If you head down to Darling Street, Broadmeadow these days, you’ll find Newcastle Racecourse – but not as you know it.
An on-course and trackside facelift, years and millions of dollars in the making, has been unveiled at the facility, creating one of the best horse racing surfaces in the country and a venue that provides so much more than just a great day at the races.
At the heart of the changes is the $11.2 million redevelopment of the course proper funded by Racing NSW, which saw the sometimes problematic main surface rebuilt as a new all-weather track.
A further $2.5 million was spent by Newcastle Jockey Club (NJC) to upgrade everything from the stewards’ towers, railing and fencing on track, to a number of bar facilities used by the punters trackside.
But it is more than just the physical facilities that have undergone somewhat of a rebirth at Broadmeadow.
While the Newcastle Jockey Club will remain at the core of the horse racing activities, a decision was also made to rebrand the entire racing precinct under the banner of Newcastle Racecourse, paving the way for a broader understanding of what a trip to the venue might involve.
With so much going on at Darling Street lately, we decided to take a closer look this month at what the “new” Newcastle Racecourse is all about.
They say good things are worth waiting for, and in the case of the main track at Broadmeadow, the wait has certainly been worth it.
The seeds of the redevelopment were sown as far back as 2011, when issues with the surface of the track flagged the need for its eventual total rebuild.
The process began in earnest in September 2014 when the turf was stripped from the adjacent Beaumont track, which was first in line for an upgrade so as to be able to take on the racing duties while the major project on the course proper was completed.
New turf was laid in April 2015, with the first race meeting held on the Beaumont track in October that year – the same month work on the main track commenced.
During the next seven months the conventional profile track was replaced with a sand-based, all-weather system by contractors StrathAyr, who first laid sub-soil drainage pipes to harvest storm water, followed by 100mm of gravel, 110mm of plain sand, 120mm of mesh-reinforced sand and a 20mm layer of sand and Peat moss, capped off with a top layer of turf.
All in all, it took 60,000 tonnes of sand and aggregate base and more than 100,000 square metres of Kikuyu grass to redevelop the track, which has a circumference of 2016m.
The final piece of turf was laid in May 2016, with a decision made to give the new surface the next 10 months to properly bed in before the course proper was officially opened at the Newcastle Newmarket Race Day last month.
NJC CEO Matt Benson said the end result was the creation of a track that is second to none in NSW and among the best racing surfaces in all of Australia.
“The club to its credit (and this happened before I got here), made a commitment that the track would have the best part of a year to consolidate and mature – and that patient approach has paid back in spades,” he said.
“The nature of this track, being a sand-based, all-weather very free draining track, means that you need the grass roots to get down right through the matrix, so the whole track settles and binds if you like and creates the compound that means it will withstand the pressures of racing.
“That has been happening since last April and the track is in perfect condition.
“We’ve had a dryish summer, so we had some challenges over summer keeping the water up to this sandy, thirsty beast. We’re learning a lot about how to manage that but I think we’ve got it right and we’ve had a wonderful contribution from Racing NSW from some of their experts about how to manage this, StrathAyr who put the track in have been really helpful… so we’re very excited that it will tick all the boxes because of the preparation.
“We’ve had a set of trials on it, we had four races on it in the first week of February, all the feedback from the top jockeys was that it was as good a racing surface as they’ve ever been on in NSW and our view is it’ll be as good a racing surface as anywhere in Australia.”
While the main focus has been on the redevelopment of the course proper and the Beaumont track, as well as a renovation of Broadmeadow’s Pro-Ride synthetic training track, there has been plenty of action happening trackside as well.
Around $2.5 million was spent by the NJC on ancillary projects, such as upgrading the stewards’ towers, installing new railing and perimeter fencing, water storage, reticulation, landscaping and internal fencing.
But Mr Benson, who was appointed CEO of the NJC in February 2016, said one of his key priorities since arriving in Newcastle has been ensuring that the horses and jockeys weren’t the only ones to benefit from upgraded facilities.
This included renovating or upgrading three bars at the venue to provide contemporary and classy surrounds that would enhance the race day experience.
The former Newmarket Café adjacent to the betting ring was completed, renovated and renamed the Newmarket Bar, featuring a full-length blonde timber bar with exposed brick, industrial-style furniture and a colour palette of granite, neutral and cream.
The perfect place to meet friends before, during and after the races with full TAB facilities, TV screens, hot food, beer, wine and spirits on offer, it has three walls of windows to ensure racegoers can keep up with what’s happening outside as well.
The bar also offers extended operating hours, allowing the good vibes to continue for an additional hour after the last race at Newcastle has been run and won.
Well-known and respected firm EJE Architecture was brought in to totally transform the former Broadmeadow Bar, which is located underneath the grandstand area.
It reopened as the Ascot Bar in time for the Hunter Jaguar Land Rover Spring Racing Carnival in September last year, boasting a fresh new industrial-inspired look complete with striking black iron beams, a silver, grey and black colour scheme and an expanse of windows showcasing an inviting
grassy outdoor area adjacent to the track.
