Turf trotting at Down Royal Racecourse

Chris McCulloughin Equestrian

It's no secret the Irish enjoy a flutter or two on the horses, hence why racecourses across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are thriving sports venues. One of the big name racing venues in Northern Ireland is undoubtedly the Down Royal racecourse sited near Lisburn and just fourteen miles from the centre of Belfast. Chris McCullough reports.

Head Groundsman, Shane Webb

Steeped in horseracing history Down Royal can trace its form back to 1685, and although there have been a few changes of aesthetics and owners since then, the core racing ethos of the track continues.

Now under the ownership of the Merrion Property Group, and a fresh team of staff managed by new Chief Executive Emma Meehan, the track has shown steady growth and has big plans for the future.

There are 12 race meets at Down Royal per year with the most valuable being the Kauto Star Champion Chase, run at the Northern Ireland Festival of racing in November. The most valuable flat race to be run there annually is the Ulster Derby.

Delving into the history books, racing at the current course has been going on since the early 18th Century on land donated by Arthur Hill, the 1st Marquis of Downshire.

However, the history of Down Royal can be traced back even further to 1685 when King James II issued a Royal Charter and formed the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders.

In 1750, King George II donated £100 to run King's Plate and, to the present day, a race named Her Majesty's Plate is run in July over one mile and five furlongs with the prize money contributed to by the Privy Purse.

Left: Chief Executive Emma Meehan

Although the racecourse is actually based in the United Kingdom, racing at Down Royal comes under the authority of Horse Racing Ireland as horse-racing in the British Isles is divided on a Great Britain and an all Ireland basis.

Back in October 2018, a dispute arose between the owners, Merrion Property Group, and the track operators, Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders. The corporation announced that it would cease operations at the end of 2018 while Merrion, who had met criteria set by a land tribunal to evict the tenants, stated that they would run the course from January 1, 2019.

Some media reports suggested that the course would close, but in January 2019 the operation of the course passed to the Merrion Property Group.

One of the first key staff members that Emma needed to source was a head groundsman and that person was Shane Webb, who is no stranger to racecourses.

Shane's father Pat is the head groundsman at the Curragh Racecourse in County Kildare and is one of the people who encouraged Shane into the industry.

With this connection, Shane has an excellent racing pedigree bringing with him over nine years' experience in the industry, having worked as racetrack groundsman at the Curragh Racecourse and assistant track manager at Leopardstown Racecourse, as well as completing a short stint at Royal Ascot before moving to Ballydoyle Racing.

Shane has overall responsibility for the preparation of the race track for Down Royal's year round schedule. Amongst his duties, he will be responsible for the ongoing management of the track's maintenance programme and course inspections, liaising with the clerk of the course on repairing, setting out and realigning of the running rail as well as purchasing and budgetary control.

Emma said: "I am delighted to welcome Shane to the team at Down Royal Racecourse. It's an exciting time in the history of the racecourse and I know Shane will help me and the team ensure Down Royal is the benchmark of standards into the future."

Shane has been in the post for the past four months at Down Royal and settled in there very quickly, getting to know his grounds team and the course.

Down Royal Racecourse is quite unique as it has a golf course nestled in the centre of it called the Down Royal Park Golf Course, also owned by the Merrion Property Group.

Widely recognised as one of the driest golf courses in Northern Ireland, with the most natural layout, Down Royal Park is playable all year round and includes both an 18 hole classic course and a nine hole valley course and a driving range.

The fact there is a golf course near to the racecourse can be quite an advantage for Shane and his team, but can also bring with it some challenges too.

Looking back over his career experience, Shane said: "I was more or less reared on the Curragh Racecourse where my dad is the head groundsman. I worked there all through school and college."

"I became assistant head groundsman at Leopardstown before working for Royal Ascot and then Ballydoyle Racing."

"In this job, I look after the grounds operating budget and report to the chief executive Emma Meehan. My qualifications with a business degree help me with that," he said.

"There are three other groundcare staff that work with me here at Down Royal Racecourse. The golf course also has a team of groundcare staff which I can call on when I need extra help."

"And in return, I can send some of our team and equipment to the golf course when they require it, so it works very well for us all," he said.

The soil profile at the Down Royal Racecourse is predominantly sandy which can dry out quickly. This was a huge issue last year when there were drought weather conditions in Northern Ireland.

Shane said: "It dries quickly and needs to be put back very quickly after racing. However, thanks to a water system we can pump water from rainwater tanks in the yard to the course via underwater piping when conditions get very dry. The course also benefits from regular verti-draining and aeration," he added.

Down Royal Racecourse extends to almost two miles of track set in 40 acres just outside Lisburn and runs alongside the River Lagan.

Shane said: "The River Lagan can encroach on the rear of the course which will be a problem, but thankfully one I haven't had to deal with yet.

Shade and air flow are not major problems with us really, but the five furlong chute can become shaded. However, for the most part the track receives the required light."

