Winning treble at Lingfield

Neville Johnsonin Equestrian

The 480-acre site in the southernmost corner of Surrey is more than just a racecourse. The Lingfield Park Resort, as it is styled by owners Arena Racing Company, also includes a Marriott hotel with spa facilities, which was opened in 2010, and an 18-hole 6487 yard parkland golf course, challenging and classy enough to stage a EuroPro golf event last year.

All this very much overlaps the horse racing, and there are a wide variety of conferencing and entertainment packages on offer. The whole thing is an impressive integration aimed at encouraging visitors to Lingfield Park, not just on race days, but around the calendar. Presentation of surroundings is everything and plays a huge part in the marketing effort.

Neil Mackenzie Ross, the Clerk of the Course, is a racing man through and through. He started his working life as a stable lad with the mucking out and all that goes with it. A spell in the bookmaking business followed and he got to be a Ladbrokes betting shop manager. Then,

at twenty-five, he studied recreation management at university before going to work at the British Horse Racing Board - now called the British Horseracing Authority. When he came to Lingfield Park as Clerk in 2005, he had seen all sides of the racing industry at close hand.

Lingfield Park is the only racecourse in the country that offers three forms of racing - traditional National Hunt chasing and hurdling, flat turf racing and all-weather flat racing. It can truly claim to be a unique attraction to racegoers, a winning treble if you like. It's a unique challenge to Neil too, and his Estates Manager and Head Groundsman Jon Harris.

There is an extended seven-furlong turf straight course and a mile and a half turf round course, plus an all-weather track first installed in 1989, when there were necessary alterations to the turf course. The current round turf course dates from this time. Prior to that, it was a traditional turf course only with twenty meetings a year - a mix of National Hunt and flat. Since then, it has become a far busier racing venue. Last year, for example, there were eight meetings on consecutive days, a record in British racing. The challenge for Neil and Jon is to balance the three courses and their upkeep over one hundred fixtures. It's a big job.

There are National Hunt fixtures from November to the end of February; flat turf racing from May to September, and all-weather racing mainly between November and March. The all-weather course, which gives Lingfield Park its 'third dimension', is a Polytrack surface, which was renewed last September, eleven years after the previous Polytrack had been installed.

Polytrack is a wax-coated synthetic surface designed specifically for equestrian uses, notably racing. Manufacturers and installers, Martin Collins Enterprises, describe it as 'a surface structure that mimics turf, allowing horses to work on top of the surface.' It differs from cambered horizontal systems, which can cause huge variation in going, and provides level vertical drainage.

It's important that the all-weather is kept level and though its characteristics never change - unlike turf - it is inspected pretty much in the same way the turf courses are and Neil does regular depth testing.

"Polytrack provides a consistent surface for horses, which is key," says Neil.

"It's especially good for a young horse starting out - very forgiving on their legs - but, at the same time, providing a quick surface which is what flat horses generally want. Trainers will readily send their expensive, promising young horses to experience running on it. It's a great asset here."

"The majority of gallops around the country are all weather surfaces, so horses are familiar with its feel. Most race horses are worked and exercised on them."

A real plus, apart from its all-weather characteristic, is that there are no real variations in going. Neil says that going on the Polytrack is set at 'standard', yet maintenance and preparation is required to achieve this and, since the installation of the new surface last September, it's taken a bit of getting used to.

The nature of the new material is very sticky. It comprises seven inches of silica sand, pvc granules, jelly cable, elasticated fibres and polypropylene, all bound together in a wax coating. It's this wax coating that prevents the surface from freezing and enables Lingfield Park to stage meetings in temperatures as low as minus 12OC. It keeps the show on the road in even the worst winter conditions, and this pleases owners, trainers, and riders.

In certain circumstances, such as waterlogging, it does allow Neil to switch a race from turf to all-weather, but this has to be done in a strict time-line. Notification of such a proposed change has to be at least forty-eight hours before the scheduled race day to the British Horseracing Authority. Looking at weather forecasts helps anticipate extreme weather, and Neil would alert the BHA earlier if at all possible, even if this is simply a change in the balance of races between the two surfaces to ease the pressure on the turf track.

Any such changes are done in conjunction with Peter Hobbs, the course inspector at the BHA, and the BHA racing department who facilitate any necessary changes to handicapping and withdrawals from trainers who do not want their horse to run on the all-weather surface.

It is a valuable option, and one that is appreciated by the racing industry and the racing public. It did happen this last winter, when a jump meeting was abandoned because of waterlogging, but a special flat meeting for National Hunt horses was re-arranged for the all-weather track.

Last winter kept many NH horses at the stables and this was a welcome opportunity for a competitive run. NH horses are generally bigger and heavier than flat horses and all that had to be done to the Polytrack course was to power harrow the surface deeper than usual to create the slightly softer going that they are used to.

The all-weather facility at Lingfield Park means it is always open for business. Its Polytrack is the newest of all UK courses. Two of Arena's other courses with it are Wolverhamption, which is exclusively all-weather, and Southwell, which has a fibresand surface.

