stakeholders was certainly what I was after. So that was 30 years ago and I have enjoyed it ever since.

Mark Haywood: Just getting onto the track which is your area of expertise, I thought we’d start at the bottom and there’s a lot of talk about grass and turf, but I guess below that, the soil itself, just the impact of the makeup of the soil and how that differs across different tracks, and the impact that has on the racing?

Jason Kerr: Yeah obviously all soils are different, there’s certainly not two tracks anywhere that would be exactly the same soil profile makeup but they generally go into three categories. There’s a sand profile, there’s a sandy loam profile which is obviously it’s a fairly free flowing profile but it’s obviously got more of that heavier type soil in it which is pretty much what Caulfield and Sandown and Mornington are, and most of the tracks are in that sandy loam mixture. It’s a fairly general term, sandy loam, it’s a mixture of sand and a heavier soil but the combination of how much of each is determined by obviously constructions and that, so that’s why two tracks are never the same because that makeup is always different.

Then you get down to the natural loam tracks, which a lot of the country tracks are. You know, never had a rebuild they’ve just been carved out of paddocks and what not so a lot of them are just a standard loam which has obviously got drainage problems. But all the city tracks and the better provincials are sandy loam, and then you come to your sand profiles which obviously the StrathAyr at Moonee Valley, the new Pakenham is a sand profile and Flemington is a reasonably sandy profile.

So generally they’re the three tracks that we get and obviously vary a great deal between them. The two things with tracks and the different profiles, the two main criteria is drainage and also stability and I guess it’s a fine line obviously. All tracks drainage wise we want it to drain very well, but also stability’s a massive part of it too obviously the more the soil can stabilise under stress of horse impact, the less divoting you get, the better the turf holds together. So I guess in constructing these tracks the conundrum’s always where to sit in between good draining profile and having one that’s stable and finding a happy medium?
I think we’ve got a very good balance of that at Caulfield. That was redone in ’96 and I think that the balance between infiltration and stability is pretty much spot on here at Caulfield where we try and base a lot of our training track construction, certainly the construction of the new circuit at Sandown was based on what we have here at Caulfield. So that’s a bit of a benchmark for us and we think it works very well and hence we try and duplicate it.

Mark Haywood: When you say Caulfield was redone in ’96 was it you said?

Jason Kerr: Yeah basically it was the old circuit so in ’96 they redid it, took it right down to the base, put a clay base down and obviously the drains went on top of that, and then we built up a soil profile on top of that. I guess a very expensive process to go through and it’s a massive disruption obviously, we didn’t race I think for six or eight months back then. But the benefit of that is that you obviously get to build exactly what you want. You know you’re not sort of governed by what was done decades before, you pretty much get to get a blank canvas and you can build the track as you like. That’s what we did and certainly down the track we’re very pleased with the way it’s panned out over, what are we, yeah 20 years down the track just about. So it’s been a good result.

Mark Haywood: And when you talk about that full relaying of the track, that happened 20 years ago now at Caulfield, is that something that is generally redone every 10 years or 20 years or is it more just done the once just to get that soil profile right?

Jason Kerr: Generally you only do them once, sort of once in probably a 40 year turnaround. But what we do every 10 years here at Caulfield, that’s what we call a full reconstruction where you take it down to the base and drains and pretty much start with a blank canvas, what we do every nine or 10 years here at Caulfield is what we call a resurface. So basically you just peel the top of it off, the top sort of 50 or 60 millimetres, get rid of all the grass and we re-blend the soil. We don’t add to it so we don’t change the makeup of it. We just blend it to break up any sort of compaction that’s sort of developed over the time and then relay it with fresh grass, new species of grasses.
Obviously there’s a lot of sort of research and development going into grass types so every 10 years we get the chance to use a new type of grass and obviously hoping it’s better than the last. We think at MRC that probably eight or nine years is probably the lifespan you get out of a track. And having said people say, “Oh that’s not long,” but no it’s not but that’s at the absolute top level, like we race 22 times here at Caulfield, and I guess we pride ourselves on producing an A1 track for those 22 / 23 meetings a year. I think if you race much more than that your quality and your output starts to drop off reasonably quickly, so keeping that in mind that’s why we do that every 10 years. That certainly keeps the quality up, and over a 10 year period it’s not a huge expense to do to keep that quality of racing around so, that’s the way we play it at Melbourne Racing Club at the moment.