"Walking back, rolling, divoting and aeration all form part of our maintenance regime. Weed spraying is a regular occurrence, especially this time of the year."

"We also regularly use the verti-drain, spiker, mower, fertiliser spreader and sprayer. Fertiliser use depends upon soil test results. Marking out is done by myself and we all put up the rail as a team."

"All the staff carry out any of the jobs. All hands in, the more versatile everyone is, the better. Presentation is ranked very highly at Down Royal Racecourse as there is only one chance to make a first impression," said Shane.

Changing weather patterns can affect the going on the racecourse for the horses very quickly and this is a challenge Shane and his team have to be prepared for.

"This summer has been kind to us, unlike last," said Shane. "You just need to be ready to adapt to whatever the sky throws at you. The weather is both your best friend and the worst enemy," he said.

Taking regular monthly soil samples is a good management tool for Shane as it tells him exactly what the soil needs.

"There is roughly one race meet each month," said Shane. "We must get the ground in shape after each race for the next one. I normally cut the grass to four inches in height, but in mid August, the grass growth was high so I cut it to three and a half inches."

"A soil sample was also taken at that time and it found the soil to be lacking in potassium. With that in mind, we will cut the grass again in three days' time and apply around 30 grams per square metre of fertiliser that is higher in potassium to compensate," he added. "The more you know about the soil and its condition, the more informed decisions you can make."

"Also at the moment, one of the other main jobs is inspecting the railing. We have taken most of it down and are replacing the inner wooden pegs that support the PVC railing."

"Some of them are loose and others are showing signs of rot, so we need to replace them to ensure the fencing is sturdy and secure," he said.

Shane has already formulated a management plan for the end of the main season to further improve soil condition and overall track condition.

"This will be my first end of the season but I aim to scarify, top dress and over seed to improve the course. The grass already grows well in most of the course but some areas are slower to recover than others," he said.

Shane has a number of machines available to use in the garage and has a wish list of new equipment he would like to see arrive at Down Royal.

"We have two New Holland T5060 tractors fitted with oversize BKT tyres to run the machines on the course," Shane said. "One of them is fitted with a loader which is really handy."

"There is also a verti-drain, two land rollers, a trailing mower, a Major grass lifter, spiker, top dresser, trailers, a new John Deere Gator, a buggy and two other tractors."

"One of the best pieces of equipment we have is the grass lifter. We use a trailed mower that leaves the grass on the course so it needs to be gathered up after mowing and the lifter does exactly that."

"In the future, I'd like to see the course investing in a self-driven forward drive mower that is more efficient and perhaps one that collects the grass too," he said.

Some chores on the course need the help of outside contractors and this includes bringing in equipment to spray weeds and cut the hedges.

There are a number of pests and let's say 'foreign objects' that Shane and the team must keep a close eye out for.

"There is a lot of cleaning up to do after birds," said Shane. "They are a real pest on the track. There are also a few rabbits but they haven't caused much harm to date."

"We also suffer from small amounts of poa annua and trifolium, otherwise, we are quite lucky."

"There are some other issues we have to monitor and this includes dog fouling on the course. We allow locals to walk their dogs along the tracks at the side of the course, but sometimes they stray onto the course and leave a mess that we have to clean up. Of course, there are also a lot of golf balls to clean up too all the time," he added.

"There are a couple of public roads that go through the main course so, on race days, we have to ensure staff are present to stop any traffic that comes along. It usually works well, but it's a hard job maintaining these intersections."

When it comes to the state of the groundcare industry, Shane is quite positive about how it is perceived by the general public.

"I think it's on an upward curve," he said. "Awareness has increased and the range of education and products on offer are high. I think everyone that works in this industry would say we are undervalued, but that's the easy answer."

"Personally, I've got a great employer that enables our team to work well. Obviously, there are a lot of hours and responsibility that nobody else sees."

"I think it can be sometimes seen from the outside as a job that 'non academics' take up as a result of leaving school early."

"Although this may be some people's case, the reality is that everyone in this job is probably skilled, hard-working and knowledgeable, no less than any other profession and should be rewarded accordingly."

"In Ireland, perhaps we could have more awards and recognition for grounds teams as they do across the pond. I think the IRGA has been good to help groundsmen in Ireland to meet, take part in demos and to share knowledge," he said.

Shane has a Business Management Degree from Dublin City University and IT Carlow combined. He also holds several groundsmanship qualifications including Racecourse Groundsmanship Certification from Cheltenham Racecourse, Racecourse Management Skills Certification from York Racecourse, Professional Certificate and Diploma in Turf Surface Management, as well as a Botany Certification from Oregon State University.

What's in the shed

New Holland T5060 tractors x 2
Charterhouse Verti-Drain
Land rollers x 2
Trailing mower
Major grass lifter
Fleming grass spiker
John Deere Gator
John Deere 1565 mower
Vicon fertiliser sower

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