Home to the Investec Derby, and synonymous with Flat racing for even the most casual follower of the sport, Epsom Downs is used to being in the news. But last year it hit the headlines for the wrong reasons when its September meeting was abandoned at the 11th hour due to an infestation of chafer grubs causing unsafe footing. Jane Carley reports.
Clerk of the Course Andrew Cooper and Regional Estates Manager Craig Williamson
The circumstances which led to the chafer grub issue and how the grounds team tackled it are rooted in the nature and origins of this unique course.
"If you were planning a racecourse on this site now, people would think you were mad and it would never be approved," observes Jockey Club Regional Estates Manager Craig Williamson, pointing out the swooping downhill Tattenham Corner and the sharp camber to the inside rail approaching the finishing line of the Derby, recently recognised officially as the leading three year-old race in the world.
Racing began at Epsom in the 1640s but, after the sport was banned under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth in 1649, the first recorded meeting in England took place in the town on 7th March 1661.
Race meetings became a regular fixture on the Epsom Downs in May and October from 1730, with the Derby first run in 1780, a year after the first Oaks for fillies.
The course follows the undulations of 600 acres of chalk downland, which are protected in legislation - the Epsom and Walton Downs Regulation Act of 1984, updated from its 1936 predecessor. The act gives the general public right of access for 'air and exercise' on foot across the downs, although racehorse training has priority over other users before midday.
Conservators manage the downs via Downskeepers, who work to protect the habitats provided by the chalk grassland in cooperation with Jockey Club Racecourses, which manages Epsom Downs Racecourse.
One stipulation is that there should be no more than sixteen meetings per year, and the fixture list currently stands at eleven.
The grandstand was renewed in 2008, with minimal use of the course during this time pinpointed as a possible cause of chafer grub invasion
"Everything we do is geared towards the Derby, and it is the climax of the year," explains Clerk of the Course Andrew Cooper, "Although we have a meeting before it in April, and a very successful series of summer evenings before the season draws to a close in September."
Andrew and Craig also oversee nearby Sandown Park, which hosts National Hunt racing in winter and flat racing in summer, and the workload largely dovetails neatly.
"The main jumps season at Sandown finishes in March - although we have a meeting which is mixed jumps and flat at the end of April - and then the focus switches to Epsom," says Craig.
Sandy loam soil - as shallow as a few inches in places - over chalk subsoil makes for a free draining course, but Craig comments that the surface is highly prone to damage, not least because of its undulations, with the Derby course rising the height of Nelson's Column in the first half mile.
"The course damages quite readily and we do ask a lot of it in a short space of time, so keeping the turf healthy is key."
Whereas in the 1960s the surface was un-irrigated and all meetings were run across the full 30m width of the course, modern racing requires better turf husbandry, explains Andrew, and the profile of the Investec Derby demands the highest standards of all.
Epsom's distinctive features include a sharp camber to the winning post / The Derby start, with a climb equal to the height of Nelson's Column in the first half mile. Undulations are one factor which make the turf prone to damage from horses' hooves
It is a race which has seen plenty of change - traditionally, the Derby was held on the first Wednesday in June and the meeting continued until Saturday. In the early 1990s, it fell slightly from grace, with overseas trainers targeting other prestigious international prizes.
New sponsorship from Vodafone in 1995 saw the first Saturday Derby as the centrepiece of a three-day festival and, eventually, the Sunday was dropped, allowing the focus to be on presenting the optimum ground conditions for Friday's Oaks and Coronation Cup and the Derby itself.
"A number of injuries to horses on the Flat in general were being attributed to firm ground," comments Andrew, "There was a concern that, if a promising and potentially highly valuable horse was injured in the Derby, he could be out for the rest of the season. In conjunction with the then head groundsman Nigel Thornton, we planned to ensure our ground was as safe as possible. The goal was to run the 1996 Derby on ground no quicker than good to firm, which remains our mantra to this day."
With the potential for 30OC plus temperatures in early June, instigating a positive irrigation programme was key and, over the years, the system has been gradually upgraded to the present three Briggs booms supported by tow lines and an updated ring main.
Andrew points out that irrigation is still contentious at times, but the improved ground conditions and a drive by the all-conquering Coolmore breeding organisation in Ireland to win this unique test of a three year-old colt revitalised the race. Its influence continues - Coolmore's 2001 winner Galileo became one of the most successful sires of his generation fathering three Derby winners, and victorious horses are now valued in six figures.
Tattenham Corner has a sharp downhill bend, one of the features which makes the Derby a unique test for three year-old racehorses
It's a constant challenge to present that optimum going, however, as Craig acknowledges. "You can think you have put too much on, but it's easy to underestimate how quickly the ground dries. The going can change from the soft side of good to the fast side of good in a day. The only answer is to start irrigating early and keep the moisture in the soil profile, putting on 2-3mm/day."
Watering also has to take into account the surroundings - avoiding the impact of irrigator noise on horses in training, and not disturbing those frequenting the public house at the end of the home straight, so often takes place at night.
"We're mains fed, having been unable to gain permission for a borehole, and whilst we've never been short of water, there is ongoing concern that, during a drought order, it might be restricted," comments Andrew.
And it doesn't help that. whilst the soils are consistent, Espom's weather is highly localised; to the extent that when the legendary filly Enable passed the post in the Oaks in a downpour in 2017, it was dry at the stables!
"We had trainers phoning asking if the going had changed to soft, but we started the Derby the following day on good ground," Craig recalls.
The mild 2018-19 winter has left the course in good condition, with the turf getting away well during the unseasonal February temperatures.