Mark Haywood: Moving on then to the grass on top of the soil. What sort of grass do you use there at Caulfield and does that differ across tracks as well?

Jason Kerr: Grasses fall into basically two general categories, there’s a warm season grass and a cool season grass, fairly simplistic. But obviously the warm season grasses are natural to New South Wales and Queensland. They take sort of temperatures of about 23 / 24 degrees, you know to be active in. And then you’ve got your cool season grasses which are more active and more at home in probably about 15 to 22 / 23 range. Unfortunately Melbourne’s sort of got a little bit of both and you know generally cool season grasses are the ones that dominate in Melbourne. Warm season grasses certainly … When we’re talking warm season we’re talking kikuyu grasses, your buffalo grasses, your couch grasses which are mainly on golf courses, but they certainly struggle between about May and August / September.

You would have seen it on your golf course, your fairways, you know they go yellow over winter and that’s basically the plant shutting down, it doesn’t grow it doesn’t recover or recuperate for four or five months of the year. And that’s the same with those warmer season grasses whether it’s kikuyu or couch or buffalo, you basically get zero growth and recovery for four months of the year which obviously poses its challenges when you’re trying to race on it.

So at Caulfield since the last resurface which was two years ago we’ve moved to a cool season species which is a makeup of rye grass and blue grass. And that wasn’t actually by choice. The 10 years preceding that from about 2005 to 2015 we basically ran a warm season surface, which was predominantly a kikuyu grass, and that was the plan again when we did the resurface a couple of years ago. But as fate would have it, we re-turfed in November and the following winter we had the coldest winter in 25 years I think it was, and then the warm season grasses didn’t survive the winter. So it was a fairly easy decision to transition to a cool season grass in that spring.

Cool season grasses are obviously better over the winter but they’re not as hardy, they don’t wear as well, they’re not as drought tolerant as the warm season grasses. So both have their advantages and disadvantages, it’s just Melbourne is more prone to the cool seasons, and you need a little bit of luck on your side if you want to run with a kikuyu track in Melbourne due to the weather.

Mark Haywood: And that type of grass sounds like it differs from what we use down here compared to in Sydney or in Brisbane for example?

Jason Kerr: Yeah I was gonna say, Sydney and Brisbane, they run on kikuyu tracks, I think it’s a bloody noxious weed in Queensland it’s rated as. But it’s its natural habitat, it grows 12 months of the year. They do get a little bit of discoloration across in winter but essentially they’ve got the soil temperature all year round to grow it, and that’s their natural grass there. So it’s certainly the one that all their tracks are racing on up there.
Mark Haywood: There has been a fair bit of talk about the type of grass, does the type of grass actually make a difference to the going when it comes to racing? Or is that more just down to the soil?

Jason Kerr: It does, I mean kikuyu is a very spongy grass, if it gets thick and thatchy it’s like walking on a bloody wet sponge, it’s heavy and we feel that walking on it as humans weighing 80 or 90 kilos, that effect is lessened obviously with horses running on it. But you only need a very minor difference for these things to show up on race days. I think if you have got one lane or one section of track which is kikuyu and another section that’s rye grass, I think at different times of the year you certainly would notice a bit of a difference.
Mark Haywood: And in terms of that grass, you were saying about once a decade you do a full re-laying of grass around the course?

