They say that new brooms sweep clean but, at Ludlow Racecourse, Tom Moreland - in his first groundsman role - aims to keep a balance between the latest science and techniques and traditions which have seen the course through the last 294 years. Jane Carley reports.
Head Groundsman Tom Moreland (left) and Clerk of the Course Simon Sherwood
When Ludlow Racing Club was looking to recruit a new head groundsman in 2017, Tom Moreland was already well known to the team, as a supplier of marquees for functions and racedays.
"I'd always liked the racecourse and said that I'd be interested in any groundsmanship roles that came up. But it has been a steep learning curve to step into the head groundsman's job," he explains.
As well as being familiar with working outdoors and leading a team, Tom had the benefit of a family background in agricultural engineering and connections with the machinery trade. Industry training, plus the support of Clerk of the Course Simon Sherwood and groundsmen Roger and Chris Jones, who between them have more than seventy years' service at Ludlow, have helped him develop his skills to shape and improve the popular Shropshire course.
Tom explains how the team works together: "As a former leading jockey and trainer, Simon can relate to how the ground will ride from experience, so his input is massive. He's really supported me in this new role - I'd never even been horseracing and, after twenty years doing marquees, it was a big change."
Simon adds that he comes from agricultural background, so is used to more traditional groundsmanship but is keen to embrace the latest science and techniques that Tom wishes to apply.
Surrounded by picturesque countryside and with a long history, Ludlow Racing Club is now looking to add modern groundsmanship techniques to meet the demands of the 21st century sport
Apart from its distinctive road crossings, the course itself is a traditional national hunt track, flattish, with just a couple of undulations. The tight, fast layout suits a particular type of horse, suggests Simon.
With a few Grade 2 races, but mainly Grade 3, Tom comments that Ludlow attracts a higher standard of runner because it is renowned for generous prize money.
"I have done a bit of research and found a huge number of horses that have run here and gone on to do well at Aintree or Cheltenham," he says.
The personal touch is another attraction -Tom liaises with trainers bringing their runners overnight before racing - some of which travel from as far as Ireland - and keeps an eye on the horses as they arrive.
Ludlow also presents unusually favourable winter conditions: "The racecourse is on a gravel bed, so is very quick draining - after this dry winter I was still watering in January," comments Tom.
Simon points out: "In a wet year, we do very well when other courses are struggling, as trainers look for better ground to run their horses on. Irrigation is key in the autumn and we often need to put on three to four inches a day."
"We started irrigating about twelve days before racing in 2018. Because of weather, we couldn't ever get it soft, but could produce safe, consistent footing," adds Tom.
Ludlow has its own reservoir for water, pumped out of the river and a borehole. It is applied to the wide expanse of track using a Briggs boom pulled out twice down the home straight, with two further Briggs outfits on the back and far side.
"We've also added sprinklers on the chase course with the first ones going in just before I started, and last season I had another lot put in over the far side under the woods - they are a godsend," says Tom, who lives on site and has taken charge of irrigation and the early starts required.
The main B4635 road divides the course and there are no less than seven road crossings in total, which provide a challenge: "The road is covered on racedays with a system of mats for the horses to run over - rubber underneath and coir on top. We have two trailers with rubber mats on for the main crossing and a team of eight men put them down on the morning of the meeting. They pull the rubber mats out onto the road, unroll the coir mats over them and put sand in the joints. At the end of racing, they roll the coir mats up, lace them up again and take the rubber mats away," explains Tom.
Chris (left) and Roger Jones have more than seventy years' experience between them / Low loading trailers carry the rubber mats for the road crossings and save multiple trips with the mats on pallets
"It is labour intensive, but we use the same team of eight men at every meeting and they work well together. During racing they attend the fences nearest the crossings so they are on hand for the removal."
Rubber mats were previously kept on pallets, transported one at a time, but investment in the low loading trailers has made the job a lot easier, he points out.
Simon comments that there is quite a cost involved - the coir mats are replaced on a rolling programme at cost of £20,000 per year and the edges of the course have to be returfed each summer due to the added wear.
There are other practical implications too - the road means that service vehicles can't follow horses the whole way around the course, so a quad and a UTV are used to keep an eye on the runners as they race.
The track also surrounds Ludlow Golf Club, which has an impact on the turf as the fairway crossings become compacted by golfer traffic. On racedays, the club is closed, and racegoer cars parked on the fairways.
"When I started, I knew that quite a few changes were needed to the groundcare regime," explains Tom. "Ludlow Racing Club is run by a board of directors rather than a single manager, so I can make decisions, discuss them with Simon and then action them, unless major investment is needed."
Tom has worked closely with Tom Weaver from turf specialist ALS Amenity, undertaking soil sampling to assess nutrient needs, although the track is already showing improvements from updates made to the fertiliser and seeding regimes.
A move from agricultural granular fertiliser to specialist products has had a significant impact on the growth and condition of the turf, with Generate 12:3:9, which contains seaweed, applied in spring to support the end of season fixtures.
During the closed season, overseeding with Action Replay, which includes a number of new ryegrasses, brought rapid establishment and good cover ready for the start of the autumn 2018 season, when slow release fertiliser Lebanon ProScape 12:6:24 was applied.
"This has helped the turf keep its colour over winter, with little of the yellowing that you would expect," comments Tom. "You can see a difference between the surrounding fairway and the course."
He explains: "Tom Weaver and I discuss our requirements and he comes up with solutions. It's a challenge to keep racecourse turf performing well because it gets cut up so much. If we get a lot of rain on a raceday, it can look like a ploughed field afterwards, and we have to get it back to as near perfect as possible for the following week."
Tom also instigated a programme of aeration which had not previously been considered a priority - he rescued the slitter from some nettles and fitted it with new tines!
