RECENTLY retired Newcastle Jockey Club operations manager Peter Birch believes the much-maligned course proper at Broadmeadow will be a long-term success if “managed properly” and the track will “be back flying” for next month’s spring carnival.
START TO FINISH: Peter Birch pictured at Newcastle Racecourse in January 2013 after starting as NJC course manager. Birch came to Newcastle after working on track renovations at Toowoomba, Caloundra and Mackay. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
The 67-year-old retired in late July after almost five years in charge of course maintenance at Newcastle, including overseeing construction of the $11.2 million, sand-based StrathAyr track which opened in March.
The Racing NSW-funded state-of-the-art track replaced the troublesome surface, which was deemed unsafe and closed for two months in late 2011.
However, the new kikuyu grass track has proven difficult and expensive to maintain. Following dethatching work on the inside eight metres, recent meetings have been moved to the Beaumont track to rest the main course in preparation for the NJC’s September 15-16 spring carnival.
The state of the course properhas been criticised but Birch was confident the track would be “perfect” for the spring features.
“I haven’t been here for a couple of weeks, but I cameback on Saturday, andI can’t see too many problems,” Birch said.“It’s only a matter of time. We’re coming into spring-summer too, and we’ve had no growth. Kikuyu won’t grow in the winter time, ithates the cold, but it’s a great recovery grass so it will be back flying for the carnival. Kikuyu is a funny plant, but once you get ground temperature up around 12.5 degrees, it will just thrive.
“I think people have got to take astep back and just look towards the future.”
Asked whether the track would be a long-term success, Birch said:“Managed properly, yeah.
“There’s no doubt StrathAyr are the best operators. Whether you like their profile or not, their earthworks and everything that they do is A1.
“Some people don’t like sand profile tracks but they are probably going to be the thing of the future.”
The track opened in March to rave reviews from leading jockeys but criticism has gradually mounted as the course hasdeteriorated.
While Birch would not comment, theHeraldunderstands Racing NSW has given directives on the track’s maintenance in recent months.
“The only thing I can say is that I was brought down here to rebuild both the tracks and everything went fine,” Birch said.
“I didn’t have any problem and the way it was racing, it was racing absolutely beautiful, and from that period on, I can’t comment on.”
The outside section of the course proper waswatered and soft when lastused for racingon August 12 and for trials on August 16. It will not be used again before the spring carnival, after which it will be off limits while further dethatching work is carried out.
Birch, who oversaw the construction of a StrathAyr profile at Mackay before moving to Newcastle, said dethatching work was crucial inmaintaining the health of the surface.
“I went to Hong Kong last October and they are both reinforced tracks [Happy Valley and Sha Tin], done the same way, and you must have the thatch relieved from the profile,” he said.
“You have got to get rid of it.You look at Moonee Valley, Happy Valley and Sha Tin, it’s the same profile and they are magnificent profiles.”
Birch said the challenges of the Newcastle track had played no part in his decision to retire and enjoyed the long hours working with StrathAyr.
“Just before Christmas last year, I had a bit of a turn and my health wasn’t the best,” he said.
“I went to [NJC CEO] Matt [Benson] when I had another one and said my health wasn’t getting any better and I’ll stay until after the carnival if you want me to and he said we’ll work it out.”
Birch, who will return home to Queensland to retire, believed Newcastle’s course proper was “the best surface in Australia” and he wished the NJC all the best.
“I’ve made some very good friends here,” he said on Tuesday.
“I went over to track this morning andspoke to [leading trainers] Kris Lees and Paul Perry and we had a great chat, as I always did.
“I speak to all the trainers all the time and I just hope whoever comes here keeps the trainers onside, because they’ve been fantastic through the whole project.
“I’ve been here five years and for the past seven years they’ve been under a lot of inconvenience, and there’s not been a cross word.I don’t know whether things have changed, I can’t comment on that.”