Fix it with flowers at Ripon Racecourse

Lee Williamsin Equestrian

Ripon is known as Yorkshire's Garden Racecourse, due to its most pleasant surroundings and well-kept bedding areas which are often entered into the Yorkshire in Bloom awards. Lee Williams met Carl Tonks, forty-six-year-old, Head Groundsman to find out more.

After a warm welcome from Carl outside the racecourse, we walk through to the paddock. The first thing you see is the lovely well-kept bedding areas and lawns, including old telephone boxes transformed into beautiful displays. Carl explains; "The founding directors of the company had a vision of a friendly place to visit, in nice surroundings. Now, over one hundred years later, that same ethos continues, and we proudly have the title of Yorkshire's Garden Racecourse. At the forefront of our minds is to present a welcoming feeling when visitors enter the course and we feel the numerous planting projects on display achieve this."

"We are long term entrants into Yorkshire in Bloom and have gained many gold awards in a very strong field and have been category winners. We also assist in the presentation of Ripon City in their applications for Britain in Bloom. When we are posed with an issue, we have the term "Fix it with Flowers" and try to reuse old materials for solving problems. For instance, we continually had visitors driving into areas they shouldn't, so we used old wine barrels filled as planters to make bollards and used old stable feed troughs as planters. Also, our redundant telephone boxes have been vertical planters for several years now and we generally theme the planting scheme colours to events or winning owner's silks of the year."

"With an eye on the environment, the arisings from the lawns and track strip are mixed with the used bedding from the stables to generate 20-30 tonnes of compost material. Any excess goes to the local allotments and, currently, we are converting shed roofs to green roofs with immediate success."

Head Groundsman Carl Tonks

"All the plants are produced on-site from seeds or plugs, with around 4,000-6,000 for spring planting and 12,000 for summer schemes. The use of more perennial planting recently has given us the opportunity to lessen the impact of annual plant production, whilst retaining interest and colour."

Carl explains the soil profile and construction of the racecourse (which was actually a farm up until 1900). "It is silty/clay based (56% sand, 31% silt and 13% clay), on top of a natural gravel bed layer - which is common around this area. If you look at an aerial picture of the site, we are surrounded by water. The river Ure is over the road and we have a canal that runs down one side, we also have a lake in the middle of the course, and then the old quarry which is now wetland. When I first started here, I was told the river flooding was a hundred-year occurrence, then someone else said fifty years and, in the ten seasons I have been here, we have been flooded three times. When it floods, we have eighteen inches of water over the site and, with the way land management is now, the last time it flooded it stayed here for a week."

Carl tells me that, although flooding is mainly through the autumn, the course is free draining and generally, within a few hours, everything will disappear. They only have sand slits and drains in their most problematic areas around the track.

Carl makes full use of the fully automatic pop-up irrigation system when required, which is supplied via a borehole. "The Trident system was put in twenty years ago and has since been refreshed to be operated through a computer system which is fantastic. We have over one-hundred Toro sprinkler heads around the course. It just makes irrigating the course that much easier, compared with other systems I have used in the past. Last year, in the summer heatwave, we used over eleven million litres of water."

The general maintenance of the track is carried out between March and October, and Carl has various other events to think about during and after the season, helping the course to gain additional revenue. "Depending on the weather, we start mowing the track around March with a Progressive TDR 12 rear-pulled high speed tipped rotary mower. The British Horse Racing Authority are quite specific on what machines you can use. Ten to fifteen years ago, they pushed us towards using out-front rotary mowers, and there was an issue with stolonic growth, which causes horses to slip over the turf. So, the theory was, if we had out-front rotary mowers, the grass would stand up, and you wouldn't get as much stolonic growth and lodging of the plant. The theory worked, but the technology, for us, wasn't there."

"We generally cut about twice a week at a height of 3.75 inches, which is dictated by the BHA. We will then reverse cut, even though it's a rotary mower; two cuts before the race meeting will be in the direction of travel, so the nap of the grass is up to requirements. After the race meeting, we will cut in the opposite direction and repair all the divots with a soil and seed mixture."

"During the season, we will go through sixty to eighty tonnes of soil and use three bags of seed per race meeting. I tend not to go over the top with the quality of seed, not because I am tight, but you tend to find, with predation, we will lose a certain percentage and it will get kicked out again. How soft the going is will determine the amount of damage, sometimes meaning if it's really soft, we could have holes as deep as four inches, so at least half of that seed is never going to see the light of day."

I asked Carl if he ever uses a heavy roller to help take out the hoof marks. "I tend not to roll as much as we used to. The old practice was to throw a five-tonne roller on, but then you start to get drainage issues. I used the Cambridge roller three-times last year, but it only goes on if I feel it really warrants it. However, the TDR has finishing rollers on it and seems to do the job. I prefer my team to repair the track rather than roll it back. I carry out aeration work with the Soil Reliever, using pencil tines at a depth of seven inches at least three times a year during the season; it takes about twelve hours to do the whole track. In winter, we will use a Soil Reliever with bigger tines."

Renovation of the track takes place immediately after the last race meeting of the season, dependent on the weather. "Over three days, we will gradually take the height of cut down to an inch, vacuum all the arisings off, then springtine harrow - twice clockwise and twice counter-clockwise to rip out most of the thatch. We like to keep a certain percentage in there for the racing season as it gives a cushion. We will vacuum up all the debris left behind from the tine harrow, then soil and seed any divot marks. Next, we overseed the running line (which is four metres from the running rail), with approximately thirty bags using a disc seeder. This is what gets most wear during the season then, three days after, we use the Imants Shockwave."

