As winners of The Best Flat Raceourse category in the 2011 Neil Wyatt Racecourse Groundstaff Awards, Clerk of the Course and Director of Racing, Michael Prosser, knows only too well that a well trained, dedicated groundstaff and the latest, most productive machinery are the key to running a racing enterprise.
With thirty-eight racedays in 2012, on twenty-eight hectares of racing surface, and allied with the dreadful spring weather, the team will be working 'flat' out, as Jane Carley reports.
Part of the Jockey Club's portfolio of racecourses, British racing's 'headquarters' has to balance its role as the historic and spiritual hub of the sport with being a commercial operation. There are also two separate courses, used at different times of year - the Rowley Mile and the July Course.
Recently restructured to cap costs, the grounds team now comprises eight full time groundstaff, three gardeners - who can also be drafted in to work on the turf if needed - and one part time employee. Contractors are also used during the racing season.
"The gardeners are not only responsible for putting together and looking after the floral displays on the courses, but also for propagating the flowers in our greenhouses and shade houses," Michael explains. "We aim to produce ninety-nine percent of our flowers in-house, although we have recently moved away from growing them from seed to purchasing young plants in the spring to cut out winter heating costs for the glasshouses. Horticultural work is particularly important on the July Course which has the largest lawned area in front of the grandstands of any racecourse."
Michael comments that he has been able to achieve the same standards on the racecourse with a smaller team by improving staff training and investing in higher quality machinery.
"We buy high specification equipment, and ensure the fleets are identical on both courses to avoid having to move machinery between sites. This is essential as we maintain the courses simultaneously, even though they are used at different times of the year for racing."
The Rowley Mile course, on which racing takes place in spring and autumn, is busy year round with conferences and events, and Michael points out that the highest levels of presentation are required at all times.
"The conference market is so competitive, we have to match or exceed any standards which are on offer elsewhere," he says.
He adds that the team takes considerable pride in the history and heritage of Newmarket, and that Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR) has continued to invest in it, with a £10m redevelopment of the hospitality areas on the July Course in 2006-7. And the developments are ongoing - the historic saddling boxes have just been rethatched by a master craftsman, whilst arborists have been hard at work nurturing the ancient beech trees adjacent to the parade ring and to the rear of the grandstand in preparation for the summer season.
Working across the two courses, groundstaff are required to have a broad skill base, although there are some specialists too.
"Hannah Tripe gives the fine turf areas exceptional care, but she can also multi-task. We have five staff trained to PA1 and PA6 and three with PA2, because spraying has to be fitted into weather windows and can't wait if someone is off sick or on holiday," Michael explains.
Staff machinery training is available as part of Jockey Club Racecourses' preferred supplier agreement with John Deere, and is held at the company's Langar headquarters, but tractor training days also take place on the racecourse, whilst staff travel to the British Racing School for horse handling courses.
Seeking out the latest techniques and equipment is crucial, suggests Michael.
"We have front and rear mount mowers, and, until recently, the British Horseracing Authority had a regulation requiring courses to be cut with a front mower - we use a modified Caroni unit. But, we had a demonstration of the Progressive TDR rear mounted mower and were impressed with the quality of the cut and the draught produced by the deck design, which lifts the sward after the tractor wheels have driven over it."
"We applied to the BHA for a rule change on this basis, which was approved, and we have been using the Progressive since 2011 with great results. We have a permanent outer rail and have always varied the path of the cut to avoid wheelings, and also fit LGP tyres designed for turf nurseries, but the Progressive takes out any wheel marks."
The courses are normally mown three times in eight days during the peak growing season, with cutting programmes planned around the weather to minimise the time spent picking up cut grass.
"With twenty-eight hectares of racing surface, it takes two tractors and mowers six hours to cut each time," Michael comments, "Yet, irrigation remains our most labour intensive task."
This is despite a concerted programme of investment in the irrigation system over the last ten years, which has seen new ring mains installed on all three courses, new valve points added, and the pump house (which is shared with Jockey Club Estates for the extensive areas of training gallops in Newmarket) extended and two new Caprari pumps installed.
A 50m Briggs boom - at the time, the largest produced by the Northamptonshire manufacturer - was purchased in 2002. The old 22m boom was sold to Huntingdon racecourse and replaced with a 30m version, now used on the Beacon course (8ha of racing surface which links the July and Rowley Mile courses). In 2012, a 60m boom joined the fleet.
"The 50m boom had guns on its peripheral wings to cover the full 55m width of the Rowley Mile," Michael explains, "The latest model overhangs the course so gives complete coverage, while the 50m boom has been moved to the 44m wide July course."
"Briggs is a local company and gives us an excellent service, and we have been able to work with them to fine tune the operation - after analysing the distribution of the water, we have modified the nozzles to get a more even application."
The system can now apply 10mm of water per furlong (about 200m) in one hour ten minutes, and it takes eleven pulls to cover the Rowley Mile.
"This means one person can apply 10mm in one day, albeit a long one," comments Michael.
