This year's unexpectedly severe cold snap caused nightmares for turfcare professionals right across the country in all sports, leaving them with little option than to sit tight and wait for the thaw.
Racecourses were as badly hit as any venues. Meetings were cancelled throughout early 2010, largely because trainers were unwilling to risk running thoroughbreds on bone hard, icy tracks.
The UK's racecourses have recovered quickly though and are busy delivering the summer calendar's big meetings - which don't come much grander than Epsom's June outing. It's an event many see as one of the most colourful of the season, drawing huge crowds from across all sections of society as well as a strong Royal following.
Epsom Downs racecourse, set in the rolling hills of Surrey's North Downs, just thirty minutes from London, is one of the oldest in the country, with a history dating back to 1779 when the first running of the Oaks was recorded.
Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, organised a race for himself and his friends to run their three-year-old fillies over one and a half miles. He named it the Oaks after his estate, and the race is still going strong today.
The two biggest dates in Epsom's diary, the Oaks (Investec Ladies day) on 4 June and the Investec Derby the following day, require meticulous preparation - beginning well beforehand to ensure the eight hectares of flat racing track are presented to the highest standards, ready for the 120,000-strong crowd expected on Derby day.
Tasked with the roles of Gallops Supervisor and Head Groundsman is Nigel Whybrow who, along with his team of eight full-time staff, look after the full spread of facilities at Epsom, including the track, three all-weather surfaces (Fibresand and Polytrack) and a training school, which keeps 160 horses from racing yards throughout the area.
Now entering his fourth season as Head Groundsman, Nigel took over the role back in 2006 having been at the course since 1994, when he joined after leaving his assistant head groundsman's post at nearby Woodcote Park Golf Club (see Pitchcare, issue 26).
"Woodcote Park was my first job after leaving school at 16," recalls the 42-year-old. "I ended up becoming disillusioned with committees, having had new bosses nearly every year, each one wanting to make their mark on the club, which meant things changed a lot and, as a result, there was a real lack of stability."
"When the chance came up to join Epsom, I jumped at it. There are few better places to progress to than here, so it offered great potential for me to move up."
Nigel's right hand man for the last fifteen years was Carl Tonks, until March, when he moved to take up the head post at Ripon. "Many staff over the years have moved up the ranks or on to pursue headships at other clubs at home and abroad," Nigel explains. "The training here is excellent and gives the lads valuable experience of working at a top course, something that will set them up well if they do move on."
Nigel's boss, Clerk of the Course and Director of Racing, Andrew Cooper, gives him "pretty much a free rein, to bring new ideas to the table and manage the course as we think best. In the past I've found too much interference only serves to be counterproductive".
With an average of fouteen meetings a year - fifteen scheduled this season, a club record - the grounds team has a tough, tight schedule to ensure the ground is ready for the Investec Derby Festival. It's a programme that Nigel admits can mean a battle with the elements as wetter springs and hotter summers serve up their own challenges. "Our location on Epsom Downs means we run straight on chalk," says Nigel, "which is brilliant for free drainage, yet not so good for irrigation."
"We are always looking to achieve a good going but that means we have to overwater, putting hundreds of thousands of gallons on the course throughout a season. The dry summers we experience here - some of the driest in the UK - and the fact that we're on such a free-draining surface mean we have to over-compensate sometimes."
Over the last fifteen years, the South-east has seen a dramatic reduction in rainfall recorded in April - a worrying trend that has forced courses such as Epsom to irrigate more than they would like to do, a factor that Nigel believes wouldn't be so bad if they had an affordable procedure for doing so.
"The best method for us is boom irrigation and tow lines. A pop-up system would be better and easier to control but such a high site gets very windy, which would render any pop-up sprinklers redundant and wasteful."
The issue of irrigation is aggravated further because Epsom Downs is a protected location and the sole method of sourcing water is via the mains. "We're pumping out seventeen litres of water a second when we run flat out, which gets extremely costly," bemoans Nigel.
"Also, we currently have no ability to conserve water on a large scale. Our irrigation system has two holding tanks, which are designed to hold rainwater, and the quantity they hold would only be a drop in the ocean in terms of the quantity that we need to function properly."
Looking ahead, sustainability is becoming an increasingly prominent issue for the course, which is searching for ways to grow more self-reliant, while also balancing the environmental concerns of the Downs.
"Our primary aims for the near future will be a focus on water conservation, water retention and reducing our pesticides use," Nigel states. "We compost as much as we can, including all our clippings but there is scope to do much more, especially recycling horse waste more efficiently."
A Waste2Water recycling system is in the pipeline, with Jockey Club Racecourses, Epsom's owner, looking to seal a group-wide deal to install them across their sites. But, at the Surrey site, much will depend on local bylaws.
The Downs location brings with it key responsibilities for Nigel, who has to juggle the successful running of a Grade 1 racecourse with the sensitivities that come with protected land.
One of those tasks is to sit on the board of ten Epsom Downs conservators, which include two other representatives of the course, one from the training board and six local councillors.
The board's remit is to balance the needs of horseracing with the protection of the Downs and its use by the public, an issue that is the subject of its quarterly meetings.
