John Smith Grand National Preparations
By Adrian Kay
It's been a busy winter here at Aintree, restoring the damaged turf from the two meetings in October and November, and refurbishing a number of fences on both the Grand National and Chase courses. In a matter of weeks the biggest steeplechasing event in the world will be held here, with over 148,000 spectators over the 3 day meeting and another 60 million watching it worldwide on television. The course has to be looking its best.
After the November meeting our first priority was to repair the track, which involved backfilling all the damage to restore levels, getting through some 175 tonnes of rootzone in total, and then over sowing with 1 tonne of MM50 Perennial rye grass seed. This operation is quite laborious and requires 50 casual staff with buckets and spades following 10 gators, which are filled up by JCB's, and then back filling all the holes with the rootzone.
The grass is maintained at a height of 100mm throughout the winter. With one eye on the weather forecast I apply humic acid and seaweed extract every six weeks, basically to promote a stress tolerant grass plant and to encourage any seedling growth that will have occurred from October and November's over seeding operations.
During the mild weather conditions of early January we applied Potassium Nitrate (12.0.44) at 40kg per Hectare, this was to try and promote more growth to fill in the damaged areas.
This was used at Aintree last March, with encouraging results, so we bought one in the summer of 2004. We utilize this option on all heavily worn areas such as bends and landings and the takeoff areas at each fence. Again, climatic conditions are key to the success of this operation.
One of my priorities is to produce a dense healthy sward for the first day of the John Smith's Grand National meeting, which will start on the 7th of April.
In addition to monitoring the weather forecasts for air and soil temperatures to predict growth patterns, during February and March moisture levels are observed. The racecourse rootzone consists of an organic loamy sand, which can dessicate, and which will promote fast "going". Moisture content is a prime factor together with thatch content, soil structure, soil texture, infiltration rates and root structure in the overall equation of how the "going" is measured. All have an influence on the penetration and sheer factor of the racing surface and its rootzone.
Following 5 years of research by the racecourse in the safety factors of the "going", the policy now is not to race on ground that is quicker than "Good". So, during the build up, if required, the irrigators will be utilized. In the past we have irrigated through the night in between race days.
Irrigating the course is another laborious, but necessary, operation. We have 30 hectares of race track to irrigate and consistency is paramount. We use a 50m boom and a 30m boom with hose reels on the stands' side and a rain gun in the country part of course. Water is pumped from 3 boreholes within the course site. We can apply around 10mm over the whole course in 24 hours.
This involved a total rebuild of the fence structure, modifying the brook at the same time. The depth and flow of the water running through the brook can now be controlled.
8 chase fences have been re-built and repaired, and toe boards realigned on many of the Grand National fences. The toe boards are an import feature of a fence, they give the horse some visual colour break between the grass and the spruce when approaching the jump.
Many of the hurdles have had the brittle birch replaced with fresh birch. We have 120 hurdles and each one consists of around 7 bundles. With both chase fences and hurdles we can use up to 4000 bundles of birch per year.
We require around 230 cubic metres of spruce, it arrives 3 weeks before the Meeting. It is delivered to the side of each fence, then the "fence dressers" get to work. Dressing the Grand National fences is a specialised operation and unique to Aintree. We have 3 teams of 2 "dressers". I tried it myself once and failed miserably. I leave it to the professionals.
I will be increasing the regime of fertilising, irrigation (if required) and cutting programmes as soon as the soil and air temperatures begin to rise. There will be another dose of humic acid and seaweed before the end of February and then, in March, I'll apply a 9:7:7 fertiliser if the soil temperature gets above the desired 10 degrees centigrade. If not, I will look at applying potassium nitrate if required.
If conditions allow, the grass height will be reduced and maintained at 89mm for a couple of weeks to induce some tillering and increase sward density. The height of the sward will then be gradually brought back to the 100mm height required for the National.
Again, as with all disciplines of groundsmanship, the weather can make, or even break, us. Sometimes we think we are getting ahead of it, then all of a sudden nature will drag you back and remind you who really is the boss.
I have also acquired some new machinery for this coming season, a new John Deere (JD) 5415 (70hp) tractor, JD 1600 WAM rotary mower, JD 3225 fairway mower and an Allman 300l sprayer.
This equipment will complement my main existing machinery at Aintree:-
16ft Progressive Rotary Mower
Three tractors, JD5400 4wd (70hp), JD 5300 2wd (55hp) and JD 2wd 4500 (40hp).
Vehicles 2 X 6/4 JD diesel Gators, 1 JD Pro gator and one quad bike.
Triple Mower, JD 2635 for lawns and golf.
JD 2500 Greens Mower
JD 3235A Light weight fairway mower
Wiedenmann XP 10 Terra Spike
Wiedenmann XP 6 Greens Terra Spike
12 metre sprayer and Vicon Spreaders
50m Briggs Boom irrigator with hose reel, 30m Boom irrigator with hose reel and Briggs Rain gun with hose reel
We also have a nine hole golf course to manage. I have 10 staff in total who, between them, have over 80 years working experience at Aintree. One of the reasons we are able to achieve so much is the fact they are all multi skilled and are able to carry out many different tasks.
The workload here is immense but with such a dedicated team of staff and supportive management we are able to deliver the high standards expected by both the professional racing fraternity and the paying public.
John Smith's Grand National has been completed we will be going through some major changes here at Aintree. There are plans to spend over £30 million on building two new stands which will, in turn, require some major changes to the infrastructure of the site.
There will be a new entrance, new parade rings, new weighing rooms and stables. The work is earmarked for completion by Grand National 2007.
There are also plans to bring flat racing to Aintree by 2007; this will be dependent on a number of feasibility studies which are currently underway.
We have also been given permission to extend the existing golf facility, increasing it from nine to eighteen holes. This is scheduled for completion in 2007.
This substantial investment will ensure the future of racing at Aintree, and particularly the John Smith's Grand National Meeting, for many years to come.