Industrial Electrics

Off to the races for Gordon McKay



A Victorian contractor has put its experience to good use by lighting up a regional race track. Paul Skelton reports.

Australia is a gambling nation. As a country, we spend around $18 billion each year trying to land that elusive big win. That’s around $1,500 per person.

For me, it’s the horses; that’s what I was raised watching – I think I placed my first bet when I was about seven.

But more than racing, I love technology. And over the 25-odd years since I placed my first bet, there have been a lot of developments in the technology that makes racing possible.

Recently, the team from Gordon McKay Electrical Services designed and installed a new lighting management system at Victoria’s Pakenham Racing Club that had to meet the stringent requirements of riders and horses, viewing patrons, and local and external TV broadcasting during the running of night races.

“Controlled spill lighting to viewing areas provides a soft and warming effect with zero glare, allowing patrons trackside access without shadow obstruction,” says Gordon McKay operations manager Andrew Sargent.

“At the jump, horses and jockey colours can be easily distinguished. Focused lighting on the course proper allows the eyes to fully fix on the race with the 56 lighting masts vanishing into the background.

“As the horses enter the turn, enhanced lighting builds the excitement of the cheering patrons all the way to the finishing post, where back lighting and shadow control lighting allow the colour of a horse’s nose to determine a photo finish.

“This experience of trackside racing is also felt by the thousands of punters located around the world with TV broadcast-quality lighting providing clarity and sharpness to their viewing from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the local TAB or the comfort of their own lounge.”

The requirement to light two race tracks using the existing power network, which was incapable of handling the increased capacity, challenged the Gordon McKay team to develop a solution that wouldn’t impact the overall project cost.

The original project brief asked for a centrally-located network power compound to be built to house the required network equipment and one essential power generator with an option to provide an additional 2,000kVA generator to power the complete site should the need arise.

With budget restraints a major factor in the project’s success, Gordon McKay offered an alternative solution that would not only create considerable project savings but also incorporate any future requirements.

Specifically, the team offered to split the centrally-located compound into two compounds, each located at the extremes of the race course. This thinking allowed commonly available generator sets to be incorporated into the works at a similar value to the original concept.

Coupled with use of today’s high speed network solutions, the dual compound approach allows the club seamless control of both locations from one central location.


“With initial tender figures far exceeding the original budget figures Racing Victoria and the Pakenham Racing Club, they sort to reduce the scope of works to ensure the future of the proposed lighting project.

“But final tender submissions based on a reduced scope were also unable to bring the project’s overall costs within the required budget and would inhibit the projects approval.

“Gordon McKay was then approached by Racing Victoria to review the proposed scope and make recommendations that would help reduce the project’s overall costs. Calling upon our past experience with the racing industry and applying innovative thinking on how the race course was to be operated, Gordon McKay was able to provide an alternative to the base offer that reduced the overall projected cost by around 40% while having no effect on the final result.”

This was achieved by:

  • Altering minor cosmetic details, such as changing the lighting mast structure to a standard 16-side mast;
  • Decentralisation of the power compound from one large, centrally-located compound to two smaller compounds located at each end of the race course. This reduced the cost of the generators and greatly reduced the length and size of cabling to be installed; and,
  • Providing local control panels, which allowed changing from Astroturf to a real grass surface at each mast and reduced the requirement to install individual feeder cables.

Being awarded the project after the 2016 racing season calendar was published challenged Gordon McKay with an extremely tight seven-month construction period.

“The development of fork-mounted cable stands allowed cable installation to progress at a greatly increased rate while reducing the risk of having exposed trenches through the unpredictable Victorian winter/spring weather, and similarly reducing exposure to horses and jockeys at race meetings and during daily track use.”

In all, 56 lighting masts supporting 1,190 light fittings powered by four generators, 58 control panels and 150,000m of cable was installed and fully commissioned three weeks early.

“The two tracks are now illuminated from 56 steel lighting masts ranging in height from 12m to 40m, supporting 1,190 2kW floodlights which equals 2.38MW of lighting.

“4km of trenching and 150,000m of electrical cable is powered by four diesel generators capable of supplying 2.75MW.”

All of this is centrally controlled by course officials.

The Gordon McKay team identify a new device called the Active Reactor as a major factor in getting this job completed on budget and ahead of schedule.

Developed in Australia, the Active Reactor was designed to enable the efficient control and operation of high intensity discharge (HID) lamps. The device uses a microchip and electronics to control the starting and running of 150W to 2,000W high pressure sodium and metal halide lamps commonly used in street lighting, floodlighting, industrial and sports lighting.

It also delivers substantial energy savings, greenhouse gas reductions and lamp life extension when used with HID lamps.

“The device, which incorporates a dimming capability, allows track officials full control over the lighting system via a computer-based SCADA control system, including the ability to dim the lights to 60% of the design level before, in-between and at the conclusion of races to save energy.”

Unlike other construction sites, minor details mattered a great deal in this project. For example, a loose cable tie or a scrap of insulation tape could spook a horse with horrifying results. It was important to constantly be reminded of this fact.

As project manager Rob Morris put it: “Faced with what seemed to be a near impossible challenge created by an extremely tight budget and tighter construction period, confirmed that good pre-project planning, innovative thinking in how the works were to be executed and the willingness of the client, suppliers and subcontractors to fully collaborate in a responsive and accessible manner can transform what appears to be unachievable into achievable with results exceeding expectations.”

About Paul Skelton

Paul Skelton

Multiple award seeking journalist and magazine editor Paul Skelton has been involved with the electrical industry for the best part of a decade. Email him at

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