Jason Kerr: Yeah our last one was nine years, the one before that was 10 years so obviously depending on what sort of seasons you have. Logistically it worked out better in 2015 to do it that year rather than wait another 12 months. I mean tracks would last, they’ll last 50 years the grass type. But obviously the quality of them goes down, your thatch build up continues to go up, your infiltration rates slow down over years, so you know to keep in that real top bracket, about 10 years is the lifespan and then you’re looking at a resurface. Again a resurface is totally different to a reconstruction. With our resurface we close during the third week of October, and then we’re racing on it early February. So it’s a pretty quick turnaround, it’s a great time of year to be doing it from a growth perspective with the grass so it’s not a major disruption with having done it at the right time of year.

Mark Haywood: And you spoke about where there’s different types of grass in different areas of the tracks that can cause bias, based on the type of grass. Just more generally, what causes bias? Is it purely wear along the inside from the runners themselves or are there other factors?

Jason Kerr: Yeah I think it’s wear. I mean no doubt wear is probably the root cause, if you peel all the layers back it gets back to wear and I mean we brought in movable rails probably 30 years ago to overcome wear. With wear, I mean sometimes it can make ground quicker, other times it can make it slower. I’ll give you an example of that, if you race two Saturdays in a row and you’re racing a particular rail position and there’s not a lot of damage, you’re on a good three track and then you’ve got a hot sunny week. Well there’s less grass cover on that section where they’ve raced so the sun will hit the soil profile more directly and it will dry it out quicker. So where you’ve got wear on a particular area under certain circumstances, that’s summer in Melbourne without any rain, a worn area will dry out quicker than a fully grassed area.

So it actually works a little bit reversed to what people think, people think, “There’s worn ground, oh you don’t want to be on there, you want to be where it’s full grass cover.” Well, certain circumstances that’s the case, but a lot of the time over the summer it works in reverse. You know I guess as track managers our mandate is to prepare a fair and a safe surface, that’s what we’re given the task of doing. I guess how we achieve that, I think I said the other day, I don’t think I’ve ever prepared the same for a meeting, and I’ve probably done 200 meetings at Caulfield, because everything varies.

The time of year, the amount of light you’ve got each day, the humidity, the wind, the temperature, so all these variations. It’s not like a recipe book where you just roll over the page, this is what we’re doing this week. All the variations are taken in to account and you’re asked to prepare a fair track and how you do that, I guess that’s where you sort of get down to the detail. I think a good thing for people to know is that if you’ve got a track and there’s one section of it that’s worn, and another section that’s not worn, essentially that’s an uneven track, obviously due to a race meeting. So if you manage that track evenly, do the same to both those areas, it will remain uneven for a longer period of time than if you treat them slightly differently and try and even them up, you know, speed up that process of evening them up.

I think a lot of people think with tracks, you water them the same, you mow them the same, you do everything the same to them. Well that’s the case if you’re not racing on it, but when you’ve got worn areas and unworn areas, you treat them slightly differently to try and even them up, and I guess that’s our task which we’re trying to do every week. Sometimes you get it right, and others you might be slightly off, I think a lot of that leads to what people perceive as track bias. My view with bias is absolutely, there is bias around, on certain days under certain conditions, but I think it’s highly overrated.
I think whenever there’s a pattern that seems to emerge, a lot of the time it’s after a couple of races in the day, people are screaming track bias. You know, a lot of other things come into it, it’s wind, it’s tempo, it’s just the way races are run. I think you’ve got to wait until the end of a day and look back on replays and watch certain horses and really digest a meeting in each race before you can declare there was a distinct track bias. A lot of people are pretty quick to pull the trigger after a couple of races, but not denying it exists but I think it’s a lot less than a lot of people think.

Mark Haywood: And just on that, you’ve been in the game for a while now and there’s been a lot of changes and we’ve now got 24 hour a day racing TV channels and social media, and all that sort of thing. Have you found that, obviously the focus on tracks and what you do has changed a lot in that time?