"Lingfield does not have too much width on its turf course, so to manage the number of fixtures we regularly share the races between the turf and Polytrack surfaces," says Neil.

"Longer races will be run on the turf round course: shorter ones on the Polytrack and then vice versa with shorter turf races being run on the straight course. The all-weather gives us this flexibility."

Losing a day's racing is very rare at Lingfield Park. It did happen once last December due to heavy race day snow. The new Polytrack material, because it is somewhat stickier than for the previous track, rather stuck to equipment rollers, something not encountered before. If snow falls the day before race day, or even overnight, there is a grader that can pull snow to the outside rail, enabling the rest of the surface to be worked in the usual way. So, maybe it is just a whisker short of 100 percent all-weather, but that is harsh on a way of almost always guaranteeing racing.

There is still, perhaps, a bit of a stigma, a bit of resistance, from the racing public towards all-weather racing. It may not be quite the spectacle of true turf, but the flexibility it offers cannot be doubted, and Lingfield Park has embraced it and makes it work.

Maintenance in early summer is especially challenging. Three fixtures in a week in May puts constraints on Jon's team of ten.

"Everybody gets sucked into race day duties," he says. "For all weather racing, there is less presentation work other than making sure there is a level of surface consistency. We try not to have specialists, but get everyone familiar with all the necessary tasks. Having said that, in George Ash, we probably have the most experienced Polytrack operative in the world. He's worked on the all-weather surfaces at Lingfield since they were first introduced twenty-four years ago, and he's a master at getting them to look superb and race magnificently."

"Turf racing does still seem to have a greater appeal to the racegoer though. Perhaps it's because it is closer to the eye. The all-weather track is set back a little away from the stands. Horses on turf are just more dramatic. A race sounds different - hooves and divots."

For Polytrack maintenance, there are two Cousins Gallopmasters, which have been at Lingfield since the original surface was installed in 2001. Even though the surface formulation has now changed, these still work satisfactorily for final surface preparation. For routine decompaction, rotavation and power-harrowing are used. The end aim is just the same as for the turf tracks - to produce the best possible racing surface: one that is consistent and totally safe.

Jon is from South Africa, but studied sports turf management at Plumpton College before becoming a greenkeeper. He was appointed head greenkeeper at the Lingfield Park course in 2002 and became Estates Manager and racecourse Head Groundsman in 2008. He loves the diverse environment. "It keeps you on your toes," he says.

"The whole place is on show 24/7 and it has to be top notch. We even have three dedicated gardeners to keep it looking its best."

Soil conditions on the turf circuit are variable and bring differing upkeep needs in terms of decompaction and mowing. The back straight is probably the worst area with very little topsoil and plenty of clay, and the top of the hill is sandstone-based.

There are four miles of running rail around the course. During the summer, Jon tries to ensure this all gets mowed underneath twice a week to maintain a neat appearance. Each furlong of rail has about seventy-two legs and each of these has to be strimmed too, which is a mammoth job in itself.

A company called Biz is employed to 'tread in' on race days then, after racing, tread the whole course back and do the dressing with divot mix. The numbers involved depends on the conditions. On National Hunt days it could be as many as sixteen. The job is simply on too grand a scale to be handled by Jon's team.

John Deere is now the preferred supplier for the whole of the Arena Group as far as turf equipment is concerned, and Jon's local dealer for his golf course needs and vehicles for the racecourse is Godfreys.

On regular course mowing duty, he has Ransomes trail gangs, a TerraSpiker, and a Sisis spiker for smaller specific jobs. A tractor-drawn watering machine with portable boom is often called into action.

Irrigation is always a Clerk of the Course decision. Safety of horse and rider is always the governing factor for Neil. The left-hand downhill bend on the round course is his biggest problem area here. It is very important, at this point on the course, to keep moisture in the surface and for the horses to get a decent grip. What he doesn't want is for it to dry out and get too quick. That's when the risk to horse and rider increases.

Channel 4 Racing comes to Lingfield for at least three meetings a year. The really big days are the Derby Trial in early May when potential runners in the big Epsom race are tested, as are potential Oaks runners. In March, there is the Winter Derby, a Group Three £100,000 prize race on the all-weather, and in November, also on the all-weather course, it's the Churchill Stakes.

Race day attendance varies from 300 on chilly winter afternoons right up to 6,500 for the big meetings and on six summer Saturday evening fixtures when Hooves and Grooves is the theme, combining live music and a full race meeting.

Racing has sufferered from the downturn in Levy funding in recent years. All racecourses have to be much more alive to commercial opportunities and need to attract more customers. They have had to be more inventive about what they do by providing wider attractions and entertainment.

The facilities at Lingfield go way beyond just serving racegoers on race days. Having the all-weather means there is far less income downtime, and Lingfield Park offers plenty of reasons to go there 365 days a year.

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