Equestrian sports have been as hard hit as any with major championships cancelled and racing and polo seasons put on hold. But turfcare regimes have continued and are now stepping up a pace to ensure perfect footing when resumption is allowed. Managing groundstaff, participants and would-be spectators - who may be excluded for much of the year - is another challenge. Jane Carley speaks to three top equestrian venues to find out their plans moving forward from lockdown.
The winning post and grandstand at Epsom in May 2020 - awaiting final preparations for the Derby.
Epsom and Sandown Park - Andrew Cooper and Craig Williamson
When racing in the UK was brought to a halt on 17th March, the grounds team which looks after Epsom and Sandown Park was looking ahead to its jumps season finale at Sandown before switching its focus to preparations for the Investec Derby.
"We knew early on that we would lose the Sandown meeting, plus the April season-opener at Epsom so, since then, I've been working on how we will run racing behind closed doors once we have resumed, and visiting the racecourses at least once a week, whilst Regional Estates Manager Craig Williamson and his team have been keeping the tracks ticking over," explains Head of Racing and Clerk of the Course Andrew Cooper.
The uncertainty of the resumption date - initially set for 1st May and then pushed back to 1st June - had made groundcare regimes more challenging, he admits.
"We usually work to having the tracks in optimum condition for a specific date or race meeting. At the moment, the Derby and Oaks are scheduled for Saturday 4th July, as racing resumed in June, to allow a four-week period after the 2000 Guineas, now planned to run on 6th June."
Whilst there is a provisional target date in place for Epsom, Sandown's fixtures resumed on 13th June, although Andrew expects that it will be required to stage plenty of racing going forward.
Andrew Cooper and Craig Williamson, working together to get Epsom and Sandown Park ready for the resumption of racing (photo taken before Covid-19 restrictions)
"The groundcare regime has been kept pretty much as normal at Sandown, but there's been more uncertainty surrounding Epsom and its ability to race behind closed doors."
The legendary home of the Derby has also experienced some logistical complications due to the pandemic.
"We had planned to replace the irrigation pumps in early 2020, but we were not able to complete the work once lockdown began as it required working in underground tanks using breathing apparatus," explains Craig Williamson. "However, we were able to source a diesel pump from Briggs Irrigation and, along with my deputy Chris Youngs, I've integrated it into our system so that we now have the required irrigation capacity."
The Epsom track had been 'put to bed' in the normal way in October 2019, with scarification and aeration to get it through the winter, and then kept dormant apart from an early application of seaweed pre-lockdown.
"We had to take account of the staff shortages due to necessary self-isolation and furloughing, but it has stayed in good condition with a full grass cover, despite the very wet and then very dry spring," comments Craig. "In mid-May, we began feeding and bringing back the turf ready for the resumption."
At Sandown, the cancellation of the National hunt Finale meant that the jumps track missed out on its normal levels of irrigation and end of season renovations.
Planned replacement of underground irrigation pumps at Epsom was put on hold, so Estate Manager Craig Williamson worked with supplier Briggs to find a solution / The unique features of Epsom, including Tattenham Corner, make it a special test of the racehorse, an incentive to keep the Derby in its 'home' despite the obstacles encountered
"It's something we will have to look at in the autumn. We've kept it cut a bit shorter to reduce the mowing frequency requirement for our smaller team," comments Andrew. "However, the flat track is ready to go as we were prepared for a May resumption."
A more pressing dilemma for Andrew was how to facilitate racing 'behind closed doors' at Epsom where an Act of Parliament grants the local community the 'right to take air and exercise' on the Downs, theoretically 365 days a year.
"We needed to find a compromise, having never envisaged that public access could jeopardise the Derby. Similar issues exist at other courses such as York and Chester for example, but we wanted to find a way forward that would maintain the history and unique test of the Derby which can only be achieved by running it at Epsom," he says.
Having studied law at university, he scrutinised the 1984 Epsom and Walton Downs Regulations Act in detail and saw that it might be possible to enclose the entire 150ha area for twenty-four hours, using fencing and stewards to exclude the public.
The proposal was then put to the Epsom and Walton Downs Conservators - a ten-strong committee comprising six members of Epsom and Ewell Borough Council, three from the racecourse, including Andrew himself, and Horserace Betting Levy Board representative and local trainer Simon Dow. At a meeting, held via the now-ubiquitous video conference, it was agreed in mid-May.
An act of Parliament means that the public have free access to walk on Epsom Downs even on race days; permission has been given for the Jockey Club to enclose the area for this year's one-day Investec Derby meeting
Racing behind closed doors will mean that the world's most famous race will be attended by a maximum of 250 people, including racecourse staff, jockeys, trainers, stable lads and TV crews.
