It has been some time since I last ventured onto a racecourse, so the chance to visit Newton Abbot was a great opportunity for me to catch up with the sport of kings and have a discussion with the Clerk of the Course, Jason Loosemore.
Newton Abbot is one of only a very few National Hunt Courses that operate during the summer months, with their season starting in April and finishing in October. The first meeting of the season, on 1st April, had just been held a few days before my scheduled visit.
Like numerous other towns and cities in the UK, the racecourse was built in the mid nineteenth century to cater for the growing demand for horseracing. In 1866, the present site was purchased by local horseracing enthusiasts to create a space to celebrate equine sport in the region. Despite having minimal facilities, the racing took off immediately, growing hugely popular with the Devon populace. However, it was quite some time before the racecourse was sufficiently equipped to be considered a proper racing venue.
Regular race meetings have only ever been brought to a halt twice, by the outbreak of the two world wars. Throughout the First World War, the racecourse was occupied by troops and used as a prisoner-of-war camp. During the Second World War, just one day's racing was held until peace was declared. The end of the war was celebrated by a huge crowd of 17,500 at an August Bank Holiday meeting in 1945.
In 1969, Her Majesty the Queen Mother opened the main grandstand. Corporate facilities were built in 1990 and, each year, more facilities have been added to attract racegoers and local businesses to the course. These have included major improvements to the stands, car parking, stables and conference facilities.
Located on the bank of the river Teign, just north of the town, Newton Abbot is a flat, tight, oval, left-handed track with a circuit of one mile one furlong. There are seven fences to a circuit and a very short run-in; the course suits front-runners who are often hard to catch.
On arrival, I was met by Jason who then introduced me in to the course's MD, Patrick Masterson. Patrick has been in charge at Newton Abbot for twenty-five years, is a low handicap golfer and admitted to being an avid Pitchcare reader.
After a quick cuppa, it was time to walk the course with Jason and the opportunity to see for myself the improvements made to both the track and supporting facilities.
The course is set in 100 acres of Devonshire countryside, with forty acres designated to track, canter down and stand facilities; the remaining sixty acres is land within the track, most of which is cut by a local farmer for silage.
Like most racecourses, the underlying soils can vary quite significantly; there will be variances in soil types as you go round a track, which brings its own set of management issues. The dominant soil type at Newton Abbot is mainly clay loam, with some areas of heavier clay and others with sandier soil. Within the course, there is an old canal basin, with a number of drainage ditches running along the race track.
These ditches help with keeping the course well drained, but can also keep the water table fairly high during the winter months.
In the past, Newton Abbot used to hold race meetings during the winter months, however, the presence of the high water table often compromised the drainage capacity of the site, resulting in cancellations. This was a key reason for changing over to summer racing.
The course hosts eighteen race meetings and a number of other corporate events during the year. The number of races per meeting, however, has to be carefully managed because these are governed by the number of horses that can be stabled; at present, this stands at eighty, all being housed in the recently refurbished stable block.
Jason's role is to ensure the course is fit for purpose and that it provides a safe and consistent surface for racing. Therefore, a lot of his time, and that of his groundstaff team, is spent preparing and repairing the track and carrying out improvement works, when funds allow.
Being also the Clerk of Course at Taunton means Jason has to split his time between the two venues, however, because the two courses have different racing seasons, there is only some overlap in April.
There is a grounds team of five at Newton Abbot. Jason's assistant is Stuart Ranson, who has worked at the course for nineteen years, supported by Richard Aggett, whose main job is stable manager during the racing season, plus Wayne Hockley and Mark White, who is drafted in through the busy summer season. Colin Bushin also helps out when needed, but mainly undertakes general building maintenance duties.
Jason was keen to mention that the course had invested heavily, in recent years, in new drainage down the back and home straight, with M J Abbotts installing a primary and secondary drainage system.