The Mark Murphy Lounge, located above Chevals Restaurant and adjacent to the public grandstand, was also on the receiving end of a facelift that helped create a modern and versatile space where you can enjoy the races in air conditioned comfort with one of the best views of the track. It is also perfect for corporate functions and can be configured in a number of different ways.
“I was determined when I first got here and saw the magnitude and significance of the course proper construction and the track redevelopment that it was really important the club seized the opportunity to also change how it looked and felt,” Mr Benson said.
“The (NJC) Board was very supportive of my eagerness to make sure there was plenty happening on our side of the fence as well.
“We’ve got a new public bar, the Ascot Bar, which has been renovated and was opened just before the Spring Carnival last year and that’s been hugely successful. We’ve opened a new bar and food servery in the old Newmarket Café, which has been totally refurbished (as the Newmarket Bar).
“Obviously there are more plans as far as upgrading the public facilities and the members’ [facilities] in the future, but we’ve got to stage that approach because it would just cost too much to do it all at once.
“But we wanted to make sure the good experience here with a new track wasn’t just for the horses and the jockeys, that actually if you came along here to the races you saw a difference.
“The track’s fantastic, the facilities are improved and being worked on, and the place has got a new look and feel.”
As part of creating a new “feel” at the Broadmeadow venue, it was decided a new identity would be given to the racecourse precinct, distinct from the NJC.
The racing club’s logo was refreshed with a traditional yet contemporary style that acknowledges its unique and significant history, while the venue itself was rebranded as the Newcastle Racecourse, with its logo featuring the year 1907 in a nod to the year racing commended at the Broadmeadow site.
“Along with the track re-birth and facilities upgrade we have also rejuvenated the logo for Newcastle Jockey Club and created a new brand identity for our racing precinct,” Mr Benson said.
“We seized the opportunity to refresh our look and feel at this significant moment in the club’s history.
“Our new track is a re-birth for racing in Newcastle and the region – and so it was crucial to align a re-birth of our image as well.”
Mr Benson said this separation of the Club from the venue was similar to what had been done at other major horse racing clubs in Australia, allowing for the development of a brand that was about more than just the racing experience.
“We engaged professional advice on how to approach a brand and logo review, and a lot of that market research showed … that people don’t relate to racing clubs, they relate to the venue,” Mr Benson said.
“It’s no different to Randwick and the ATC; you don’t say to people you’re going to the Australian Turf Club this weekend - you’re going to Randwick.
“The key was to promote Newcastle and celebrate the wonderful location of this facility in the Newcastle centre because as a racetrack it’s as well located as any in Australia being virtually in the centre of town.
“The message is also that it’s not just about a jockey club - even though the jockey club is still very much at the nerve centre of what happens here – but if you come here, it’s not just a jockey club, it’s a great day at the races.
“That market research is consistent all around Australia that people want to come to the races, but the races are a backdrop to a good time.
“If you look at our two days of the Spring Carnival, they are like chalk and cheese, they could be two totally different events.
“Newcastle Cup Day is on a Friday, and that is more of a corporate, more middle-aged type day and then Ladies Day on the Saturday is a far younger crowd and more of a party.
“Everything changes between those two days, what the crowd wants, what they drink, what they eat, everything changes.
“A purist would say ‘Why would you come to the races on a Saturday, there’s no Group racing?’ But the people who turn up on a Saturday aren’t here for Group racing, they’re here because they love the fashion, they want to catch up with friends, they want to listen to some music, of course they want to see lovely horses and have a bet and enjoy the festivities and the environment that the races provide, but the races are the backdrop to other things.”
The new brand also allows Newcastle Racecourse to more readily promote its other burgeoning market – non-race day events.
With a host of indoor and outdoor spaces, the venue offers a high quality and versatile option for event organisers looking to put on everything from a gala dinners, expos or music festivals to a business brunch, training session or company conference.
The permanent installation of the Stables and Pavilion marquees on the lawn also make it ideally suited for brides-to-be looking to create their dream open air wedding experience.
“If somebody wants to come here because they love the idea of getting married adjacent to the gorgeous track, next to the mounting yard in a marquee, they don’t want to do that at the Newcastle Jockey Club, they want to do that at the Newcastle Racecourse,” Mr Benson said.
“It’s an important but subtle change in how we market this place for both racing and non-racing events.
“To the general public, we want them to see we’re more than just a jockey club. We’re a facility that has functions, events and trade shows and lots of things happening, and when you come here it’s not about being a member, it’s about coming along and enjoying a day at the races or one of the other events that we put on.”
Of course, the best event venue can be let down by poor catering, but with a new chef, new menus, and a new hospitality manager on the scene, the dining options at Newcastle Racecourse are also second to none.
Leading the change is Glynn Haslam, General Manager of Hospitality, who, along with new head chef Jamie Catalogna, are helping to bring an exceptional, fine-dining experience to both race and non-race day events at the track.
From delicious new finger food options and gourmet mains to mouth-watering dessert towers guaranteed to tempt the taste buds, visitors to the track are savouring the chance to indulge in a meal or enjoy a light snack.
With all that has been happening on and off the course at the Broadmeadow track, there’s no better time to head down to Darling Street and check out Newcastle Racecourse - because it’s certainly not as you knew it!
Images courtesy of Newcastle Racecourse