Riding high at Naunton Downs Golf Club

Jane Carleyin Golf

At first sight, golf and racehorses could be uneasy stablemates, although the two do co-exist on a number of racecourses, with the golf providing income and a good use of the centre course area.

But, developing a purpose-built racehorse training facility alongside - and in fact, through - a golf course?

It was, however, the perfect vision for trainer Ben Pauling, when along with wife Sophie, he was looking for a new base for his growing business. Formerly assistant trainer to Nicky Henderson in Lambourn, Ben's stable had already scored at jumps racing's holy grail, the Cheltenham Festival, and he was ready to progress.

Rather than just find another stable yard - with which his home in the Cotswolds is well-blessed, both long-established businesses for some of the legends of the business as well as state of the art new premises - the couple wanted to create a sporting and lifestyle destination.

Three years on, rapid strides are being made in that direction.

Naunton Downs Golf Club, an 18-hole members club which is part of a 200 acre estate between Stow-on-the-Wold and Cheltenham, was developed some 34 years ago from farmland, and had come onto the market in 2019.

"It's situated at one of the highest points of the Cotswolds with shallow soil over stone," explains head greenkeeper Shaun Kench. "The course was rather run down when Ben and Sophie purchased it, and I was asked to apply for the role at the start of the project to redevelop it in 2020."

Head Greenkeeper Shaun Kench

Shaun began his career by switching from being an aspiring pro to a greenkeeper at Heythrop Park where he worked his way up to assistant course manager. He was then headhunted by Magnolia Park, venue for the EuroPro and Jamega Professional Tours and which even hosted the World Cup of Footgolf.

"I'd gained experience of developing a golf course at Heythrop Park, and went on to be course and estates manager at Magnolia Park, so it felt like a natural progression to come to Naunton Downs and I was very excited by what Ben and Sophie had in mind," he says.

An early task was to assess the machinery that had come with the club, refurbishing and upgrading the equipment to bring the course back to life, before planning investment in new machines. Jacobsen greens and fairway mowers have been joined by a Toro Reelmaster and Pro Core - described as a vital piece of kit - plus a Toro Groundsmaster 3500.

"We had no way of cutting the sloping roughs previously; we hire in a Trimax Snake periodically for large roughs. I've got lots of experience with Toro equipment and in my view it's hard to beat."

Then the redevelopments began. Ben worked with architects Courtingtons to design a training complex that would not only offer the highest level of welfare and preparation to produce winners, but also offer an experience to the owners of the horses not commonly associated with the equine world.

There are 94 modern stables, welfare barn with equine hydrotherapy spa and solarium, schooling areas and trotting ring, all designed in a horseshoe shape around the gallops.

The site for the complex was at the time occupied by the 15th and 16th hole.

"In fact, this was the worst draining area of the course, and we were able to identify other areas of the course better suited to two new holes," explains Shaun. "For example, the landscape at Naunton Downs benefits from many belts of mature trees, but ash dieback had taken its toll and in one particular area the Forestry Commission backed our proposal to take the affected trees out and create a new hole."

Another major change was the development of the training gallops.

A two furlong round sand gallop adjacent to the stable block is used for routine work, but at the rear of the stables, a six furlong carpet gallop dissects the golf course and snakes up the hill, providing the workout for legs and lungs needed to build the horses' stamina.

Left Ben watches one of his racehorses on the hill gallop, which runs through the centre of the course

"This was the perfect site for it, running along a natural tree line. Members often stop the jockeys for a chat about their prospects on the way back to the yard!" comments Shaun.

His attention then turned to a new greenkeeping regime to suit the course which has the feel of an inland links, and to be sensitive to the fact that it sits in the Cotswold AONB.

"It's a very dry area, and there's about 2in of soil over the Cotswold stone. I've increased the cut height by 2mm to help to thicken the sward, allowing it to withstand wear for longer. We focus on the presentation of the greens, which are USGA spec and have irrigation."

Away from the greens, a more natural look is being fostered.

"There's more play in the greens than on the surrounding areas and it's more productive to allow some growth on the roughs, plus it adds to the course's appearance and benefits wildlife."