"Putting it to bed properly at the end of the season is essential - I use Seavolution and iron in autumn, and again in spring to harden off the turf," he explains
Granular fertiliser is used throughout the season, including Marathon and then Blaukorn to help the turf peak for the Derby.
The shallow soils are testing to renovate - deep aerators could pull the chalk up, so can't be used.
A Wiedenmann Terraspike XF provides effective aeration with minimal heave, giving a gentle action and avoids the risk of pulling up the underlying chalk on shallow soils / Deputy head groundsman Chris Youngs begins the mowing process with a Ransomes 493 ride-on
"We have a slitter, but after using a Wiedenmann at Sandown I decided to try it here. We know the soil profile on the track and I've got some very good operators who are aware exactly what depths they can work to. The Wiedenmann XF can be set with minimum heave, so it's kinder to the turf than a slitter.'
Away from the track, turf work is minimal - the Downskeepers prepare the downs, which form the free-to-enter public areas for the Investec Derby, and lawns are compact in size.
The parade ring has its own secret; apart from a small permanent lozenge of turf at the centre, the rest is hard standing parking for most of the year. Turf is laid straight onto the bricks at the start of the season and is fed and watered liberally to keep it green.
"We first started using this method in 1996. Before that, the horses walked onto the bricks, and I felt that temporary turf was safer!" says Andrew.
With seven road crossings on the track, it is effectively a series of separate grass areas, so mowing is handled by a Ransomes 493 ride-on, which has not only proved more manoeuvrable, but incorporates three castor wheels on each deck, keeping them level for a high quality cut.
"We can be mowing three times a week in the season," says deputy head groundsman Chris Youngs, "but the Ransomes seems to have less impact on the turf with wheel marks than its predecessor, and the finish is much more even."
The Duralock rail is moved out for the early meetings and the last mile is finally moved back on the Friday night after the Oaks, ready for the Derby the next day, when twenty runners can span across the track.
Most of the turf in the parade ring is laid temporarily on a brick surface for the racing season; it is used for parking at other times of year / Close co-operation is required with the local authority, which maintains the Downs, used for public viewing on Derby day
"Regardless of the conditions, we can always present fresh ground for the main part of the Derby," Craig comments.
There are five full time groundsmen at Epsom, who also do duty at Sandown.
"The two courses are so close it's easy to share staff, and it's also good for their development. They might experience building jumps at Sandown, for example, which they would not get chance to do here," comments Andrew.
The multiple narrow crossings mean that transporting equipment around requires a trip out onto the busy surrounding roads with tractors and trailers; the stables are also some distance from the parade ring, so moving horses before and after each race is a complex process. One road crossing on the 5f chute can only be closed for two hours on race days, so it's a sprint to put mats out and dig them in before reversing the process after the race. All part of Epsom's quirks which provide a unique working environment for a groundsman.
As we go to press, the public continue to enjoy their 'air and exercise' on the Downs although, as Craig points out, they are remarkably respectful of the track itself, seemingly unaware of the air of anticipation building as the team prepare one of the world's most famous racecourses for its day in the spotlight. On 1st June, another Investec Derby champion will be crowned and another racing legend will begin.
A grubby problem ...
Chafer grubs were first observed on the track at Epsom in 2008, and their impact felt in 2009. The building of a new grandstand meant that the course was only used for the Derby meeting for two years, and the limited programme seemingly allowed the grubs to become more established, including on the neighbouring golf course.
Chafer grub populations were measured at 200 larvae/sqm on the worst affected area in 2018
"In 2009, we returned to a full season of racing and, in September, we had to abandon two five furlong races due to unstable ground in the chute from the chafer grubs' activity, although we held the rest of the meeting," explains Andrew.
Pesticide treatments seemed to tackle the problem, although one race had to be swapped for another of a different distance in 2010, and there were no further issues until 2018, when the early September meeting was abandoned.
"From 2009 to 2016 we had the insecticide Merit at our disposal; however, we could only treat the track, so the downs were alive with chafer grubs. We monitored them through 2017 - you don't need traps for that as there are so many, and they are visible at the Derby meeting."
"The ground issues in September 2018 were identified on the Monday and we were due to race on Thursday, and there just wasn't the time to address it," explains Craig. "We were able to hold our final meeting by adjusting the programme to avoid the area."
Turf damage on the course due to the activity of chafer grubs in September 2018, making the surface unstable and thus unsafe for racing / Damage between the running rail and lawns
Acelepryn had been used after Merit was withdrawn, and Craig comments that the label recommendations were followed to the letter.
"We used a good contractor, in the correct spray window and watered it in, and on 80% or the track it was 100% effective. The main issue is that it's a relatively new technology and it's hard to get the active ingredient into racecourse turf, which is 10cm thick."
Two furlongs in the back straight were badly damaged with the turf becoming unstable and, when it was peeled back, 200 grubs/sqm were discovered in the treated area, compared with the expected 1-2 grubs/sqm.
"Acelepryn can only be applied once in a year, but I'm confident that it is an effective product in general. The difficulty is that the damage is hard to spot on racecourse turf; because it is watered so much, it doesn't die back or show stress symptoms. There wasn't even any badger or bird damage."
Craig is working with manufacturer, Syngenta, to improve the product's effectiveness on racecourse turf, but he believes that feeding and watering to keep the turf healthy and strong may be the best defence.
"We're looking at how to get Acelypryn into the soil profile, the use of water and wetting agents and timings. Syngenta also helped to confirm the type of chafer grub - they are predominantly Garden Chafer which have a one-year life cycle and should be easier to treat than the Cockchafer with a three-year life cycle."
Pheromone traps are also being deployed to help catch and move the insects from vulnerable areas, as well as highlight the worst affected areas.