At the grass roots of jumps racing, Sedgefield's grounds team aims for improved standards on its tight and steep course. Jane Carley talks to Clerk of the Course Michael Naughton and Head Groundsman Mark Watson.
The Sedgefield grounds team: (L-R) Michael Pritchard, Andrew Metcalfe, Mark Watson and Michael Naughton
When a small team is preparing for racing, it's all hands on deck and, at Sedgefield, Clerk of the Course Michael Naughton can often be seen cracking on with that most scintillating of jobs, manning the irrigator. "It's a good opportunity for some peace and quiet," he jokes.
In common with all sporting venues, Sedgefield has had more than its fair share of peace and quiet over the past twelve months, but racing has continued behind closed doors, and there's always been plenty to do for Michael, head groundsman Mark Watson and groundsmen Michael Pritchard and Andrew Metcalfe, who joined in the autumn.
Michael Pritchard was furloughed in the summer of 2020, so then we were down to three.
Originally part of the Sands Hall Estate in Durham, racing began at Sedgefield in 1732, with formal meetings taking place by 1846. The course now hosts twenty days a year, the pinnacle being the Durham National in October, won back in the 1980s by Rubstic, who went on to victory in the Aintree Grand National. Other notable Sedgefield winners include Paddy's Return, successful in the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Adjustments made to the turfcare regime at Sedgefield have reaped rewards with a thicker sward which stands up to the demands of jumps racing in the worst of the winter weather / Mowing down to 10cm with a front-mounted deck and rear blower all summer encourages the grass to thicken up
"The track is very undulating and quite tight, so lends itself well to National Hunt racing," explains Michael Naughton. "Trainers will travel some distance to bring horses here, including the Tizzards from Somerset and Gordon Elliott from Ireland. We seem to have attracted a better class of horse in recent years."
Mark explains that, whilst the majority of the track drains well, the home straight is over clay, so holds water more than the back straight.
"We move rails to produce fresh ground where possible, particularly for the take off and landing of fences and in wet areas like the home straight."
"The track is 10 furlongs round, and only 25m wide in places so there's not much room, but we put in lots of work between meetings to improve the ground, especially on the bends," says Michael. "While it was disappointing to lose our January meeting to frost, it has saved the ground for the rest of the season."
Mark has been at Sedgefield for six years, starting out as a casual, and he comments that they are still benefitting from a programme of drainage carried out shortly before he arrived, along with work to build up the roadside bend to alter its camber.
Men at work…Michael and Mark tackle dandelions in the parade ring by organic methods, the trusty fork! /
"We're looking at additional drainage along the stands to get water away, and we've also put in a request to add an all-weather canter down," explains Michael. "Currently for all but the 2m 5f start, horses turn right out of the parade ring and gallop down the course to the start, so it's getting lots of traffic."
After the final meeting of the season in May, once treading in is complete, the jump wings and hurdles come off the track ready for renovations, and the whole course is gone over with a heavy roller to level it out.
"We vertidrain and overseed, using GNN Sportscare - they are local contractors that we have a really good relationship with, and it makes sense for us not to have to maintain such specialist machinery. They also keep a close eye out for pests and diseases and can advise if any additional treatments are needed," explains Mark.
"We apply fertiliser and then water through the summer if necessary. I've switched to putting three applications of 1200kg fertiliser on, and the 'little and often' approach seems to be paying off. Michael and I will also apply fertiliser by hand to the bends before treading in to encourage grass growth."
"Sedgefield was always known for being a bit bare as the track is so narrow," comments Michael, "and we're now getting seventy runners a meeting, so it's great that we are able to maintain the growth."
Fence rebuilding in progress / Summer work for the small team has included rebuilding the open ditch to make it more inviting ... and passes an inspection by the Bark of the Course!
Mark also likes to keep the grass down over the summer, mowing to 10cm to encourage the sward to thicken up.
"We use a Votex front mounted mower with a blower on the back of the tractor to spread the clippings," he explains. "It's a mower we inherited and it wouldn't be my choice - there are lighter and more manoeuvrable mowers on the market now. It takes five hours to cut the track and I'm mowing twice a week in summer and once a week as we get near to the start of the next season in August. My dream mower would be a big ride-on but that's not on the horizon at the moment!"
A second Votex is kept to cut the larger areas in the grass car parks, and a pair of small ride-ons do duty on more fiddly areas; the parade ring is generally striped-up with a push mower.
At the end of the 2020/21 season, Mark plans to scarify the track for the first time in several years, to remove thatch and further improve the turf quality.
Watering equipment is also set for an upgrade, he explains: "We have a Briggs system ready to replace the old Upton irrigator, but we needed to change the hydrants, so we're still waiting for that. It can take 8-9 hours to put on 8-10mm, so it takes a man out for a full day. We actually had a bit of a panic last year as it had been so hot during the first lockdown, the grass was looking a bit brown but the pump had seized and it was difficult to get repairs done. However, it was fixed in time and we were able to crack on!"
Even Sedgefield sometimes needs watering - the Upton irrigator is soon to be replaced with a Briggs system
He rates the Sisis slitter as the most valuable piece of kit in the shed.
"I wouldn't be without it in the racing season. If I can get on the course with it, I will - I'll do the whole track if there's time, or just the racing line, and it has a rear roller so gives a nice level finish."
Multi-tasking is a must for such a small team and Michael Pritchard has been promoted to senior groundsman this year, whilst Andrew Metcalfe joined the full-time ranks having worked at the track as a casual for six years.
"We're all friends outside work which makes a difference and I'm keen to give someone a chance if a job comes up," says Mark.
In a normal year, the workload includes preparing for outdoor functions such as caravan rallies held in the centre course, whilst the buildings host weddings, parties and conferences. "We don't get too involved in those unless they need a bit of muscle!" says Michael. He adds that the team is looking forward to getting back to 'normal'.
"It's a very different atmosphere with no racegoers, and now, no owners. The lack of income makes it hard to plan any developments - we're lucky, we've been able to make some improvements and we'll keep asking where we think it's necessary, but we understand that the money may not be there."
Mark adds: "Racing is still the same and our work is not affected. If the horses go home safe and happy, we have done our job."