Making improvements to the flat track on one of the most scenic and best loved racecourses has been a challenge for Chepstow Clerk of the Course, Keith Ottesen, and Head Groundsman, Adam Jones, in one of the wettest years on record. Yet, the quality of the sward speaks for itself, and Keith has had flattering comments from that most exacting of customer - the racehorse trainer.
"A concerted programme of overseeding and altering the racing line, by moving the starting stalls to the centre of the track, has improved the footing to such an extent that trainers are looking to bring better quality flat horses to Chepstow, which is very encouraging," he explains.
"There's a misconception that preparing flat tracks is easy, that the grass grows well because it is the summer and you just mow it, but the standards are very exacting."
Where National Hunt racing is concerned, Chepstow is at the very top of its game already, hosting the Grade 1 Coral Welsh National each Christmas, the first long distance race of the season, which often gives valuable clues to the winner of the Aintree Grand National and well placed horses in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The two mile round National Hunt course is set in an impressive natural amphitheatre, with the carboniferous limestone cliffs of Chepstow above and bordered by the gorge of the Wye Valley. The extensive racing surface, clay soils and rocky outcrops which are in places mere inches below the surface make for a demanding workload, especially for a team of just six full time ground staff.
"We have to use the resources to hand skillfully to get the work done," reflects Keith, "especially as we race at least once a fortnight, year round. We prepare the National Hunt course at the end of the flat season and vice versa, and this year we have needed to fit all renovations and even mowing into the short weather windows available."
Preparations for the 2012 Welsh National were tricky, due to the continuing rainfall, and the race was eventually postponed to Saturday 5th January 2013.
"A total of 260mm - nearly 10in - of rain fell at Chepstow in December, most of it after 14th December, so the track became waterlogged and there was no option but to postpone," Keith explains. "The course was already set up for 27th December, and there was little we could do except hope it would stop raining, which it eventually did on New Year's Eve."
It was hardly a quiet New Year however - securing terrestrial television coverage was essential for sponsor Corals, but was made more complicated by the switch from the BBC to Channel 4, which has secured all TV racing broadcasts for 2013. Arrangements were made to secure the services of British Horseracing Authority officials, plus the course's own staff, doctors and stewards for the new date. Finally, funding from the Levy Board was obtained for the extra fixture.
"We were hoping that the new date would offer enough of a gap for the course to recover once the rain stopped and, whilst the going was heavy, the track was in remarkably good shape. Trainers and jockeys were pleasantly surprised with how it rode, and the Welsh National was a good, and fair, race."
Thankfully, the wide track allows for rail movements to present fresh ground to the runners, and hurdles can be carefully positioned to take advantage of the best going. On the back straight, the hurdle track follows the less frequently used round course of the flat track but, in the home straight, the pristine turf is sacrosanct, and hurdlers are diverted onto the outside of the chase course.
Keith moved from Uttoxeter to Chepstow in 2010 and began a programme to improve the flat track which, as well as the round course, includes a one mile straight that slopes downhill towards the finish, producing some exciting races.
"There was a lot of leatherjacket and nematode damage, made worse by the amount of poa in the sward. In dry weather it quickly became stressed and vulnerable to attack, leading to the surface breaking down. We invested in a Vredo overseeder, which uses a disc seeding mechanism to give excellent establishment."
"Having our own machine means that we can overseed every 3-4 weeks on the bends to introduce more ryegrass, moving the rail to protect the seeded ground. We also changed our grass seed supplier and have found the fast germination of Barenbrug Sprint to be a major improvement." Major overseeds are also carried out on the two tracks as soon as their season is over, with the grass cover flailed off before verticutting and collecting.
"We use a local contractor at this time to take out compaction with two verti-drains. We have a small verti-drain of our own for use on the bends etc., but with such a large racing surface it is better to get the contractor in and do the whole course quickly and efficiently," explains Adam Jones. "It is a complex task because the rock is just 10cm below the surface in places, but the contractors are very good and know where they need to be careful!"
"Even though we keep vehicle movements on the course to a minimum, compaction is a real issue as the horses' hooves do so much damage when soil loses its structure due to wet conditions, so the verti-drain is an essential tool for us. Some racecourses use rotary decompactors, but the verti-drain's action is better on our clay soils," comments Keith.
Mowing is carried out with a front mounted Votex rotary deck and rear blower, and takes a full day in the summer, and longer when there is more growth. Cut heights are set at 60mm for the flat and 75-100mm on the National Hunt course, with mowing taking place up to three times a week.
"We had a ride-on triple rotary, but it was just impossible to cover the ground," says Adam. "Tractor and tyre technology has come on such a lot that a tractor-mounted mower can be just as gentle on the turf as a ride-on, and our 100hp New Holland is a great match for the Votex."
Whilst the wet weather has cost several racecourses fixtures and made the groundsman's life harder, the turf has appreciated the rain, looking healthier and stronger, Keith comments.
"We have been able to cut our fertiliser applications on the National Hunt track, and the sward has been less stressed. We try not to irrigate if we can avoid it, although we sometimes need to water for the October jumps meeting."
Irrigation is via a tow line system, using water pumped from calciferous caves below ground, although a boom system would increase accuracy should the budget become available, he notes.