The calcareous soils - which were Newmarket's saving grace for the Guineas meeting, when a month of heavy spring rain saw several British race meetings abandoned in the first week of May - make efficient irrigation essential.
"In the summer, when 30deg temperatures are matched with a stiff breeze, we can lose 30mm of moisture from the course in a week," Michael points out. "Effective irrigation also helps eliminate draw bias (where runners drawn in starting stalls on one side of the course are favoured in running) on a straight course."
A reservoir, also shared with Jockey Club Estates, was installed in the 1990s and holds 67,000cu.m of water, and Newmarket has an extraction permit for a borehole to top up the reservoir, although the Jockey Club has agreed with the Environment Agency to reduce this by twenty percent whilst drought conditions persist.
Management of the two courses is tailored to their racing programme - the July course is used from June to August, so the team has the spring to get it into shape, and the autumn to renovate it.
The last week of September sees an intensive spring tine harrow across the course, with debris removed via a Trilo vacuum. It is then aerated to prepare for winter with either a Blecavator or a Vertidrain.
"The silty clay loam means that it is effectively self-aerating, and it is important not to overwork it. We slit tine in the spring and possibly in the autumn but, generally, the soil structure is so good that it looks after itself."
The Rowley Mile is first used for the Craven meeting in April, which can present a problem as its heathland grasses are later maturing than the ryegrass on the July Course.
"It can be hard to get 100 percent cover for April, although it is better for the Guineas meeting in May," comments Michael. "However, the root structure of the heathland grass is incredible, and we don't need to irrigate over the summer when the Rowley Mile is not in use, as the varieties cope well with dry conditions.
The Rowley Mile can also be hard to repair after the autumn season, especially if winter closes in early, he points out.
The bend on the Rowley Mile was covered with horticultural fleece from January to March 2011 as part of a successful trial, and the full Craven Stakes Mile was covered with fleece across its 20m width in January 2012.
"We removed the fleece in the first week of March and then, two weeks later, applied fertiliser; the process has made a big difference. There was less dieback, and when we had snow, the fleece prevented it compressing the sward. The plants were healthier and more receptive to nutrients, so we achieved the improved cover that we were looking for."
Michael admits that the mild spring meant that the other side of the course caught up quickly, and emphasises the importance of getting the turf into winter in good order.
Different grass varieties, seasons and requirements mean that both courses have to be managed individually, and JCR has preferred supplier agreement with Barenbrug to help with this.
Michael also works closely with Headland Amenity to plan the nutritional programme.
"We review the year in November and take samples for soil analysis. We then revisit the programme in February to produce a final nutrition strategy for the season, which has to reflect the racing programme rather than just the traditional growing season," he explains.
"On the July course we use an autumnal feed in March to avoid a growth flush, and then apply a spring feed in May prior to the start of the summer racing season. The Rowley Mile receives a spring feed in March and an autumn feed in August ahead of a busy three months' racing, and we always use controlled release products on the racing surface."
Key lawns receive an equally sophisticated programme, including full soil analysis. "The Members' lawn area on the July course, where a capacity crowd is 22,000, accommodates the audience at our post-racing concerts. Lawns have to be robust and look good - the appearance of the July course is very much part of its attraction."
Naturally, attracting top horses is key to bringing racegoers through the gates - Newmarket has more than 3,000 runners at its thirty-eight race meetings. It hosts nine group one races - the most prestigious on the calendar - and, of the five group one races in Britain run for two year-old horses, four take place at Newmarket.
Trainers of such elite horses demand top quality footing on the racetrack, which was a lot to ask for this year's early May meeting, which features two of the sport's Classic races - the 1000 and 2000 Guineas.
"We had just under 15cm of rain in the four weeks prior to the Qipco Guineas Festival, and 25mm on the Thursday night before the meeting," comments Michael. "Due to the free draining soils and the way the turf is managed, we were still able to deliver good racing conditions - slower going than in many years, but with good grass cover."
With the next meeting just ten days later, the pressure was on to repair the course afterwards.
"It takes a team of ten people three days to get the course back, and then we lightly Cambridge roll to help level it out. We try to use minimal refurbishment soil on the course," Michael explains. "Staff are briefed to find individual holes and replace divots or fill the hole with soil."
The generous width of the track does help, he adds: "We had 190 runners over the two days of the Guineas Festival but, with a 32m wide course, there is plenty of room."
"The July Course is 44m wide, with a permanent middle rail providing two individual courses. The 22m on the far side is kept specifically for the prestigious Piper Heidsieck July Festival from the end of August until the next July, so it has not been raced on for eleven months and, invariably, provides a world class racing surface."
Although it is steeped in tradition, the secret of Newmarket's success is to keep looking forward, reckons Michael.
"I'm keen to look at the latest technology and ideas - I recently got on a plane to Ireland to inspect seaweed that is grown for a root enhancer product. We are already using a similar product, but I wanted to try this one, and we are eagerly awaiting the results of a comparative trial."
"We are always aiming to improve, and are mindful of the domestic and international competition," he comments. "We fully intend to retain our hard earned status as a world class horse racing venue."