By Andrew Spence
When Australia stops for the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, workers at a small manufacturing company in the Adelaide Hills will have more riding on it than just the office sweepstake.
The world’s biggest starting gate, made by Steriline Racing at Mount Barker, will send the field on its way in Australia’s most famous race, which is also the world’s second richest.
The South Australian company has become the dominant force in starting gates in the thoroughbred racing industry worldwide, designing and building gates in more than 50 countries, including famous courses such as Royal Ascot in England, Meydan in Dubai and Hong Kong’s Sha Tin and Happy Valley circuits.
Steriline Racing gates have been used to start the world’s richest race – the $US10 million Dubai World Cup – for more than two decades.
But it is Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne and Australia’s famous $6.2 million race that holds a special place in Steriline Racing chief executive officer John Fargher’s heart.
“It’s everyone in the industry’s dream to be associated with the Melbourne Cup because it’s a spectacle, it’s got a global audience of millions of people watching and it gets coverage everywhere around the racing world,” he said.
Steriline has done work at Flemington since the 1990s and was asked to build the 25-stall starting gate ahead of the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup – the race that stops the nation – in 2010.
Fargher said previously the world’s biggest gate was 20-stalls wide, meaning that large fields in races such as the Melbourne Cup and some Royal Ascot events required multiple sets of gates.
The 25-stall gates have since been used regularly for races that start in the Flemington straight such as the 24-horse Melbourne Cup and sprint races down the “straight six”.
“When we were asked to build it, it was only going to be used for the very special, very large field races, which might have only been a few times a year. But since it’s been installed they’ve realised how much easier it is to use so they’ve used it on a regular basis,” Fargher said.
Steriline’s work at Flemington has not been limited to the track.
It played a major role in the rebuilding of the famous Birdcage area in 2007 when a 180m tunnel was constructed from the parade ring to the mounting yard to provide safe access for horses and prevent overcrowding on busy race days.
Steriline also replaced the Flemington clocktower in 2014, which is part of racing folklore because its positioning at the 150m mark was regarded by legendary Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Bart Cummings as the ideal place for jockeys to unleash their final sprint to the finishing post.
“The challenge with the clocktower was the old tower was condemned through age,” Fargher said.
“However, it had some historic value so we had to make it look like it used to look but bring it up to safety and Australian building standards, which was almost an impossible task.
“The success was that some people didn’t even know that a new tower had been put up.”
Steriline manufactures a range of other products for the global racing industry such as running rails, greyhound starting boxes, winning posts and fencing for mounting yards.
Already this year, Steriline’s 13 full-time staff and local contractors have built and installed new starting gates at tracks in England, Sweden, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates.
Steriline isn’t the only South Australian company to dominate manufacturing for sports events. FCT Flames in Adelaide has been involved with every summer Olympic Games since Sydney 2000, including the recent Rio Games.
Despite the busy schedule, Fargher is hoping to be at Flemington on Tuesday.
“It’s obviously the spectacle of the year but it’s also the busiest time for us because there’s spring carnivals right across Australia to celebrate the Melbourne Cup so we’re stretched pretty thin on the ground in the weeks leading up,” he said.
“We’ve had people in Victoria servicing starting gates now for several weeks, including at Flemington, and we’re doing a lot of other work around Australia as well.”
And is Fargher confident everything will go smoothly when the starter hits the button for the 3200m race?
“We’re naturally confident because history has proved that but you can’t help but be anxious because after all, it’s only a machine,” he said.
“The joke in the Steriline organisation is that once the starter presses the button we can relax because our job’s done even though the race has only just begun.
“We also have a caption saying ‘On the first Tuesday in November when Australia stops, Steriline starts’.”