Jason Kerr: Yeah it’s gone up, it’s probably in the last 10 years it’s gone through the roof. Obviously now everyone’s got an opinion on social media. I find even with the 24 hour racing channels, in Melbourne now we’re covering two meetings on a Saturday so a lot more time to fill and discuss issues, and I guess there’s only so many horses and jockeys and trainers you can interview so I think track condition gets a lot more airplay than it probably deserves a lot of the time. Obviously something that’s worth a mention each day, but some of the detail that different people want to go into and the amount of time they want to spend on debating the whys and wherefores and the ifs and the maybes it’s It’s probably overkill for mine, but certainly social media is another big one, I don’t go on it. I’ve seen the effects of social media on people, some of my counterparts I’ve seen the way it’s affected them, some of the things that get said online when things don’t go well and it can be fairly brutal. So I choose not to go on it, and obviously you hear at different times some comments that have come off it and yeah. But certainly everyone’s got an opinion and are pretty keen to voice them most of the time.

Mark Haywood: Definitely. I guess just to sum that piece up, you’re obviously left with an unevenly worn surface after a race day, and basically your job is to get it as even as possible for the next race day, whether that be in a week or in six months time, would that be right?

Jason Kerr: Yeah absolutely, and we haven’t raced for six weeks and we’ll have four Saturday meetings in a row coming up so obviously the first one is as important as the last one. As much as setting a rail position in preparation for the upcoming meeting, a lot of it’s about what’s in the next month. For that like, the Spring Carnival is a good example for us here at Caulfield. We race six times in 29 days, and the last of those meetings is our biggest day of the year, Caulfield Cup. And Caulfield Cup is usually race nine or race eight of 10 races on the programme. So you’re leaving your main event ’till the final throw of a month long campaign. It’s not logical we do it that way, but having said that the expectation is for the track on that second last race on your last day of your carnival for it to be absolutely perfect. So to achieve that you’ve got to make some, I guess not changes but you know, you improvise a little bit.

A lot of people say we don’t race in the true position enough. We may not race in the true position, it’s not because of that meeting, it’s what’s coming up in the two or three or four weeks ahead of that, so it’s just a matter of planning and making sure that obviously you’re looking after the imminent meeting. But certainly you’ve got in the back of your mind what’s on the programme after that because say you have a terrific track one week, but if it’s no good the next, the good week is certainly quickly forgotten. So it’s about planning and trying to fit it all in with rail moves, and we do that by rail moves, and it’s been a massive thing that moveable rail.

Again there’s theories about patterns when rails are in or rails are out, but it’s probably our biggest tool in trying to overcome worn tracks and track biases, obviously moving the rail. But you know there’s a lot of other things come into play with as far as watering and rolling and aerating, even mowing, they all sort of come in to play as much as tools for achieving that evenness that everyone expects.

Mark Haywood: When you talk about the rail position, is that something that you’ve planned sometime out, before a group of meetings together, or have you got flexibility between meetings to change that?

Jason Kerr: Yeah we’ve probably got eight or 10 meetings planned ahead where we want to be and again that usually works back from the last days meetings. Like, we know there’s certain days of the year we’re going to race in the true, whether it be Underwood, Rupert Clarke Day, and we leave it there for Guineas Day. But we know that Underwood Day is the first day that we’re in the true for that carnival so everything through August and September, has to get worked back off that. So we’ve got a pretty good idea, generally the weather doesn’t change it, but certainly we’ve got the flexibility up until… You know for a Saturday meeting we’ve got to declare a rail position on the Monday so I’ll usually know two or three weeks out where they’re going to be, pending any sort of climatic disasters it generally goes that way. But having said that we have the flexibility to move it pretty quickly if need be.

We sort of tend to stick to a pretty similar pattern at Caulfield, we know it works. That busy period over spring we know that over carnival, true, true, out this six for Caulfield Cup it just works, it’s worked for probably 10 years. I had the wet year, Descarado’s year, heavy 10 that day, a lot of years it’s been terrific weather, good threes, good fours and it’s worked just as well in the dry weather. And so as much as I say we can change them, that’s pretty much locked in stone and then everything before that is sort of up for grabs a little bit. It’s all dependent on getting the best three results on those three days, you know we’ll probably sacrifice any of those other days if it means getting a better result on one of those three. And the same with Blue Diamond, now that we’ve sort of turned it into a bit of a super Saturday with the three Group Ones. Little bit different there because we’ve got a group one meeting a fortnight before that.