"We're still testing the protocols needed - which could include Perspex cubicles for jockeys to change in, while all jockeys and staff will wear masks."
The racecourse will cover the cost of the fencing for the Derby meeting, but the difficulties of excluding the public could cast doubt on the rest of the season.
"Whilst the community will support the move for the Derby, it's questionable whether we can disrupt their rights for later meetings," Andrew says. "Sandown could potentially take the Epsom fixtures, and we would have to factor in the extra turfcare requirement there accordingly."
The later running of the Derby also presents some groundcare dilemmas at Epsom itself, explains Craig.
"We normally plan Chafer Grub treatment for a couple of weeks after the Derby, but this year it will have to be done before. It can stress the grass so we will aim to boost its health and then fertilise to get the turf to its peak for July."
A number of staff across the business were furloughed from the outset, with three groundsmen required to self-isolate for twelve weeks due to health conditions.
"We also had to furlough two apprentices as it is not practical to supervise them under social distancing rules, so we are down from five groundsmen to two at Epsom and from ten to seven at Sandown, working under Craig, whilst the stable manager is also taking on groundcare tasks," he explains. "The teams work across both tracks as necessary to keep up with jobs such as brushcutting, litter picking and watering. We can be quite stretched if someone is off sick or a machine goes down."
Craig says that putting social distancing measures in place has not been too trying.
"Everyone has set jobs and their own machines and we tend to work alone anyway, with the tasks well spaced out around the course. We've made sure that all staff have access to their own pick-up so they are not having to travel around the course together. Divot filling and repair work will have to be monitored; we supervise course repair contractors after racing, but need to work out how they will travel etc."
Andrew Cooper reflects: "The team are working hard and getting on well and we will be ready to race, but the timing of the Derby remains dependent on what happens next with the virus and, consequently, with the resumption of racing."
Edward Bunn, whose family own Hickstead, turned groundsman to help with staff shortages during lockdown © John Perlam
Hickstead - Edward and Lizzie Bunn
At Hickstead, the Bunn family has taken the difficult decision to cancel the Longines Royal International Horse Show, due to run 21-26 July, and the internationally-renowned Al Shira'aa Hickstead Derby Meeting, which had already been postponed from June to September.
Plans to run a smaller event, the Science Supplements All England Jumping Championships in September, are continuing, although this will be reassessed on an ongoing basis.
The All England Jumping Course was first opened in 1960, and this season was due to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Director Edward Bunn, responsible for the day-to-day running of the venue alongside his sister Lizzie, has taken a hands-on role in groundcare.
"We're coming to terms with having cancelled our two major shows, but recognise that running horse shows 'behind closed doors' in the way that is proposed for racing would not work. We have 3,500-4,000 horses over the duration of the show and each is accompanied by an average of three people, so that's 3,000 people per day, which would make social distancing impossible."
To accommodate the horses, 1,500 stables are brought in, another challenge for social distancing as the walkways between them are just 4m wide. Other issues include pinch points around the site and the difficulty of judging horses without coming in close proximity with their riders, grooms or the stewards.
Hickstead is regarded as the home of show jumping, with its unique arena and fences attracting large spectator numbers in a 'normal' year
"Spectators are also key to the atmosphere of the event, as well as its finances, along with the trade stands. But the seriousness of the situation was brought home to us when one of our most senior show jumping judges recently died of coronavirus, and ultimately there is far more at stake than just horse shows."
That said, Hickstead's famous turf continues to get the utmost in care, and the initial postponement of fixtures allowed Edward to carry out renovations to the main arena that have not been possible during the wet winter.
"We've fraise mowed the surface, decompacted with an Earthquake and Verti-Drain, spread 180 tonnes of sand and reseeded," he explains.
In the absence of much rain in April, the irrigators have been kept busy, and a recent inspection showed satisfying recovery.
With four groundstaff furloughed, the team is down to one full time groundsman, one building maintenance man and a self-employed contractor. Edward and his son William are also taking turns on the tractor seat.
At Hickstead, initial postponement of major fixtures allowed the main arena to be renovated ... contractors fraise mowed the surface, decompacted with an Earthquake and Verti-Drain, spread 180 tonnes of sand and reseeded... contractors fraise mowed the surface, decompacted with an Earthquake and Verti-Drain, spread 180 tonnes of sand and reseeded
"We're mowing, applying fertiliser and irrigating the other grass arenas as necessary, and keeping the rest of the showground tidy," he says.
Show ring four has been all-weather since 2011 and, in 2019, ring three was also surfaced. The two are linked and can be hired for cross-country jumping training, a facility which re-opened in mid-May as lockdown was eased and the British Equestrian Federation issued new guidance on riding and training horses.
"They just needed watering and harrowing so were easy to prepare," comments Edward. "The cross-country hire scheme has been a big success - it was used by 2,000 people over the winter - and will make a welcome contribution to our income. We've undertaken an extensive risk assessment so that we can meet social distancing and hygiene requirements."
Advance bookings are taken from up to six individual riders (reduced from the usual eight) for timed slots in the arenas. To meet government guidelines they may only be accompanied by a trainer or groom - who must travel separately if they are not from the same household - and group bookings are not being accepted.
Collapsible marker flags on the fixed obstacles have been removed where possible and hand sanitiser points located around the arena and marked parking spaces. Toilet facilities will only be available by phoning for a lock combination to avoid overcrowding, and signs have been posted to remind participants about social distancing.
A new innovation at Hickstead, schooling facilities constructed on two all-weather arenas, has been highly popular and is now available for hire once again, under strict social distancing rules
On site first aiders will have appropriate PPE and the local ambulance service has been alerted.
"We're only taking bookings two weeks ahead - we're normally booked up months in advance - in case lockdown is tightened but from the moment we announced the re-opening we have been inundated with enquiries."
Edward says that the family-owned business has reserves that it can call on, but some major renovations may be delayed for twelve months due to the shortfall in income from cancelled events.
"We'll continue to do safety-critical work, for example we're re-decking one of the grandstands."
He adds that there are few opportunities for cost cutting - the venue's insurance bill alone is £70,000, which could be reduced by £10,000 if public liability for events is not required, and business rates will be returned.
"We don't want to lay staff off - we've been grateful for the government's staff retention scheme and, including the admin team, we've got twelve on furlough. They are one of our greatest assets and they are keen to have a job to come back to."
Plans for a celebration of Hickstead's 60th anniversary will merely be put on hold, he says.
"No problem is insurmountable. We will run next year and, although we have been unable to celebrate 60 continuous years, it will still be our 60th anniversary!"
Polo Manager Antony Fanshawe during the works on the new Princes Ground at Guards Polo Club
Guards Polo Club - Antony Fanshawe
Guards Polo Club began stick and balling in mid-May, ahead of a possible return to competitive polo in mid-June.
Polo Manager Antony Fanshawe explains that a reduced team of ten groundstaff has been busy getting the fields ready, whilst adhering to social distancing rules.
"We're progressing steadily, gradually reducing the height of cut down towards 20-22mm where it will need to be for tournaments. May was very dry, so irrigation has been key, and we also verti-drained the fields - it takes 4-5 days to do each one, so it's a slow process," he says.
Topdressing with sand is on hold until just before play begins and, whilst slow release fertiliser has been applied, liquids will also be reserved for final preparations.
"We have to do as much as we practically can otherwise we won't be able to catch up when the resumption is confirmed," he explains. "We're just waiting for rain so that we can take the cut height down. Frosts in May were also an issue - I didn't want to mow too close and risk damage but, on the other hand, if you leave the sward too long, poa can take hold."
Guards Polo Club is home to the Cartier International Polo; as the grounds are within Windsor Great Park, consideration will have to be given to managing public access once the season starts © Images of Polo
The club plans to extend the season into October, and hopes that the uptake will be sufficient that all ten fields will be needed, Antony explains.
"Costs have already been cut by the later start and, if we don't need all of them, we simply don't make the final preparations. We have also delayed putting the boards out, which gave a further advantage that we could continue to cut at different angles and reduce the scuffing on turns."
Guards has rescheduled its flagship tournament, the Cartier Queen's Cup, to 28 July - 23 August, and Antony is hopeful that some sort of spectator presence may be possible by then, although resumption will initially be 'behind closed doors'. This may be slightly more difficult to achieve than for many clubs, seeing as the fields are at Smiths Lawn in Windsor Great Park.
"The park has been busy right through lockdown with walkers, cyclists and horse riders, so we will have to consider how this will be managed," comments Antony. "We have been stick and balling in the quieter areas and, in normal circumstances, it is never an issue, but I understand the need to avoid crowds of people congregating."
2020 also marks the debut of a newly constructed field, the Princes' Ground, and the club has gone some way to satisfying members' competitive needs with an online auction for the opportunity to be the first to stick and ball on the field, in aid of a local domestic abuse charity.
The newly constructed Princes' Ground at Guards - members are taking part in an online auction to be the first to play on it