Rye and Meadow Grass varieties from the original build have been retained, overseeding with DLF's Greenscape 51 for tees and approaches and Masterline PM15 Green AllBent on the greens boosts populations.

Ben (centre) with members of new partners The Wigley Group, his wife Sophie (third right) and Mark Schofield (right) of the Kershaw Group.

Fertiliser goes on in March and October before aeration, with a light granule application in June to extend the life of the greens in the busiest - and driest - part of the year.

"We'd aim for something like 4:0:4, but fertiliser is hard to get at the moment so sometimes it's what's available. As well as wetting agents, I also make use of humic acid, seaweed and foliar mix for colour."

Piles of logs from tree work are creating 'bug hotels' to encourage beneficials and wildflower planting enhances the surrounds.

To replace trees lost to ash dieback, 2000 saplings have been planted, creating new habitats and adding challenge to the course.

The existing irrigation system has been upgraded with a new computer control system, auto pressurisation of the pump, and additional heads on five tees.

"I went through every single one of the 120 heads to check its arc and distribution," comments Shaun. "Some of the greens are very large so it's important that the irrigation goes where it's meant to! I'm planning to add a further 20 heads."

This system is fed by a 350,000 cu/m reservoir, supplied by rainwater, with a feeder tank and level valve - a limited amount of mains water is also available.

Shaun's team numbers three full time greenkeepers plus seasonal help; he also has responsibility for the formal lawns and presentation areas at the training yard.

Communication with members has been key to helping them embrace the changes, with Shaun writing a monthly blog, and spending time on the course to discuss any issues.

It's a skill that will become even more key as Naunton Downs enters its next phase. After a phenomenally successful 2022-3 season for Ben Pauling Racing with 82 winners, more changes are afoot.

When purchasing Naunton Downs, Ben and Sophie's intention was always to make the most of the scenic estate, and planning permission for a 500sqm events barn was part of the deal.
Hospitality specialists Kershaw Partners were engaged to investigate the commercial opportunities and partner Mark Schofield explains:

"Naunton Downs Golf Club had a dwindling membership, a course that needed investment and a clubhouse in need of updating. The food and beverage side has huge potential and is a long term plan that is intended to produce a viable business not just for Ben and Sophie but also for their daughters."

Refocusing as a leisure estate rather than as a golf club will include taking the course down from eighteen to nine holes.
Shaun is looking at how to reconfigure the course for this ready for a relaunch in October; using different tees golfers can still play 18 holes, while the larger greens could house two flags.

Courtingtons is on board once again for the build, and another project for the busy team at Naunton Downs is the development of a new grass gallop for the racing yard. This will run alongside the all-weather hill gallop, offering the opportunity to train horses on turf footing.

Lifestyle destinations are not unknown in the area with Soho Farmhouse and Daylesford close by, but Mark emphasises that this will be more of a community venue.

"We want to encourage local businesses to use and enjoy the estate and this will include the racing industry; we've already forged links with Aston Martin Cheltenham. It will also support local producers such as Hawkstone, Donnington Brewery, Mark's Cotswold Bakery and Lambourne Butchers."

10th hole

Two new holes were designed by Shaun, and built using the drainage and irrigation from their predecessors and placed as the 10th and 17th. The 10th is situated in a secluded wooded area, where a number of trees that were affected by ash dieback have been removed. Constructed to USGA spec, a programme of fertilisation and aeration has brought it into full play for 2023.

With the full opening of the events barn set for 2025, developments are happening at a pace; a soft opening of the new clubhouse terrace is planned for this summer. Sustainability will be a key consideration in the developments.

Summer is a quieter time in a predominantly National Hunt yard allowing Ben to take stock and prepare for the next phase. "It was a leap of faith and a considerable investment to purchase Naunton Downs, but we go into the 2023-24 season full of confidence and with a team of fabulous owners behind us," he says.

"The golf market being what it is, the club can't survive in isolation, so we wanted to look at alternatives to keep the course and make the estate pay. Having Naunton Downs as a lifestyle destination was always Sophie's vision and it adds to the offering for our owners. We have entered into an equity partnership with Midlands property and construction business The Wigley Group, bringing investment of £2.1m and the funding to develop the estate further. We're very much looking forward to the future."

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