Like this year is a good example, I was originally planning on going true for Orr Stakes which we did, which includes the Blue Diamond preludes, and then the plan was to leave it in true for Blue Diamond, Oakleigh Plate and Futurity Day a fortnight later. But as it panned out it raced really well on the Orr Stakes, but I guess one of the flip sides if a track races really well is that they all stick fairly close to the rail so your wear is sort of concentrated. Usually when they sort of get off the rail, they fan a bit, your wear is also spread so obviously the concentration of damage is not as much. But certainly when they race tight and it’s racing evenly everything wants to be sort of up on speed near the fence, it affects that.

So we made the decision probably a week out, or probably 10 days out from Blue Diamond that we’re going to push the rail out to three. Again, had a couple of comments, but it was certainly the best decision to get the best result on the day. I think if it had been left on true for Blue Diamond Day they would have been off the fence, the fence wouldn’t have been the spot to be. So yeah it’s certainly flexible but we’ve sort of got it 90% locked in stone, but have the ability to move it.

Mark Haywood: And just saying you got a few comments about moving it out from the true, is there some sort of … I guess people don’t like to see the rail go away from the true on a big day, because it would appear that if you do have slightly uneven wear then that’s the instant fix for it, is just to move the rail out. But do some people not like to see that?

Jason Kerr: Yeah I think it’s a little bit of a traditional thing, you know we haven’t run a Caulfield Cup in the true for probably 15 years. Melbourne Cup is very rarely in the true, I think most times they push it out two or three metres. After Derby Day, Golden Slipper is generally run at three or six. So I think in a perfect world, yeah we’d run them in the true, but I think the way it pans out with programmes these days, big races later now in sort of groupings of meetings, doesn’t affect anything, doesn’t affect field size, it has no effect on race patterns and it would be sort of pig-headed not to I think. I think you’d certainly compromise the quality of racing if you didn’t, just for the sake of saying it’s in the true, I think it’s certainly a wise move to move it out if it’s required.

Mark Haywood: At a busy metro track like Caulfield, typically throughout a season, what’s the longest period you go without racing and what does that longer break allow you to do to the track in terms of helping it recover?

Jason Kerr: Yeah they’re really important parts of the year for us, this year we had a 10 week break after Caulfield Cup, we didn’t resume to, when was it? Boxing Day, so we had a 10 week break which just gives you a chance to do a full renovation on the track. When I say renovation it’s a surface renovation, you cut it very short, you take a lot of the thatch material out of the track, you over seed it, you can top dress it, you aerate it, you do things to it that you need sort of four or five weeks minimum before you can race on it again. Give that time to recuperate. So we get a great break after Caulfield Cup, and we generally get another good break which we’re coming to the end of now after Blue Diamond.

So they’re vital for us, we do major works on the tracks and that really sets us up for the year. You know, if we don’t get a couple of good renovations in each year, you really notice the track, the infiltration of the rainfall slows right down, starts to hold more water, the damage is more. I think not enough tracks actually get that opportunity, I know Flemington have pushed really hard this year to get a good break after their carnival as they had the absolute minimum the last few years. So I know they’re pushing really hard to get seven or eight weeks to do some similar works.

A lot of the country tracks suffer from that, they don’t get the opportunity to do that. But they’re very much underrated how important they are and we’ve found at Caulfield, since we’ve been doing two of them a year, I don’t think it’s been a coincidence that the track has raced as well as it has since we’ve made that change. And that’s probably four or five years ago, we really locked in and being fairly stoic as to those breaks and ensuring that we keep them. I don’t think it’s been any coincidence the track has sort of really hasn’t really missed a beat since.

Mark Haywood: And I guess at the other end of the spectrum, your busiest times probably the Guineas Cup week, you race three times basically in a week. There’s a couple of days really between race meetings at that time of year, are you able basically to do anything at all, or what are you able to do at that time?

