The Going Stick

Dr Colin Mumford in Equestrian

The welfare of the horse and its rider is the number one priority when preparing a racecourse for racing. Key to producing safe surfaces, to minimise any potential for serious injuries to occur, is the assessment of the racing surface condition, more commonly referred to as the "going".

5_sticks_&_stand.jpgThe going is, essentially, a measure of how hard or soft the racing surface is and its assessment has two main functions. It can determine the suitability (safety) of a surface for racing on a given day, and it can be used as a tool to guide the management regime around the various points of the racecourse, to achieve the conditions required. On race day, going can influence whether trainers will run a horse and betting by punters.

Moisture softens the racing surface, resulting in deeper penetration of the horses' hooves and slower race times. Individual horses tend to prefer specific types of going. Some relish wet (soft/heavy) going, whereas others run better on firm surfaces. Trainers want to know the going as they may choose not to run a horse if the surface is not suited to it. Serious punters want to know the state of going as accurately as possible when determining which horses to bet on.

Therefore, the correct determination of the level of going is vital if safe racing surfaces are to be produced and people involved within the industry are making informed decisions before the start of a race.

Subjective determinations

Until recently an objectively measured standard of going was not widely available in the UK racing industry. Instead, the industry, like many other countries, has relied on subjective measurements based on a person's judgement and experience. The methods employed range from monitoring the weather forecast and predicting the effects of any rainfall or sunshine, to personal knowledge of the racecourse and its nuances, such as areas that drain quickly or slowly.

The most popular assessment has involved the use of a stick, whether it is a walking stick or staff. The size and shape of the stick varies from course to course, as does the user of the stick. It is pushed into the ground and levered back to determine the surface conditions. The general rule of thumb is the greater the resistance to penetration, the harder the going.

With this technique, like all subjective methods, it is inevitable there will be disagreement as to what is the correct determination of the level of going, especially where more than one person assesses the same racecourse.

An objectively arrived value of going is more desirable, as it removes any human bias or pre-conceived notions. A prime example is the thermometer analogy. Person A says that they feel cold today, whereas person B says they think it is quite warm. Which is correct? The two people's subjective opinions give two differing views for the same temperature, but a thermometer reveals that the temperature is what it is, 19°C for example. This demonstrates that, with an objectively arrived value, preconceptions, partiality or misreading of a surface can be dramatically reduced.

Objective determinations

new_ascot_grid_ref.jpgThere are several objective methods available that allow experienced and inexperienced users to determine the level of going. These include, amongst others, the Penetrometer, the Clegg Impact Hammer, the Clegg Shear Tester and the GoingStick.

The penetrometer is probably the most widely recognised method, and is used in many countries. It measures the penetration resistance of the surface, the results of which have been correlated with race times to enable the construction of a calibration chart to calibrate racecourses to a standard penetrometer scale. However, race times are dependent on more than just the penetration resistance of the soil; they can be influenced by factors such as the topography and layout of the track, or the condition of the horse and the jockey's willingness to make the horse run faster. Therefore, measuring more than one variable to arrive at a determination of the going is preferable.

The GoingStick

The GoingStick is a result of collaboration between TurfTrax Racing Data and Cranfield University. It is vaguely similar in appearance and application to an ordinary walking stick, the method favoured by many Clerks of the Course in the UK. But, unlike a walking stick, the GoingStick measures the penetration resistance of the surface, to a depth of 100mm, and the translational shear strength of the rootzone, in an action that almost mimics the loading and propulsion phases of a galloping horse.

ASC190607.jpgIt can be used in conjunction with a waypoint system that identifies specific sections of the racecourse to enable the assessment of the level of going in a given area (waypoint). At each waypoint the process of measuring penetration resistance and shear strength is carried out three times. The GoingStick then determines a mean value for the three measurements and converts the mean to a value of going, based on a 15 point index.

Literally, thousands upon thousands of measurements were taken to form the 15 point scale, which was developed with the assistance of the British Horseracing Authority's senior course inspector and a number of experienced senior racecourse clerks. As a guide, average readings of 3.0-6.9 indicate softer ground, 7.0-8.9 good ground, with anything above 9.0 signifying firmer ground. The highest average readings actually raced on in the UK are around 12.0.

Owing to the different surface conditions required for National Hunt (jump) and Flat racing, the GoingStick has separate calibrations for the two disciplines, which are accessed with the flick of a switch. It is possible to recalibrate the device for other racing jurisdictions or sporting surfaces, as long as they are provided with enough data to be able to analyse - with Cranfield University - and approve a calibration change. The data is easily downloaded to a PC, which can also be used to produce maps, showing the changes in going around the racecourse.

Who uses the GoingStick

The GoingStick was originally endorsed by The Jockey Club, however, their use now comes under the jurisdiction of the British Horseracing Authority. In cooperation with this body, a 12-month trial was completed where all 58 turf course were required to use the device for 24/48 hour declarations and race day readings. The trial was carried out to ascertain the feasibility of introducing the GoingStick as a mandatory measurement of going.

In addition to the 58 turf racecourses in the UK, there are GoingSticks in use in Ireland, France, Hong Kong and Australia. Amongst the current users are trainers of racehorses, who want to ensure they are achieving the ideal surface conditions on their gallops (training grounds).

Further applications

The device is currently being trialed for other applications. These include greyhound racing and all-weather horse racing surfaces in the UK. A GoingStick was also used by British Eventing at the Burghley Horse Trials.

Images © TurfTrax

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