Part of the BHA's mandate is that the racecourse has to contract an agronomist to provide a report annually and Carl uses STRI. "The turf culture needed assistance years ago, because the knowledge base in the racecourse industry wasn't as all-encompassing as it could be. Working closely with STRI over the last fifteen years has helped the racecourse industry move on quite dramatically. We have been recommended more viable products than we used in the past; it used to be agriculturally based up until then. We now use a lot more professional groundsman techniques; areas of weak sward will receive individual treatment, using a specific fertiliser, rather than just spreading a 20:10:10 all over the track. Our fertiliser programme depends on the annual soil results, but we will generally fertilise twice a year; once before the start of the season to give it a boost using 65 bags of 16:4:10 and, in the hard wear areas, we will use an organic product. The second application of 85 bags of 5:2:8 will go down in July over the whole of the track."

Carl tells me his boss is a fan of green and yellow, so all machinery is generally bought outright through Ripon Farm Services, the local John Deere supplier.

Carl is from the Black Country in the West Midlands, which is heavily industrialised, and his parents didn't want him to enter that industry. He has always been interested in working in the countryside, which led him to go to agricultural college. "I started my career on farms in the late '80s, but at the time that industry was suffering quite a bit and I saw there was a part-time job going at Wolverhampton racecourse as a sample unit security officer. With my experience dealing with horses, I took that job up for a season and then, because I could drive tractors, I fell into a job as a groundsman at the course. I started at the point where Wolverhampton was changing the course from a national hunt track to an all-weather one (which I think made it the third all-weather track in the country at the time). Nigel Thornton, Head Groundsman at the time, was offered the same position at Epsom Downs and, not long after he went there, he asked me to join him. I then spent fifteen years at Epsom, working in various positions - predominantly on the track, but I did spend four years with the ranger services. The racecourse is in the middle of the 'downs' alongside a golf course and training grounds. It was a good education base for me, and I learned a lot in my time there. Many of the other lads I worked with at the time have gone on to become Head Groundsmen at other racecourses around the country. I eventually realised I wanted to progress my career, so decided to go on a few management courses. This led me to apply for various head groundsman positions and, eventually, I was lucky enough to get the job here at Ripon - I'm now in my tenth season."

I asked Carl if he enjoys the job and what are the challenges he faces. "Yes, I love my job. It's very varied and every day is different. What you find, at smaller racecourses, is the Head Groundsman position encompasses pretty much everything, so I'm responsible for the maintenance of the track, gardens, lawns, parade ground, the lake, car parks, maintenance on the buildings, and managing contractors … the list goes on."

Helping Carl look after the racecourse is David White (64), Groundsman, with sixteen years' service; Martin Johnson (52), Groundsman - nine years' service; John Ireland (59), Groundsman - twelve years' service; David Dalton (60), Gardener - forty-four years' service and Ted Pyman (53), Cleaner - ten years' service. Carl also has around ten casual staff helping to put out the benches, bins and various other jobs before race day. This rises to thirty on a race day carrying out additional jobs such as treading back hoof marks on the track. The day after the race, he generally has around twenty casuals going around the track with soil and seed.

Carl and the team on his wedding day (left to right): Ted Pyman, David White, Carl, Martin Johnson, John Ireland, David Dalton

Course history

The first recorded horseraces in the Ripon area took place in 1664 on Bondgate Green. Over the next 236 years, several other venues were used to stage race meetings. Indeed, during one meeting in 1723, Ripon racegoers witnessed horseracing history, when they watched the first ever race exclusively for lady riders.

However, none of the historic venues had long-lasting success, and it took the opening of the current course on Boroughbridge Road, in 1900, to establish Ripon as a regular flat racing venue and it has been an important fixture on the racing scene ever since.

The very first meeting at the modern course was held on the sixth of August 1900 and, since that time, the racecourse has developed so well, it is now regarded as the sporting flagship of this medieval market town.

Well respected within the industry and a popular choice with Yorkshire based owners, Ripon earned the title of 'Best Small Racecourse in the North' as voted by the Racegoers Club in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

With total prize money well in excess of a million pounds, the fixture list at Ripon incorporates some outstanding races. In August alone, the course stages two major highlights. The William Hill Great St Wilfred Handicap is a six-furlong sprint which is named after the town's patron saint, and due to the large number of runners, and the vagaries of the draw, it quite often requires divine inspiration to select the winner. Later in the month, On August bank holiday Monday, Ripon stages its Listed EBF Champion Two-Year-Old Trophy which often attracts leading young horses from major stables.

Staging only flat racing, horses run right-handed over an undulating oval course measuring one mile five furlongs in circumference. There is a sharp bend into the home straight, and the straight is one of the longest in the country, being five furlongs in length. The last furlong of the run-in is noticeably uphill with undulations and on softer going stamina becomes very important. On firm or good going, statistically, at least, the sprint course favours low drawn horses.

What's in the shed

John Deere 1850 tractor
John Deere 5065 tractor
John Deere 310 ride-on mower
John Deere 155 ride-on mowerJohn Deere Gator SUX4
Trilo S7
Progressive TDR 12
Major TPL 11
3 tonne trailer x 2
Cambridge roller
5 tonne trailer
John Deere 55 CK walk-behind mower
John Deere 55 JS walk-behind mower
Vicon spreader 200kg
600 Litre tractor mounted sprayer
Flail 6ft topper
Stihl chainsaws x 2
Stihl strimmers x 2
Stihl backpack blower
Stihl handheld blower
Billy Goats x 2

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