Jason Kerr: Yeah you do, we obviously water as required. We do a little bit of, between the Guineas Day and the Wednesday, rail stays in the true so we obviously do some repair works. Most of our repair works are plug works, we don’t do any filling with soil and seed, that’s a thing of the past for us at Caulfield. We plug, which is like a big oversized golf hole plugger, basically it just takes the damaged divot out, all the surrounding soil, and then you replace it with a fresh one. Which done well you can’t see where sort of 10 minutes after, and you can race on them sort of within a day essentially, so most of our repair work is done through that method.

But like I was saying before, you sort of set Cup week up by what we’re doing this time of year, like the renovation that we’ve got into the track after Blue Diamond, and the programme that we sort of set for ourselves over winter really sets us up for Cup week. If we’re struggling Cup week it’s probably not a result of that week itself it more what’s happened the previous four or five months that’s got it to that stage. Daily in that week, obviously busy busy period, we move the rail after the Wednesday out to six, which give an absolute fresh pad of grass, a few scuff marks out there but there’s certainly no damage as such that effects racing out past that six metre line. That’s been proven with results over the years, but yeah generally watering is a big one, just how much water to put on.
Obviously monitoring rainfall, that’s where it does become a bit tricky, when you’re obviously monitoring rainfall, it can be quite a volatile time of year that spring so they can be predicting plenty of rain and you end up with none, or vice versa they can be predicting none and end up with getting some. So juggling the watering is probably the big one for that week, trying to get it right, and needing a little help from above. But yeah it certainly probably takes up most of our thought processes for the week that one.

Mark Haywood: And just the track rating itself on race day, who actually does the rating and is it a group of people who go out, or do you do it yourself, and is that just a result of experience?

Jason Kerr: Yeah I do the track rating with my assistant Greg Gryers, that’s done at 5:30 in the morning, we’ve sort of got that all finished up by 6:30. A track walker generally comes around, has a little bit of a look at the same time or thereabouts, and we catch up with him and tell him sort of what the track will be rated, and all the relevant info and that sort of goes out from there. But yeah certainly the call is 100% mine and again it’s just something you pick up by experience, you know we’ve all got them slightly wrong from time to time, but you learn from them when you do.

And again it’s like bias, there’s always varying opinions on what a track is rated, whether it’ll be a three or a four, and some will say its a two. Generally we’re pretty comfortable we get it right, the stewards, they have a look at the track about an hour and a half, two hours before the first race to confirm the rating, change it if necessary. Generally it’s just a tick off that the rating is where it needs to be and obviously races start, and obviously in summer time they dry out and they get upgraded, and obviously at different times if you get rain during the meeting it goes the other way.

Mark Haywood: And you spoke about the track walkers, you’re probably a type of track walker yourself, you’ve walked Caulfield many thousands of times, I know our racing analyst in Melbourne Trev, he walks tracks extremely often. Do you get a lot of people walking the track at Caulfield, and I guess is it a little bit of an art in terms of what you’re looking for?

Jason Kerr: Yeah it is I think, I mean it took me years to really sort of get to know Caulfield, like all the idiosyncrasies of the surface and knowing how much rainfall will affect it, knowing how quickly it will dry out, and different types of things. So yeah certainly, the more you can walk them and the more you get to know them, the better judge you are of them. I don’t think you can walk a track once and not having seen it and sort of make any sort of value judgement on it, I think even these guys that are walking tracks you know, we race 20 meetings a year and they walk them, you know 20 days before each meeting, I don’t think there’s a lot of value in that. I think it like anything, the more time you spend on it, the better your knowledge becomes of it Mark, it’s you know, pretty accurate of track walkers.

