Ayr Racecourse has seen a remarkable reversal of fortunes in the last two years - from the horror of an accident on the flat course home bend, to winning Dual Purpose Racecourse of the Year in the Neil Wyatt Groundstaff Awards, of which Pitchcare is a sponsor.
Clerk of the Course, Emma Marley, has been instrumental in the turnaround, taking over from Hazel Peplinski in April 2010. Hazel, who had herself been thrown in at the deep end after the 2009 incident, was a hard act to follow, having taken some drastic action to make improvements to the course. This would seem particularly the case for someone only in their second Clerk's job, but Emma has grasped the role wholeheartedly, with impressive results.
Her route to the racecourse stemmed from a love of the sport, as she explains: "I grew up in Warwickshire and started working in racing at thirteen years old, riding out for a local racehorse trainer, John Spearing. I then went to point-to-point trainer, Gabe Mahon in Stratford-upon-Avon, where I had a few rides in races and learned, early on, that I was no jockey!"
After a period working in racing stables, Emma gained a first class BA (Hons) Degree in Business Management for the Racing Industry at Warwickshire Agricultural College, before joining the British Horseracing Authority's Graduate Development Programme
"Three months' work experience in the BHA offices in London convinced me that, being a country girl, I could not hack the 'Big City'. I desperately wanted to work on a racecourse, so I sent my CV to virtually every track in the country and travelled around knocking on their doors introducing myself!" she says.
Emma struck gold when the Commercial Manager at Chepstow and Hereford Racecourses gave her a chance to work in their Sales and Marketing department, but yearned to be more involved in the racing product itself and, most importantly, to work outdoors.
The chance came up to train as a Clerk of the Course at Bath Racecourse, as she explains. "Tim Long, Clerk of Bath and Chepstow at the time, trained me in this role and taught me a tremendous amount which has stood me in good stead. Following a successful first season at Bath as Clerk in 2009, I was asked to apply for the Ayr role."
Emma describes Hazel Peplinski as a terrific mentor: "She was always, and still is today, on hand to offer any advice or support. I shadowed her at the Scottish Grand National meeting in April 2010 and met the grounds team, Northern trainers and jockeys prior to starting full-time, which was invaluable experience and a great starting point."
Hazel oversaw the realignment of the home bend on the flat course which was a major factor in addressing the cause of the 2009 incident, and Emma comments that the works have been a resounding success, and the jockeys say the bend now rides very well.
"We still have to be vigilant around this area due to years of misuse, poor aeration and watering practices," she says. "But, we are noticing a significant improvement in turf density and quality around the exit of the bend into the home straight following hollow-coring, liming to raise soil pH and well-timed decompaction works. For every flat fixture, we mow it slightly shorter than the rest of the track (3in instead of 4in), aerate or decompact the bend exit if required and, depending on the race day forecast, lightly topdress with compatible sand. This is all to aid traction and instill confidence in the jockeys."
Investigation of a hole on the hurdle track, found during the Scottish National meeting in 2010, revealed a number of shallow voids forming as a result of frost heave and a blocked ancient field drain.
"We now use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) Void Detection on known problem areas of the Flat and National Hunt track, which is supplied by L&M Survey Services in Kilmarnock," says Emma. "This has greatly assisted in locating services, drains, which are mostly early 19th century in this area, and voids for further investigation."
Purchasing GPR equipment was considered but, due to the specialist nature of the work, Emma decided that it was best left to L&M.
"The groundstaff also walk and fork known problem areas two days prior to racing, and on the morning of racing, to ensure the track is safe and there are no voids. I believe we are now the most vigilant track in the country and use GPR every season, especially after winter and the run up to big festivals, in order to ensure the racing surface is as safe as possible."
Extensive renovation of the drainage system, instigated by the discovery of the blocked drain, has worked alongside a focused aeration and decompaction programme, central to which was investment in a second-hand 2.5m Charterhouse Verti-Drain (7521 model).
"This has greatly assisted regular decompaction works on all courses, which was urgently needed and has helped to alleviate race line bias on the flat track," comments Emma. "We acquired the Verti-Drain with a set of hollow-tines, so we can also decompact our take-offs and landings every season without relying on a contractor."
"We move the racing rail and change the course configuration more regularly now to spread wear on all tracks and re-site hurdle positions for every National Hunt fixture - simple I know, but seemingly this was not done adequately in previous years."
"The regular use of wetting agents during the months of April to September has greatly helped our infiltration rates and fundamentally enhanced sward health. Having combined this with the use of liquid aeration products in the wetter months, our consistency of going is improving - but Rome wasn't built in a day and much more work is needed!"
Overseeding has also seen a change of approach, with better-timed operations and use of new equipment, as Emma explains. "We now use a contractor who has a Moore Uni-Drill to overseed, as opposed to a harrow-based system, which tended to have low germination rates and a high percentage of seed wastage."
"The use of the Moore Uni-Drill, along with pre-overseed scarification - and regular scarification during the season prior to fertiliser application - has significantly assisted sward cover and new species establishment. Many trainers and jockeys have complimented us on turf cover during the season."