The track surrounds Ludlow Golf Club, and the traffic from golfers causes compaction where the fairway crosses
"The Verti-Drain was predominantly used on the bad areas where the golfers cross, but I use it a lot more, and do the whole course two or three times a year. We also have a Cambridge roller to level the course - it's controversial as we want to avoid compaction, but I believe it is the best way to smooth out the hoofmarks and it's a matter of balancing it with aeration."
"All the equipment was here, but a lot of it was tired," he comments. "In discussion with Simon, I came up with a wishlist and one of the first purchases was a tractor. We looked at a premium brand second-hand, but the cost with loader and turf tyres was prohibitive. My contacts at dealers Farol managed to find us a 2009 Kubota M8540 which fits the bill."
Tom also sourced a John Deere X740 lawn tractor and collector for fine turf areas such as the parade ring and lawns. Its predecessor, a domestic lawn tractor, is retained for back up!
Much of the work remains manual, such as moving hurdles, requiring a team of four part-time staff to resite them on fresh ground after each meeting.
Steeplechase fences also move after four to five meetings - they are mounted on steel frames so can be towed with a tractor - better than the old wooden frames, which needed regular maintenance, points out Chris Jones.
Steeplechase fences are moved onto fresh ground after four or five meetings each season / Chase fences are a mixture of traditional and modern: spruce is used to give an inviting appearance, but the wooden take off board on open ditches has been replaced with rubber for safety
Padded hurdles are another innovation which have reduced maintenance costs considerably - at the first January meeting, just two were damaged, compared to as many as twenty of the old-style hurdles which could need repair after each meeting.
"They are much safer too, reducing the risk of injuries to horses," comments Chris.
Expecting breakages, Tom purchased a supply of spares for the new hurdles, but they are all still in the shed!
The steeplechase fences have had a facelift. One of Tom's first jobs was to update the water jump to meet BHA standards which require it to be no more than 3in deep, and line it with rubber.
Spruce is sourced from local estates to give the front of the fences their traditional, inviting appearance, but Tom has replaced the wooden guard rail on open ditches with rubber, to prevent injuries should horses strike it on take-off or when falling.
"I'm looking to make changes and modernise, but retain the character that makes Ludlow what it is. It can take a lot for management to realise that a train of thought will work, but we're getting there."
One area that has seen a reshuffle is how the grounds team work on racedays. The three full time groundsmen are supported by a crew of regular casual workers, many of whom are retired.
"I've altered what the men do on a raceday, who goes where, and split the team up to look after different sections - it seems to work well and meet the demands of modern racing. For example, we have four attendants to each fence now, to deal with the safety warning flags etc."
Irrigation has proved vital over the winter, with the track's own reservoir storing water from the river and a borehole / The home straight, with the Victorian grandstand in view
All course repairs are carried out by local part-time staff, who also come in the day before racing to sweep and tidy up in the grandstand and enclosures.
"I have one who arranges the treaders-in, so I negotiate with him how many treaders are needed depending on how badly the surface is cut up, and then delegate the management of that team to him. Once you've a got a system in place that works well, it's just easy," comments Tom.
Simon comments that, in common with other leisure activities, racegoers' expectations are ever higher: "They appreciate the friendly, professional atmosphere, and trainers have confidence that we can present consistent ground and will be honest about it. We're always looking at ways to develop, with an increasing number of themed days, such as a charity day, our new sponsor Wye Valley Brewery's Day and Ladies Day at the end of the season."
Much of the grandstand dates back to Victorian times and adds to the course's charm, but updates have recently been made to owners' and trainers' hospitality to improve comfort, with the weighing room and winners' enclosure next on the agenda for an upgrade.
"We've made lots of small improvements, such as replacing gas bottles dotted around the buildings with underground tanks, tidying up and saving costs. We have conferences and events to think about, so the course has to be kept looking good year round, and in the closed period we plan for the future as the new season soon comes around," explains Tom.
"This summer, the parade ring will get some attention to tackle moss, and we will scarify the course to open up the top layer. We plan to do this in house; we have a rake but need to find way to collect the debris. It's always the aim to use the core team and trusted casuals; for example, we recently hired in digger to do a construction task ourselves."
A new recycling initiative has cut waste and saved on labour costs
War on waste
Integrating Ludlow into the community as part of the BHA's Racing Together initiative is another goal for Tom, and an early project has been to work with Zero Waste Events to improve recycling rather than just using skips for raceday rubbish.
After touring the site with Ali Thomas of Zero Waste, Tom introduced bin sets comprising a bin each for non-recyclable rubbish, plastic/cans and paper. For the kitchens and outside caterers, he opted for a food-waste bin, a sack for recycling and a bin for non-recyclable packaging.
Skips were swapped for 1100 Euro bins, with food waste bins collected separately.
Zero Waste Events collect the waste front and back of house and litter pick to keep on top of the inevitable betting slips.
Ludlow now recycles 85% of the waste produced on a race day and has seen that racegoers use the bins well with far less litter dropped.
"The day after the meeting, stands are much cleaner and tidying up after racing is easier. Recycling also makes commercial sense: previously, skips cost £960 alone, with two members of staff needed for two days giving a total labour cost of around £420."
"Using the Zero Waste team, a managed wheelie bin system with collections after each meeting costs a standing charge of 0.10p per day (large bins x 8) and the bin collection at £170, for trade waste, cardboard, and food waste. The cost of the Zero Waste team was £350, plus £320 for staff to clear up the day after."
This machinery shed was apparently used as a dance hall when the racecourse did duty as a POW camp in WWII. The John Deere ride-on is a new addition to speed up preparation of lawned areas