But having said that, a lot of the guys are trying to pick different lanes and whether the inside will be better than the outside or vice versa and again it’s a bit like track ratings, everyone has got an opinion. But yeah, generally it’s enjoyable to talk to these guys, we have a yak on the way round and they’ll give me their views, and I’ll give them mine, and we see how the day pans out. But no it’s certainly value, I know a lot of the bigger stables use them now, and I’m sure you know a lot of the bigger punters use them too, so certainly a valuable asset, and the good ones are certainly good at it, yeah.

Mark Haywood: And in terms of picking those lanes which the track walkers try to do, is that purely by the firmness under foot or have they got any other measures they use?

Jason Kerr: They generally walk around, most of them walk around with sticks or ski poles, or something similar to that and zig-zag in and out, similar to how jockeys walk it on race day. So again it comes down to an opinion. I think people forget sometimes we’ve got a 60,000 square metre stage if you like and it’s got no roof on it so it’s under the elements. Different parts of the track will dry out at different speeds, and I’ve got a hill up the back here that’ll dry out quicker than in front of the grandstand because it’s more susceptible to the wind, inside the grandstand doesn’t get the hot north winds, or in front of the grandstand doesn’t get them I should say. You know up the side, the Queen’s Avenue side it gets the northerly right up its tail, so again it’ll dry out quicker than it will at the 300 metre mark.

So there’s a lot of those little areas of every track, and they’re just idiosyncrasies of nature, and every track has got ’em. Like I was saying before, the more you know a track, the more you get to know those little areas, and why they’re like they are and how quickly they’ll improve, or all the rest of it. So you never stop learning on a track, that’s for sure.

Mark Haywood: Absolutely. And just finally, I just wanted to ask you about the going stick, which we’ve seen a lot of tracks start to use now, moving on from the old penetrometer. We’re in a audio format here so its obviously not possible to show everyone exactly what it is, but how would you best describe I guess the going stick, and how it differs from the penetrometer?

Jason Kerr: Yeah the going stick, it’s a British based company Turftrax that have been over in the UK and Europe probably for 10 years with them now, maybe a little bit longer. Basically it’s been designed to measure two different facets of a track, the old penetrometer I guess, just going back to the penetrometers, purely measures hardness, how hard a surface is. It drops a one kilo weight from a one metre height onto a one centimetre squared rod and it just purely measures how far it drives that rod into the ground, that gives you the penetrometer reading.

The going stick has got a little bit more technical pieces to it, it actually measures penetrance, so again how hard the surface is and how much force it takes to penetrate the surface but it also gives you a shear reading which essentially is how strong the grass is, which directly relates to how much divoting you’re going to get. So it combines that penetrant reading and the shear reading and it gives you an overall reading. You know it’s new to us in Australia, we’ve probably been at it for I think six or eight months now, you know data is coming in but it’s certainly not as detailed as 10 / 20 years of penetrometer data.

So it’s all quite new but certainly the information we’re getting, you can use it as a management tool rather than just a track rating tool, we’ll use the going stick in between meetings when we don’t race for a month, we might do it every week just, it’s used as a management tool. It starts to indicate whether you start to have any issues with your actual turf quality and its health, just purely by that shear reading. If your shear reading starts to go down, basically what that’s telling you is that the roots are letting go, so that indicates a bit of a problem there. But I think in time people will find it a lot better tool than the penetrometer, it’s probably going to take a couple of years to be honest to get enough data and you know, for everyone to be comfortable with it. But certainly I’m glad we’ve made the change and yeah I certainly think it’ll provide better info once we’ve gathered a bit of a bank of it.

Mark Haywood: Great, well that’s probably about all we wanted to cover today Jason, so thanks for your time. As I said to you, it is a whole lot more than just a strip of grass. So hopefully coming on the podcast today you’ve been able to bust a few myths and give everyone a bit better idea of what actually goes into it and how to interpret the mountain of data we seem to get these days on tracks.

Jason Kerr: Yeah no problem, I very much enjoyed it, and I’ll say any time in the future I’m happy to go over it again. Because I think the more we can educate people and punters and that, the better it is. There’s a lot of myths and theories going around about tracks but yeah I think it’s certainly a step forward to get a bit of education out there.

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