It was a wrench leaving Aintree after ten years but, although there will always be room to improve the course, I felt I needed fresh challenges to keep my appetite in overload.
York racecourse looks set to provide me with just that, as I have found in my first few weeks in charge here.
A fresh challenge to get to grips with is that the whole race track is open to the general public. The Knavesmire (of which the track is within its boundaries) is owned by the local council and, therefore, people have a public right of way across the it.
In a normal working week, we have to share the course with joggers, walkers, dogs, and the centre of the track with footballers and wannabe golfers!
At Aintree the courses and grandstands were mostly secure (except for the odd light fingered local), a fenced fortress with no public access outside of race days and corporate events. Immediately at York, I face dilemmas over health and safety issues, having to work around the public and their pastimes.
At Aintree we had, over the years, built up a personnel and machinery infrastructure that was realistic to the demands of the job in hand. Now, at York, I have started to assess the current status of both these important factors and construct a forecast for current and future additions to allow us to move forward and achieve the standards and expectations that are realistic.
To achieve these standards, as in every discipline of groundsmanship, we require the backing of our management and their committees. I feel confident that the backing is evident here at York to achieve my personal objectives.
Racecourse maintenance has evolved considerably since my early days in the sport, and continues to do so, and the appreciation of a quality race course is recognised by all involved within the industry. Every maintenance procedure is now analysed to ensure that all is done to achieve a safe and consistent surface for horse and jockey.
My capital equipment wish list for 2007 will be as follows;
JD 1600T wide area mower- This ride-on tri-deck rotary mower will be primarily used on the racetrack and other large area lawns (car parks). This will replace the tractor driven, electric rotary mower.
De-Compactor (vertidrain or terra spike) - 2.6metre, tractor driven, will be solely used on the race track.
2.0 metre Disc seeder - This will be utilised in the racetrack following racing and general over seeding.
Utility vehicle - for getting around site, providing a faster and lighter foot print, without the need to use tractor and trailer for all operations.
Fertiliser spreader - Tractor mounted fertiliser spreader will allow the application of granular fertiliser to the racetrack and large lawns. This will combine with 7 metre sprayer for a flexible approach throughout the year.
Ride-on triple mower - To enhance the quality of the lawn areas throughout the racecourse.
Current staffing levels; six groundstaff (including myself) and one gardener, plus casual groundstaff throughout the summer.
One of my main objectives is to provide a consistent racing surface (going), as well as providing a dense coverage of grass. These two objectives sometimes provide challenges within themselves, with regard to the size of the course and the different indigenous soil textures and structures that is evident through the course.
Newly constructed bends, shaded areas and heavier soils present different challenges and various procedures to overcome them. I shall be spending some time over the winter getting a feel of the place and assessing how these challenges can be confronted to the best of our ability. I shall be picking Stuart Arksey's brains (the former head groundsman) as his experience will be essential in my smooth transition from jumps to flat racing.
I'm putting together a five-year plan that will, hopefully, sit nicely within the budgetary constraints and logistics of the task ahead.
I have already got my staff to reduce the height of cut and increase the regularity of the mowing. The course has been vertidrained and aeration will become an ongoing occurrence.
I want to increase the general depth of root and some areas across the course do suffer from panning. These areas become apparent during rainfall and are in the usual high wear areas associated with horse racing, i.e. the grass adjacent to the inside rail.
There are plans already in place to widen parts of the course and move some of the rails away from tree lines. These plans will help to spread the wear better and, with the addition of some temporary running rails during non-race days during winter time, this will protect the inside running line from joggers and dog walkers who, like golfers, take the shortest route round the track.
Another problem that I have to deal with is moles. One section of the course is next to an area of protected common land and the moles nest in there and venture out under the course to find food. The runs that these animals create leave areas that are unstable.
There are lots of challenges here, but all are not insurmountable. This is a fresh challenge and something that I am sure will give me lots of job satisfaction in return. And, at the end of the working day that is what we all strive to achieve.