"The primary danger to the Downs is the increased use of them by the public," states Nigel. "There are many activities that go on throughout the year on the Downs, such as kite flying, remote control racing, hack racing and, of course, dog walking. It's partly our responsibility to ensure that such activities aren't detrimental to the Downs or the racing season."
Course preparations begin in early April with a light feed using 12:4:8 Organic Delta granular feed. "This gets us in shape for the first meet on 21 April," says Nigel. "Like many courses, we suffered problems earlier this year, particularly in mid-February, and the extremely cold winter left us with snow damage to the grass blades."
"We topdressed and overseeded the affected areas with a ryegrass mix and finished off by brushing lightly with a Greentech MaxiBrush to remove any dead matter built up over the winter."
The first weekend in June marks the beginning of Epsom's signature meetings, and the Investec Derby is the jewel in its crown - this year being the second in a five-year partnership with the sponsor.
Ready for racing, the team cuts to a 3½ inch height, leaving a little thatch and slightly longer turf to allow more cushion for the horses on what is, traditionally, a harder running chalk surface.
Mowing is undertaken three times a week during the season, using a Lastec front-mounted machine and a seven-set Lloyds gang mower, with two in front and five behind. "I'm a great fan of Lloyds machines," enthuses Nigel. "We've found them to be highly reliable and they give a good clean finish."
"Some groundsmen I've spoken to recently have moved away from gang mowers to more dedicated machines, but the gangs, combined with the Lastec, works well for our needs."
Jockey Club Racecourses recently appointed John Deere as its preferred machinery supplier, part of a planned widescale investment programme. Any future machine upgrades for Epsom will come from that manufacturer - the newest addition being a John Deere 5720 tractor.
Although as Nigel confirms: "The tractors we use at the moment are mostly Massey Ferguson. We're really happy with their performance at the moment, so I doubt we'll have a full John Deere fleet for some time."
Machine repairs are handled out of house, with Jockey Club Racecourses retaining A&P contractors across its South-east courses, which include Sandown Park and Kempton Park.
Feeding the turf starts five weeks before Derby day, Nigel continues, with a nitrophosphate - IS55 - used on race day to add the finishing touch of what he describes as "a nice vibrant colour and steady growth".
Striking the right balance between traditional greenkeeping practice and the growing emphasis on science is critical, Nigel believes. "Mike Harbride is the chief agronomist for the majority of Jockey Club courses, and he visits us several times throughout the season to give us his advice, but I firmly believe that it must always be a two-way partnership. I respect his knowledge and what he has to offer us but, in the same breath, if I feel something isn't right, I won't do it," Nigel states categorically.
"There's a place for figures and science in the industry, but you can't always go by the book, sometimes you have to deal with matters as they come up. Soil is a living entity, so can be extremely variable. The men on site know their own areas and the course as a whole perhaps even better than someone who comes in a few times in a season."
"We are "lucky" to enjoy what is a "uniform" course on the whole - one largely free of particularly problematic areas," Nigel adds.
It is nature that has traditionally thrown up the biggest problems though. Chafer grubs have been the cause of two race cancellations, he reveals. By eating tuft roots, they cause the surface to loosen - potentially catastrophic to the horses. Fox damage is another nagging concern. "The Derby start is our worst-hit area. It's the furthest point of the course with trees lining the track and a place where foxes populate. They've caused us real headaches by digging up the course," Nigel recalls.
In the Derby run-up, Nigel walks the course at least daily for two weeks to gain "a good estimate" of how much water is needed to achieve a good going. This is especially crucial if May has been a dry month, he says, yet for the last three years the opposite has proved to be the case, and this year is predicted to be similarly bereft of rain.
Long hours are the order of the day as the Derby meeting arrives. "On the Friday evening after Ladies Day we move a mile of rail out eight yards to allow a fresh strip of grass for the horses," explains Nigel. "We repair divots using a 50-50 Mansfield sand divot mix, finishing off with cutting the track in the evening, which usually takes us past midnight to complete. We ensure we cut every bit of turf to make it as presentable for race day as possible, before rising at 4.30am on the morning of the Derby to cut the lawns, mark and stripe the parade ring and mark up the winners circle, watering if necessary."
Given the Derby's high profile, Nigel knows how vital it is to make sure there's enough back-up, so staff don't get swamped on the day. Some twenty casual staff are brought in for race meetings, a figure that doubles on Derby day, with groundstaff from Sandown Park and Kempton Park also called on to 'muck in'.
With staffing well in hand, the only other issue to worry about on the day is conduct. "We have to treat whoever we meet or speak to with respect, regardless of who they are. People will ask you all manner of questions on the day, so we have to prepare ourselves by making sure we know the answers to the ones most frequently asked.
"You get a real mix of people at the Derby; from the strong traveller following to the Royal visits. It's a hugely rich and colourful event."
After the races, Epsom usually plays host to a hive of entertainment in front of the grandstand, which continues for at least an hour, Nigel says, before the chore of cleaning up the site begins in earnest.
Then, as the racing calendar draws to a close for another year, Nigel prepares the course for autumn and winter.
"At the end of the season we mow the track down to an inch, remove all the clippings, finish with a light harrow and overseed with ryegrass."
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