Climate challenge at Cheltenham Racecourse

Jane Carleyin Equestrian

The impact of the hot summer on sportsturf was seen long after the clocks went back, and for racing's 'winter game', stubbornly dry ground presented ongoing issues.

Watering systems remained in use when they would previously have been packed away for the winter, yet small field sizes and the absence of some of the sport's equine stars from the track continued to cause controversy.

This is just one of the challenges facing the relatively new team at jump racing's headquarters Cheltenham, where technology meets tradition and groundsmanship is very much in the media and public spotlight.

Clerk of the course Jon Pullin had big shoes to fill when replacing Simon Claisse, who retired after twenty years in the role in December 2021. The former racing director at ARC, who was responsible for a team of thirteen clerks of the course already had plenty of experience on the ground, however, having served as clerk at Doncaster, Uttoxeter, Southwell and Wolverhampton.

"Working alongside Simon when I joined Jockey Club Racecourses in the October was enormously helpful and it's a very enjoyable role, with the Festival as the highlight," he says.

That first Festival proved a baptism of fire, with dry conditions in the run-up and an uncertain forecast indicating that watering was needed ahead of the second day. The deluge that followed and the resulting criticism from trainers who believed that their charges' chances had gone shows the complexity of the decisions.

Significant investment in irrigation equipment, with the addition of two 50m Briggs booms, plus another 30m boom on order, may help in future.

"We can use selective irrigation, switching off nozzles to put water on only where it is needed, plus the booms give more even distribution," Jon explains. "However, we are still to some extent at the mercy of the weather."

An indication of further irrigation dilemmas to come this year began with annual renovations after Cheltenham's April meeting.

"We scarified the whole track and then came the heatwave. Irrigation water is drawn from two brooks that surround the course and, from June, they were dry so we were reliant on our stores."

"There were some dry spots and the grass certainly took longer to recover," recalls head groundsman Alastair King. "For the two days in October, we watered to 'good' and then in the run up to the November meeting, we started to see some rain. It was initially good to soft and then we had some dry days so had to irrigate again ahead of each day's racing."

Cheltenham's unique expanse of turf which allows 'old' and 'new' courses to run side by side, then sees the 'old' course rested until the Festival with the 'new' course used for December and January meetings.

In March, action starts on the 'old' course before switching to the 'new' course for the final two days of action, a feat of planning and groundsmanship that gives the best possible conditions for the sport's most valuable racehorses across the four-day meeting.

Between meetings, a team of sixty 'treaders' replace divots and fill with sand and compost and, after the November meeting, the 'old' course was overseeded and levelled, with germination sheets added as necessary to encourage recovery.

The new course had not been irrigated as November normally sees the return of what is termed 'proper winter ground' by the time it is in use.

Dry conditions have also led to some changes to the popular cross country race programme, with the opening race over the more varied obstacles in the centre of the course postponed from the November to the January meeting.

"We had to prioritise the main track so didn't have the resources to water the cross country as well," explains Jon. "We've kept the rainguns for this part of the course as the fence layout is too complex to use booms."

The 2021-22 season was unusual in that the mild conditions avoided the need for time-consuming and costly application of frost covers, and a bonus of higher temperatures of 2022 have seen good recovery of the sward between the October and November meetings.

"We've switched to 4Tetra 100% tetraploid ryegrass which will germinate down to three or four degrees, and within seven days in mild conditions," comments Alastair. "Granular fertiliser has also been changed to a slow release Sierrablen product from ICL which gives good colour and steady growth; it is applied in the early autumn and we keep an eye on the health of the turf to see if it needs feeding again in early March."

"We want to present the best possible ground for every fixture, but always have to bear in mind the impact on March," he says.

Eagle eyed spectators will see that the jumps themselves have a new look this year - research indicated that horses can judge the fences better if the rails in them are white rather than the traditional orange, and after successful trials in 2021-22, this has been rolled out across the industry.

"It's early days, but the signs on reduced faller rates are encouraging," comments Jon.

Cheltenham is currently sticking with traditional brush hurdles for the moment however, awaiting more information on the success of padded hurdles. Another track in the Jockey Club Racecourse portfolio, Market Rasen, has just switched to this type of hurdle which should help with the data.

Hurdles - or the lack of them - has become another talking point. Unseasonably sunny afternoons at the November meeting meant protracted discussions about whether hurdles in the home straight should be bypassed to avoid the risk of jockeys being dazzled by low sun when approaching them, potentially causing falls.

"There's a protocol which means that we have to take direction from the jockeys at the start of the race based on the light conditions at the time," Jon explains. "This is under review. We've already rearranged the programme so that steeplechases are scheduled before the sun starts to drop. It's something that Simon (Claisse) did a lot of work on but there's no easy answer."

Caring for the track includes minimising ground pressure from tractor movements where possible, and to this end, Ransomes batwing mowers are used to cut down to 11cm for racing, with mowing the 27ha of track taking a full day with the two machines.

Left: Jon Pullin - Clerk of the Course Right: Alastair King - Head Groundsman

Where tractors and other machinery are concerned, Jockey Club Racecourses' preferred supplier agreement with John Deere gives access to some of the latest equipment including electric Gator utility vehicles trialled at the October meeting.

Jon and Alastair - who is in his first season as head groundsman having joined the Cheltenham team in 2019, and is joined this year by Nathan Williams, previously at Hereford, as assistant head groundsman - pay tribute to the contribution of the 'incredible experience' in the eleven-strong grounds team.

"We both benefit from the fact that if an issue arises, someone in the team will probably have experienced it before," comments Jon. "It's hard for racegoers to appreciate the incredible team effort that goes into the Festival, especially switching between tracks on the Wednesday evening. We have help from groundsmen who come from other Jockey Club tracks for the week and that's also invaluable."

It's an undertaking that would have been even greater had plans mooted to extend the Festival to five days come to pass.

"We would have made it work, but it would have been a serious strain on the team during the week, when you consider that we are either watering in the evenings or dealing with the effects of wet weather," comments Alastair. "We're relieved to stay at four - but it will still be all hands on deck!"

The appliance of science

When we visited Cheltenham on one of the last sunny days in November, the parade ring which had thronged with racegoers just a week earlier was serenely peaceful, despite groundsman Callum Bourke being hard at work with the Dennis pedestrian mower.

The lack of noise - apart from the clip of the blades - can be attributed to the battery power source of the Dennis ES-860, an 860mm cut cylinder mower which can also be fitted with a variety of maintenance tools using the company's interchangeable cassette system.

"As a group, we are starting to explore electric power options and we've been very pleased with the Dennis that we have on trial so far," comments Jon.

New technology has also been deployed for the parade ring surface itself which was re-laid this summer with a hybrid turf by Carrick Sports.

"We had 21mm of rain during the 2022 Festival and it became a mudbath - you couldn't walk on it," explains Jon. "We saw the turf in use at a Rugby League club and realised it could work."

The original turf was stripped and extra drainage added before the profile was built up and the artificial carpet laid in strips with 65mm fibres exposed, along with pop up irrigation. Then 50mm of rootzone was added and the surface was seeded.

Article by Jane Carley.

Article Tags: