The Grand National is not only the most high profile event in Britain's racing calendar, it is the richest jump race in Europe. Its iconic status governs every decision made about Aintree Racecourse, and has resulted in the use of pioneering groundsmanship and athlete management techniques.
Part of Jockey Club Racecourses, Aintree holds a special position as home to racing's jewel in the crown. Clerk of the Course, Andrew Tulloch, is a chartered surveyor with a strong equine background, whilst head groundsman, Mark Ainsley, is a turf management specialist. "Our skills are complementary, but we are both prepared to look outside racing for any science or technology which can take the race that step further," comments Andrew.
More than £1 million has been invested in the course and in equine welfare improvements over the past six years. Whilst there are eight days racing in total at Aintree and five races over the famous Grand National fences themselves, the programme is geared up to three days in April which climax with the big race. "It's a careful balance between retaining the race's unique status as the ultimate challenge and moving it forward with safety in mind," Andrew says.
Irrigation is a case in point as, for all racecourses, presenting good going is key to attracting runners and reducing injuries, and the aim is now on the easier side of good.
An irrigation system was first introduced in the late 1990s when two boreholes were dug and a ring main installed. Two Briggs booms were purchased for the Mildmay Course (conventional steeplechase fences and hurdles), and the system was then extended to the Grand National course and the nine-hole pay and play golf course in the centre.
"Watering the Grand National course is a challenge because, in places, the fences stretch right across the track, plus it also turns through ninety degrees at the Canal Turn, so you can't rely on booms alone," explains Andrew. "So we added a Briggs raingun with a 30m throw."
A series of warm springs showed the difficulty of managing the system, as Mark explains: "When I came to Aintree in 2006, the Grand National was held in mid-April that year and was preceded by very hot weather. We started watering two and a half weeks before the race, putting water on every other day. As the Grand National meeting dawned, the temperature rose again, and we had to water before the first race, and then again overnight."
A third borehole was added fourteen years ago to give additional back up - the vast storage capacity needed and the running sand soil makes this a better option than a reservoir.
More recently, weather forecasting has helped with the prediction of irrigation requirements and, over the past two years, a Rain Bird pop-up system has been added, with pop-ups to water the last two fences installed this spring.
"This is controlled from a PC in Mark's office, and we also have a separate control system for the racecourse. It means we can water on Friday night and then add a tiny amount more in the morning if it is necessary; we can react to changes in the weather. Having automatic control of watering also takes pressure off the staff at what is a very busy time," comments Andrew.
To keep the investment working to its best, the boreholes have also been renovated via airlifting, which Mark comments removed large amounts of debris.
"The boreholes were full of ochre, and many of the fissures were blocked, so BoreSaver was added and recirculated," he explains. "Our water has a high iron content - it turns everything brown - so we need to clear the system out every year to protect the pumping equipment. The exercise also allowed us to test the output of the system which proved that it could supply 90 cu.m/hr."
The Grand National fences have increasingly come under the spotlight in recent years, with animal welfare charities pressing for changes after a number of horse fatalities. The imposing spruce covered jumps are unique in the United Kingdom.
"Their size and construction is important. We haven't, and won't, make them smaller, because this would encourage the horses to go too fast and potentially cause more accidents," comments Andrew.
As most of the fences have traditionally stretched across the course, one concern that has been addressed is how to allow the field to go past a fence on the subsequent circuit where a fallen horse or rider is being attended to. In the past, the relevant part of the fence has been barriered off, but now 'bypassing areas' to the sides of the fences allow the obstacle to be omitted altogether. These also allow loose horses to run past the fence rather than jumping riderless and risking injury.
To further minimise the hazards presented by loose horses, railed areas (catching pens) have been made at the fourth fence and Canal Turn to allow them to be safely caught.
A radical change has been made to the construction of the fences, which were built from upright timber post frames, with birch in the apron and then the distinctive Sitka spruce, which is hand felled and cut.
"If the horse hit the fence, the timber posts were unforgiving, so we looked for a more horse-friendly material. It needed to be something that would also offer longevity."
Fence manufacturer Easyfix came up with the idea of a plastic base, filled with upright plastic birch, into which the spruce could be slotted. "They still have the 14" high wooden toe board and, when dressed, look identical to the original fences. They weren't suitable for the open ditches, such as the 5ft 2in Chair fence, so these are made of natural birch dressed with spruce," says Andrew.
Two Easyfix fences were successfully trialed at Aintree's December 2012 meeting, and the Jockey Club also arranged for schooling fences to be provided at four training venues - the Curragh, Lambourn, Malton and at trainer David Pipe's yard in Devon. Mark then travels to each venue to dress the fences with spruce before the December and April Aintree meetings.
The impact of horses landing over the fences and the consequent divot filling meant that some of the landings had become uneven so, over the past couple of years, this has been addressed by cutting and filling, and adding rootzone peat and Naturvigor.
"Unfortunately, we started this in the wettest summer on record," says Mark, "and we were getting worried that the new turf would not establish in time for the new season. Terrain Aeration remedied the problem by airblasting and filling the holes with seaweed and, finally, the turf took hold and the roots got down."
Another innovation is the use of speed sensor tags, fitted to every horse that runs in a televised race during the Grand National meeting, that allow the analysis of where horses go fastest on the course. Initial results show greatest speed away from the start, as expected, and, more unexpectedly, towards the Melling Road on the final circuit.
With horse welfare in mind, a special washdown area has been created near the finish with an Andrews Bowen synthetic surface allowing all horses to be washed and cooled in safety. Using his three-day eventing contacts, Andrew borrows special cooling fans commissioned for the London Olympics, and the water is pre-cooled as it comes from the boreholes.
The 2013 race was regarded as critical, because of pressure from animal welfare campaigners. Happily, there were fewer problems. Jockeys reported that, whilst there were still fallers, horses that made slight mistakes were able to recover. With the winner, Aurora's Encore, trained by sporting favourite Harvey Smith and his wife Sue, the tabloid headlines were made by happy stories.
All hands on deck.
On Grand National day, the Aintree grounds team numbers 225 people - on a normal raceday there are forty, of which six are full time.
The 'big event' team includes nine head groundsmen from other courses, three clerks of course to support Andrew, fifteen vets, thirty-five medics and fifty treaders-in, who repair the course after each day's racing, ready for the next day.
Whilst Aintree has its own veterinary hospital, Liverpool University's world renowned Leahurst Veterinary Hospital is also on hand and, for human casualties, Fazakerley Hospital, just minutes away, has a specialist neurological unit.
The six groundsmen and two greenkeepers employed full time are very loyal to Aintree. Stanley Walsh has been at the course the longest, starting some forty years ago at the age of sixteen as a farmhand on the Topham family's estate.
"They are all multitaskers. As well as the racecourse, we look after the gardens and the equestrian centre, and staff can work at other courses in the group, such as Haydock and Cheltenham, so there are lots of opportunities," explains Mark. "Most of the course renovations were done in-house and the team enjoy project work."
"Staff need to be dedicated because we work long hours in all weathers," comments Andrew. "During the preparations for our December meeting, there were such high winds that they had to replace the spruce on the fences at the last minute. But we are fortunate that most of the team are locals, so they understand the importance of the Grand National and share our passion for it."
Making best use of machinery and materials
With sandy loam soils over free draining sand, Mark must be the envy of many waterlogged groundsmen this winter but, as he points out, the ground dries out badly for summer racing, making irrigation vital. He is also careful to look after the soil.
"We use LGP tyres on everything, and keep tractors off the course in winter to avoid compaction. Mowing is carried out with two John Deere wide area mowers in the winter whilst, in summer, we take the running rail out and use a 15ft tractor mounted Progressive mower."
Jockey Club Racecourses has just entered the second term of a preferred supplier agreement with John Deere, after putting machinery supply out to tender.
"We looked at other suppliers, but we felt that John Deere offered the best package of equipment and back-up," comments Andrew. "If you look at other racecourses, you will see a wide variety of machinery colours but, here, everything that can be green is green."
Mark explains that Aintree has a wide range of equipment to cover the needs of the racecourse and the golf course, and that machines can be swapped around, such as deploying the fairway mowers to stripe the track before the Grand National or using ride-on flails to cut rough areas. The fleet also includes a healthy selection of tractors up to 80hp.
"What makes a huge difference to me is the parts back up. If I need something, I can simply go to JD Parts online and it's a 24 hour service. We don't have a dedicated fitter, so we all look after the machines as part of our job, and it needs to be efficient."
Other useful pieces of kit include a Wiedenmann XF8 aerator but, rather than being used to dry out the course as is the chore for many groundsmen, Mark finds it invaluable to help get irrigation water into the soil.
"With our relatively few racedays and good soil, it may seem easy, but we do whatever is necessary to repair the course and get it looking right for such high profile racing," he comments.
This can include applying fertiliser with a pedestrian spreader or sowing seed by hand if bends are showing wear.
And, getting the turf in pristine condition for the world's television cameras in early April brings its own challenge. Mark, with assistance from his supplier, has devised a nutrient programme. "I usually put on 42kg/ha of N in March, and then don't use any more fertiliser until October, as the grass growth would be too much; 110kg/ha of N per year is enough. At 20g/sqm that's 140 bags, or three tonnes, as it is such a huge area to cover."
Surfactants such as Tricure AD are also used on areas that are hard to re-wet but, again, given the area, this can be an expensive process and Mark comments that it is hard to gauge its effectiveness.
Seed mixtures have been extensively evaluated, with the high viability of Barenbrug products getting the nod. "Bar 7 RPR gives impressive repopulation, whilst the cool weather regermination of Bar 50 makes it ideal for winter. We have also trialed Rhizomatous Tall Fescue (RTF) on take-offs to increase stability and reduce sinking in by horses hooves."
Germination covers have been used, but don't always work around fences, whilst costly hydroseeding has got results, but Mark questions whether patience might have been a better approach!
"This winter, the grass has just carried on growing as it has been so warm. Divots filled in December showed impressive recovery by mid-January!"
Horses for courses
Grand National racegoers enjoying a drink in the smart indoor bar near the winning post might be surprised to know that underneath their feet is a high tech equestrian surface used for show jumping and dressage for the rest of the year.
Aintree Equestrian Centre has a 70 x 30m main competition arena, a 55 x 20m warm up area with Andrews Bowen Pro-Wax surfaces, large viewing areas and the requisite judges and officials facilities. Used for competitions (including an international amateurs and veterans showjumping tournament) and private hire, it benefits from the use of 160 racecourse stables and extensive all-weather parking.
The arena surfaces can be covered with slot-in plastic floors, which allow the centre to be used as a venue for a range of other events from craft fairs to weddings, plus its transformation to a hospitality facility for the Grand National meeting.
Mark and his team maintain the surfaces, whilst contractors look after the equestrian infrastructure, such as the show jumps and dressage arenas.