0 Watts going on ...

Bill Watt2The thunder of hooves towards the finish is an intoxicating sound for racing fans, and jump racing stirs special passions with its brave horses and riders taking on fences and hurdles at speed. Jumps are designed and manufactured to exacting standards, designed to test horses' ability, whilst providing safe but exciting spectator sport.

Meanwhile, the latest running rail designs enable the groundstaff to dictate the running line for multiple races at each meeting, presenting the best footing whilst minimising the risk of injury should a horse get loose or run off course.

Bill Watt saw an opportunity to build fences for racehorse trainers to perfect their horse's jumping at home when he left the army in 1993. His wife Sharon holds a training licence and the family had stables at home near Richmond, Yorkshire, so the background and contacts were already in place.

"We eventually began to focus more on the fences. One of our suppliers was building for racecourses and we soon were able to offer our products for use in races."

Watt schooling fence 2By 2000, the business had built up sufficiently for Watt Fences to become a limited company, and the company moved premises to its current base at Easby, where the factory now employs a team of six.

At the same time, running rail was added to the portfolio, with Watt Fences becoming the UK distributor for French manufacturer Fornells.
"I had always wanted to supply Fornells rail, as it is the best in the industry and is used by leading racecourses all over the world," Bill says. "It is made from virgin PVC which withstands UV light and has a long life expectancy."

Supplying rail for the developing all-weather side of the sport was a landmark for Watt Fences.

"When Kempton announced its ambitious plans to redevelop its track to accommodate the new all-weather course, we were delighted to supply and install the rail," comments Bill. "And we also supplied fences and hurdles at the new racecourse development at Ffos Las."

This means working closely, not just with the clerk of the course to meet his requirements - for example, Barney Clifford had a very specific line in mind for the rail into the home straight at Kempton - but also with the contractors who are undertaking other parts of the construction.

Watt New chase fence KelsoWatt Fences was involved in the redevelopment at York and is due to start a new project at the prestigious racecourse, installing new crowd barrier for the pre-parade ring.

"We have to get in at exactly the right time to put the fencing in, so we will liaise with the developer and engineer."

Supplying fences also means working closely with racecourse management, such as at Kelso where new chase fences were installed over a two year period to tie in with their course reorganisation.

One development that has had a major impact on groundcare regimes, making for easier maintenance and cutting compaction associated with static obstacles, has been roll-on roll-off fences. Mounted on wheeled chassis, these are towed onto the course and lowered into place, appearing identical to traditional jumps.

"Portable fences have been used before, but the wheeled design avoids the need for tractors or forklifts to drive onto the course itself to lift the sections into place, which cuts turf damage and compaction," explains Bill.

Watt racecourse railsMarket Rasen was the first course to use Watt Fences' version of these and then clerk of the course, Sulekha Varma, interviewed in Pitchcare in 2011, commented: "Using roll-on roll-off fences allows us to move them into the compound for storage or renovation, to shift them around the course to rest take offs and landings, and enables them to be used across the different sections of the course. The fences jump well and the jockeys have been complimentary about them. They also look identical to traditional obstacles without the need to replace rotten wood or repaint them."

The company worked closely with Nick Patten, now estates manager at Jockey Club Estates in Newmarket, on the design of the fences, and they have since been supplied to Musselburgh, Leicester and Ayr.

All fence designs have to be approved by the British Horseracing Authority, and the actual fences given the nod when finally in situ on the course.

Steeplechase fences are cut to a standard 4ft 9in height but, as racing fans would attest, their precise appearance varies.

"All racecourses are different," explains Bill. "For example, Musselburgh is a very fast, sharp track and the fences have to be shaped to ensure safe jumping at that speed. Each head groundsman will know his track and shape the fences accordingly."

Watt rugby railThe fences are filled with birch and Bill comments that softer material is required by the modern racing to minimise the risk of falls and injuries.

"Again, the groundsman will know how tight he can pack the fences for his particular course to get the right amount of pressure."

The ideal product is 6ft tall and thin from halfway up the stem - no thicker than a little finger to allow horses to brush through the top - from trees coppiced to 8ft and very straight.

Birch grows in a variety of woodlands and Watt Fences employs cutters to supply it year-round, such is the demand.

Hurdles are also evolving, with much debate amongst racehorse trainers about which is the best design. The extra speed at which hurdlers gallop dictate that the fence must fall when struck to reduce horse falls, but those aiming their horses at a future steeplechasing career favour something more solid.

"At the moment, there is no alternative way of securing the hurdles whereas, in three day eventing, special pins enable a solid jump to collapse if the horse hits it especially hard," Bill comments. "There is interest in fixed hurdles, but this would mean a change in the way we currently hurdle at speed."

Fixed brush hurdles, used for special 'step up' races at Haydock and by some trainers, are seen as an intermediate method of training horses to jump bigger, more solid obstacles and Watt Fences supplies these as roll-on roll-off units.

Trainers use of fences at their own yards varies widely depending on their budget, although all trainers must have the basic BHA requirement of two flights of approved hurdles and two steeplechase fences to hold a licence. Bill explains: "Some trainers are very well equipped, whilst others may purchase a single flight of racecourse hurdles to improve a horse's technique by putting it at the end of a run of home-made obstacles."

Bill WattJockey Club Estates at Newmarket, which offers gallops for rent to individual owners and trainers, has some of the best facilities in the country, considering that a small percentage of its customers are national hunt trainers, comments Bill.

"There are all types of fences and hurdles, including a set of hurdles positioned on an all-weather track to ensure good ground all year. These are steel frames with plastic birch, designed for a long life and minimal maintenance and they are also trialing artificial fronts. We work closely with the Newmarket groundsmen on new developments."

Trainers, however, tend to be slower to accept change, and putting plastic birch in a row of fences caused some consternation at first. "It is now much more accepted and you will commonly see plastic steeplechase fences interspersed with natural obstacles."

As well as Newmarket, Watt Fences products are in use at the northern training centres of Malton and Middleham.

The global recession, which began in 2008, slowly began to hit racecourses - although Bill now sees definite signs of recovery - and he decided to diversify. "We're always looking at new products and, from our experiences with the PVC running rail, saw that it would be a suitable material for picket fences and post and rail fencing too."

Plastic post and rail is used for residential areas, whereas picket fencing has proved popular at sporting venues, including showgrounds such as Three Counties and Royal Welsh, especially for hospitality enclosures.

"We also gained a contract at Eton College through our relationship with contractor ALS, to fence around football and rugby pitches," says Bill.

Again, flexibility is key - some customers require fencing to be permanent, whilst others need temporary enclosures which can be moved and re-used.

"Like the running rail, it is low maintenance and long lasting, and easy to dismantle if required."

Picket fences offer the versatility which venues need more and more as they look for wider income streams, creating temporary dining areas for example. Beverley, Ripon and Musselburgh are racecourses that have capitalised on this.

"We have new products in development all the time which will, hopefully, enable us to take advantage of the better times ahead for racecourses," confirms Bill.


Photo caption: Bill Watt (third right, with Kelso groundstaff at the presentation of the Racecourse Groundstaff Awards) has used his own enthusiasm for and knowledge of racing to build a highly successful business

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