Being a relatively narrow track, at less than thirty metres wide, means it is crucial that the ground is free draining and capable of dealing with the amount of wear it has on race days. The rails on the bends are moved during race meetings to spread the wear.
Maintaining grass cover is essential, so a robust mowing regime is in place to promote a dense sward, often cutting two or three times a week during the growing season at a height of 100mm-125mm. It usually takes three hours to cut the whole track using a large tractor front mounted Votex rotary mower.
A Kubota zero turn ride-on rotary mower is used for the smaller amenity areas and parade ground. Both of these main mowers are at the end of their working life and Jason is in the process of looking for some replacements. The rest of the hand work is done using strimmers.
The sward is fed two or three times during the growing season with liquid and granular fertilisers.
Aeration is a key operation to help decompact the race track. Heave action, deep tine aerators are hired in a couple of times a year to complement the regular slit tining undertaken when conditions allow. The racecourse has its own Wiedenmann which is used regularly to decompact the take-off and landing areas either side of the seven National hunt fences set out on the course.
Usually a full time job in the summer months, watering of the track involves the use of the course's Briggs boom irrigators. This is a two man operation, and 5-8mm of water a day is usually required to keep on top of evapotranspiration rates. The water is drawn from the river Teign, usually beginning at 4.00am and taking eight hours to irrigate the whole course.
Whilst walking the course, Jason was keen to show me the work required to maintain the birch fences. After each race, the birch has to be repaired, pushing it back, replacing some bundles and levelling off the tops. There are over 400 bundles of birch in each fence and, at £5 per bundle, it can soon become a costly operation to keep the fences in tip top condition. Generally, three fences will be totally repaired one year and four the next. In the winter, when time allows, Jason will source and harvest his own birch.
There are also five flights of hurdles to be looked after. For the last couple of years, the course has been trialing some new foam padded hurdles on behalf of the British Horseracing Authority. They are designed to help protect the horses and to last longer than the natural birch-made hurdles. However, they still come at a cost of £3,000 per hurdle.
The staff have over four miles of track rail to maintain, which involves moving it on a regular basis, repairing it and keeping it clean by power washing, usually a winter job.
As for wildl ife, the course is a haven for many birds and animals; deer have been known to come onto the course along with foxes and rabbits. Kingfishers are regularly seen darting along the ditches. As for pests, the grounds team is currently monitoring some areas of the course for chafer grubs, laying down some plastic sheeting to see if there is a problem. After a quick check under the sheeting, we saw no evidence of any chafer grubs - for the time being!
There is also a canter down that the staff maintain, keeping it topped up with wood chippings. One of the most important jobs is repairs to the track surface after racing. A team of locals comes in to help carry out the divoting repairs, usually between twelve and fifteen helpers; they also work on race days, divoting the take-off and landing areas after each race.
I had the chance to meet them as they were just finishing off the home straight; a great bunch of characters with lots of friendly banter between them and the ground staff. They were all equipped with long handled forks, with which they lifted the divots and topped up with a 70/30 rootzone soil mix and seed.
Race days are usually long days with Jason and his staff coming in early at 5.30am to declare the going. He uses both the electronic going stick and his own wooden stick to check the ground conditions. For the first meeting of the season, the going was soft, hardly surprising after the wet winter we have had. Once the soils begin to dry out in May, the going is generally maintained at a consistent 'good'. By the time the last race is finished and everything been put away, it is usually getting on for 7.00pm - time for a well earned beer.
Working at a professional sports venues, such as this, becomes a way of life; it is never a 9-5 job, it tends to be so much more. It seems, from what I saw during my visit, that Newton Abbot is a well-run and well-maintained racecourse, with great camaraderie in a small team of dedicated staff who care about the job they are doing. I would like to thank Jason and his Managing Director for their hospitality and for allowing me to find out about this little gem of a course. I look forward to another visit, this time, hopefully, on a race day to sample the atmosphere of a national hunt meeting.