The National Hunt fences and their take-offs and landings were comprehensively reviewed. The team excavated and relaid two take-offs and landings on the chase course and rebuilt two static fences.
"The troublesome landing area of the second last fence in the back straight was removed for the Scottish National fixture due to false and poor draining ground. Fibresand was used in its place and the fence taken out, allowing the horses to race over this area of ground, which worked very well," reports Emma. "Since this fixture we have re-soiled, turfed and topdressed this area, which has established well and is now a suitable consolidated area of ground to race on."
Like many urban tracks, Ayr suffers vandalism and lost two fences to arsonists last summer. As the second last in the back straight also needed to be rebuilt it was decided to invest in three plain portable fences from Bill Watt Ltd.
"These had proved successful at Musselburgh, so we took the staff to see them in action and how they were built at Bill's yard. The portable fences have allowed us to re-site tricky, high injury rate fences, but also can also be stored safely in the groundstaff's compound. We had no racing over the new fences in 2010 due to abandonments but, at our New Year Festival in 2011, the jockeys thought they rode really well and, importantly, we had no fallers or injuries at these obstacles."
A significant level of investment was required to make these changes, but Emma says that Ayr's executive has been very responsive to her proposals.
"We undertook comprehensive research to decide how to improve the course and consulted experts such as TGMS Ltd and Jay Dobson of the STRI, but the experience and knowledge of my team, especially Head Groundsman Jimmy Deans, was also key. It became obvious that we had to invest in the course to move ahead."
Emma comments that the biggest challenge of managing a dual purpose track is managing the fixture list and planning grounds operations around a busy programme, not to mention the changeable coastal weather!
"Although I came from a summer flat track, luckily Tim Long showed me the National Hunt operations both at Chepstow and Ffos Las racecourses. Embarking on my first National Hunt season was another personal challenge, however, it was seamless thanks to my prior training days, the knowledge of our head groundsman and his team, along with great support from the BHA Inspectorate, Chris Dennis, and Professional Jockeys Association Safety Officer, Richie McGrath."
Like many other courses in the North of the country, Ayr has had to battle another severe winter. "Unfortunately, severe frost arrived at the end of November and didn't leave until the end of December," explains Emma. "We lost two of our opening National Hunt season fixtures, but managed to get racing on in the New Year."
The sward has suffered partly from winter kill and snow mould. Frost heave is always a concern, although the groundstaff check the track for shallow voids using GPR and the good old method of 'walking and forking' around known problem areas on a regular basis.
"However, the frost wasn't all bad, as we were able to aerate the tracks prior to its arrival, which helped to reconfigure our soil structure, and it has killed off niggling grass diseases, such as leaf spot," Emma comments.
Being so far North spring temperatures are slow to arrive, hence the Flat season does not begin until the end of May, and fertiliser application and overseeding are left well into March or early April.
"Therefore, it is a challenge to get the jumps track looking in good shape for the Scottish National Fixture in April after a busy winter season," comments Emma. "The course then tends to dry very quickly in the spring, so we will use a wetting agent prior to the National Festival, which includes seaweed and chelated iron to boost sward health and appearance, and to facilitate effective irrigation."
Emma comments that the groundstaff are a delight to work with and very knowledgeable. As well as the racing surface, the team of ten also has the responsibility for maintaining the award winning Western House Hotel gardens on the site, plus paddock and other lawned areas, and consists of Head Groundsman, Jimmy Deans; Graeme Anderson (Assistant Head Groundsman), Robert Brown (Gardens Manager), Thomas Mitchell (Gardens Assistant), William Seaton (Stable Manager), John Shedden (Tractor Driver), and groundsmen Robert Boyd, John Clark, William Mitchell and, until recently, Ronnie Clark who has now retired after forty-two years of service!
Jimmy Deans and Graeme Anderson started their employment at Ayr in September 2009 and arrived to a team lacking in confidence, along with a problematic racing surface, Emma points out, but have completely turned the situation around.
"Jimmy and Graeme show strong leadership and work to together like cheese and biscuits, salt and pepper, Batman and Robin!" says Emma. "Jimmy is very experienced and hands-on, whilst Graeme assists with record keeping and man-management. They have instilled confidence and trust in the team and helped the career development of a number of members with industry CPD courses."
Emma too, is determined to get the best out of her team, calling on their experience and opinions in the decision making process. "The groundstaff have to buy into new initiatives, such as the purchase of the new fences. I have a consultative leadership style anyway, but the team are so experienced and have strong viewpoints, their opinion always has to be considered."
Emma says that she finds it hard to put into words how much the Neil Wyatt award means to her and her team: "There were tears of joy - well, from me anyway - when we found out we had won the dual purpose award! It has been a hard slog and the team has worked incredibly hard to improve the racing surface and gain confidence from the racing community. It is onward and upward, as with racecourses there are always improvements to be made, so we must continue to stay sharp and work with industry stakeholders for the betterment of racing."
"In short, the Ayr story has been a remarkable one and I am greatly honoured to be a part of its rejuvenation."