By contrast, fertiliser applications have been stepped up on the flat course with Humber Palmers 14:6:8 fertiliser applied every six weeks rather than twice a year, and seaweed-based biostimulants and wetting agents sprayed on in between.
Climbing steeply into the back straight, the course is generally undulating, but suffers less from frost than some. Covers are kept in the centre course and used on shaded areas which tend to stay colder than the high ground.
In 2010, when racing was decimated by the big freeze, the Welsh National was also postponed as temperatures plummeted to minus eight and the course lay below a blanket of snow. Yet, the race was able to run on January 8th, just twelve days later than scheduled.
Getting the right racing line is a bit of a science on such an undulating and cambered track.
"We have a huge sweep of bend coming into the home straight and, with the course's undulations, we have to get it right or horses can slip when they straighten up," comments Keith. "Flat jockeys are especially vocal if they feel that footing on bends is not safe, understandably, as they can be travelling at up to 40mph on an inexperienced and unbalanced young horse. We have the space here at Chepstow to use the angle and positioning of the rail to push them out on a wider arc, if necessary."
This experience will stand Keith in good stead at Bath, where he and assistant Rachel Griffiths are to oversee in 2013.
"There were problems with a bend at Bath, so the radius was measured and extended to match the camber, and it is something that we will be monitoring," he explains.
A major drainage programme was undertaken in 2010 on the National Hunt course, using contractors Mallinsons who Keith first came across at Uttoxeter.
"Again, we met rocks in many places and the contractors had to use specialist equipment, but it has made a significant improvement."
Further drainage work is planned for 2013 in the final furlong and stables bend of the flat track, and the last two furlongs on the National Hunt course.
"Mike Harbridge of PSD has done the design for this section, which will be tricky, because of the levels of the rock and the falls involved, as it will drain into the centre of the course. We will also have to work around racing."
Keith and Rachel walk the course almost daily in the run up to a meeting, ever vigilant for any damage from the abundant wildlife in the area, or any problems that may be brewing.
"If there is a small area of turf damage and we catch it early, it can be remedied in a couple of weeks, rather than becoming a major issue," he comments.
Clerks also play a vital role in communicating with trainers as to the condition of the course and helping them to decide if the ground will suit their horses and, therefore, whether they should run.
Observation, the use of weather data from a weather station in the centre course and the trusty walking stick, pushed into the turf to ascertain its resistance, all go together to make a call on whether the course is likely to ride firm, good, soft or heavy.
"We are required to announce going conditions 48 hours before a flat meeting and 24 hours before National Hunt fixtures," explains Keith. "Although trainers will still call right up to the morning of the race to make their final decision."
All racecourses are now required by the BHA to use the GoingStick to provide data to trainers.
Designed by Turftrax, the GoingStick measures the penetration (the amount of force required to push the tip into the ground) and the shear (the energy needed to pull back to an angle of 45 degrees from the ground). These two measurements taken in combination represent the firmness of the ground and level of traction experienced by a horse during a race.
The information is automatically stored in the GoingStick memory and an average of a number of readings is produced to give a general figure which represents the average going on the course.
The data can be downloaded on to a PC using the TurfTrax GoingStick software, printed off for viewing in raw data format or can be used in conjunction with the TurfTrax Mapping system.
"We use the GoingStick data in conjunction with our own going reports but, like most clerks, feel that observation tends to be more accurate. However, it does provide useful back up to what is increasingly important information," comments Keith.
This season, the lack of 'good' ground has meant that National Hunt trainers have been increasingly prepared to run their horses in softer conditions, simply to ensure that they have a preparation run before an important race. The Welsh National is, in any case, favoured by the heavy ground specialists, and part of its appeal is that it tests the game sloggers that will gallop and jump through the mud.
Incredibly, just three days after the Welsh National meeting, Chepstow raced again, at what should have been its first scheduled January meeting. It took sixty additional treaders to repair the divots from Saturday's pummelling, whilst Adam and his assistant, Kai Williams, were flat out moving rails to offer the best ground possible, and fencing man, Craig Jones, repaired the holes made by the less careful jumpers.
With this level of dedication and attention to detail, it is no wonder trainers are voting with their feet and heading west to Chepstow.
Training for the future
Assistant Clerk of the Course, Rachel Griffiths, is on the BHA's post graduate training scheme, after completing a degree in accountancy. She has worked alongside Keith at Hereford, and will soon be assisting him at Bath too.
"I'm a racing enthusiast and have ridden out for trainers, so I was pleased to earn a place on the BHA course," she explains. "I really enjoy the groundsmanship element of the job - many people think it is just about mowing grass, but there is so much more to it than that!"
Chepstow Racecourse also works alongside a local training provider to give young people work experience in groundsmanship, which can offer them practical skills and introduce them to career paths that they may wish to follow in the future.
What's in the shed?
New Holland 100hp tractor
New Holland TH75
Renault 426 tractor with front loader
John Deere Gator
Kubota RTV utility vehicle
Votex front mount rotary mower and blower
Charterhouse 1.5m Verti-Drain
John Deere ride-on mower with collector
Kubota G21 ride-on mower
Dennis cylinder mower