Farming out the problems with the Stradbroke track….By Bruce Clark

Farming out the problems with the Stradbroke track….By Bruce Clark

Kickback from the Eagle Farm track.

It’s Queensland’s iconic race – The Stradbroke Handicap, first run 1890, the only changes in its history, firstly being it was originally six furlongs until it went to seven (1400m) in 1953.

Of course when Eagle Farm was undergoing a $10m being rebuild, Srikandi won it at Doomben over its 1350m two years ago allowing the race to return to “headquarters” with Under The Louvre winning on the new track with the promise it would be much better in 12 months’ time.

That’s this weekend, it’s not, and in a poorly handed exercise on so many fronts, the Straddie is back at Doomben. And that doesn’t just seem right. Except if you are Chief De Beers and wishing you were 20 years younger.

That rebuild has spectacularly failed and no amount of cover-up, duck-shoving or proverbial head in the sand was going to do it, especially after Brisbane Racing Club officials stood firm (on a heavy track after no rain) just two weeks ago saying the surface was safe when all feedback was it was substandard and an embarrassment.

And why the surprise? Leading trainers Chris Munce and Tony Gollan as far back as April 26 trials had flagged serious concerns, Munce saying the horses had “no footing underneath’’, Gollan said the track required “If not a full rip-up … massive remedial work.”

Leading jockeys like Kerrin McEvoy said they hadn’t ridden on a worse track when they got there for the Kingsford-Smith Cup meeting.

So amidst much drama and finger pointing it took the Racing Minister Grace Grace to write to Racing Queensland to light the bunsen burner of common sense and leadership and get something done about this debacle.

With that, Eagle Farm is closed for racing as long term racing administrator (and current Harness Racing Victoria chair) Dale Monteith leads the inquiry “to provide outcomes that are in the best interests of the industry as a whole”, Racing Queensland CEO Dr Eliot Forbes said.

“Mr Monteith’s independent and objective review will be a crucial step towards identifying strategies to help remediate the Eagle Farm surface. RQ is determined to ensure Eagle Farm retains its rightful place as Queensland’s premier track for many years to come.”

Perhaps a place to start for Monteith would be following proceedings in the Brisbane Magistrates Court later this month involving RQ employee Bill Shuck and a contractor Wayne Solomon (known as Innes) alleging they misused information and rorted tendering systems between January 2014 and November 2015 to gain a financial benefit for Innes.

Shuck, 52, a former Racing Queensland procurement officer, and of course whose father Alan presided over the Eagle Farm track for decades, appeared in the Brisbane Magistrates Court on Wednesday, charged with five counts of misconduct in public office and five of fraud after a Queensland Police investigation Operation Yardage.

Shuck is alleged to have provided Solomon (Innes) with a competitor’s quote, and Solomon (Innes) is accused of forging quotes.

Solomon (Innes), 57, also appeared in court on Wednesday on similar charges, as well as an additional six counts of forgery and uttering. When the charges were laid it was alleged the quotations were sent to Shuck for processing.

Court documents show the matters related to upgrades of the Gympie racetrack as well as the major Eagle Farm project.

Evergreen Turf won the tender to rebuild Eagle Farm back in 2014, the track’s first upgrade in 149 years of racing.

This was to oversee:

  • 91,000m2 of grass to be stripped
  • 91,000m2 of kikuyu turf to be laid in its place
  • 65,000m2 of course proper
  • 25,000m3 of sand to be imported
  • 19,000 l/m of drainage pipes
  • A state of the art irrigation system installed.

Much innuendo has flown since the flaws in the Eagle Farm track have been exposed, not to mention two employees tragically killed over the period of the redevelopment and disgruntled unpaid sub-contractors still with much to say, not surprisingly.

The BRC went out of its way last weekend to answer questions that have been asked of the current position. It highlights a clear fallen bridge between RQ and the BRC, though they say now they are working closely together to find solutions. They have no choice and it’s about time. It’s the least Queensland racing, its participants and punters deserve.

“Racing Queensland funded the redevelopment and, as project manager, oversaw the design and building of the track and the subsequent handover to the BRC. Due to funding delays, the tender for the redevelopment was not awarded until two months after racing ended at Eagle Farm,” the BRC stated.

But what was the outcome of those funding delays?

“The original scope for the track was trimmed from $12.7 million to meet the available funding of $10 million. To meet this reduction, Racing Queensland’s changes included the narrowing of the course proper from a width of 40m to 28m, the sprigging of turf instead of laying turf and the reduction of a maintenance period with the track builder, Evergreen, from 12 months to three months.”

What this means is that the much needed maintenance for such a massive project that would have been an on-going one, stopped before racing resumed in 2016.

This meant that Evergreen’s three-month maintenance period expired before racing re-commenced. Contractors would normally maintain a track project such as this for between one and two years.

Evergreen was brought back into the project with a three month maintenance contract in March this year.

“The intent was to ensure that the Brisbane Racing Carnival could be held as planned on an acceptable racing surface.”

Allegations that Monteith’s investigations will include are alleged cost savings in the project allegedly using unscreened topsoil or a lesser grade of turf, possibly a $1m bottom line difference. Whatever has happened, is not right.

But more so the question – if that is so – who approved it and who knew about it and how it got through to delivery.

But this is not so says the BRC in their statement, again drawing a distance from RQ.

“Racing Queensland is the principal under the contract. Factors such as the cost, type of grass and profile were determined by a Tender Evaluation Panel run by Racing Queensland. The BRC had one position on that panel.

“The BRC has seen no evidence of sub-standard materials having been used in building the new track. The concern has been more about the thatch issue. There is a growing school of thought that sand-profile tracks with kikuyu grass are more susceptible to thatch build-up,” it said.

But it is not just the track but the tunnel (two) and new infield stable complex work which should be part of Monteith’s investigations.
Landfill Logistics, a company now in liquidation and linked to Solomon (Innes), a man who also raced many horses trained out of Eagle Farm, did much of the earth works and where much of the grief from unpaid subbies stems.

Landfill Logistics lawyer Nathaniel Delaney told Fairfax Media last year as trouble brewed around the company that (principal contractor) Criscon owed his client a debt in the “mid six figures”.

“The position of the respondent was that it did work on behalf of the BRC,” he said.

“The BRC paid for that work to the developer, Criscon. Criscon withheld payment of monies to our client to wait for it to be wound up, so they wouldn’t have to pay.

“The victims are the subcontractors and our client’s directors.”

He said Landfill director Wayne Innes had wanted to attempt to trade out of insolvency.

“A lot of the bills that are owed to the smaller subcontractors could have been remediated,” Mr Innes said, saying his company simply was not “in a position to pay” the money.

That sits uneasily with the unpaid subbies, with numbers understood over the stages of the project to total well past $1m, who want more action from the BRC and RQ, and investigate any links between the contracts being awarded and work carried out.

And the next issue may well be the work carried out building the new infield stable set-up, with fears that a possible cut corner build leaves the storm water drainage system as an accident waiting to happen, possibly leaving the new stables exposed to flooding.

But that is something that hopefully is also included in Monteith’s review as it’s no point finding a remedy for the track if the area from which the horses supposedly to run on it are being stabled, is another problem.

In the meantime, as the Monteith inquiry proceeds it will also be back to the next hearings in the Brisbane Magistrates Court on June 26 involving Shuck and Solomon (Innes) with some interest no doubt.

And hopefully despite all of this there will finally be a combined effort to rebuild Eagle Farm properly to its rightful glory for the 2018 Stradbroke and of course for all of Brisbane metropolitan racing.