Aintree racecourse covers an area of 250 acres, which includes three race tracks - the hurdle course, the Mildmay steeplechase and the Grand National course - and we have responsibility for maintaining all the areas, courses, lawns and surrounds.
The winter is, in fact, one of our busiest and most stressful periods. We are faced with trying to renovate, repair and bring on the Aintree course so that it is ready for the most prestigious horse racing event in the world, the John Smith's Grand National, which this year will be held on Saturday 8th April 2006.
Our preparations begin straight after our last meeting in November. The aim is to complete as much work as possible before the weather deteriorates and the temperatures drop. This usually involves the following:
Divoting: Divot repairs are a priority and need to be completed quickly. Horses, when they land, cause physical damage to the turf. Depending on the going, a hoof print will leave a 100-200mm (4-8") deep punch hole. Multiply that by four hooves and 100 plus horses and the scale of damage that occurs during a race meeting can be imagined. Top dressing the divots is the most efficient and safe method of repair. Forking and lifting the divot is not allowed at Aintree; this method can create inconsistent levels or false ground. The whole operation is quite laborious and requires 50 casual staff with buckets and spades following 10 gators, filled up by JCB's, back filling the holes with rootzone. We use about 175 tonnes in total.
Restoring Levels: We use Cambridge rollers to reinstate levels and re firm the turf surface after divoting, rolling the track between fences.
Overseeding: 1600kg (80 bags) of MM50 Perennial rye grass seed @ 35 grams per square metre using a Gannon seeder. We also applied some Italian ryegrass seed, around 40 x 25kg bags. This is a relatively new variety of seed that we have been trialling successfully for a couple of years now.
Fertilising: Bio stimulants are applied to the repaired areas to assist the new seed growth. When conditions allowed, we applied a winter fertiliser 4/12/12 NPK to assist recovery and keep a good winter colour. The priority throughout the winter months is to keep the sward healthy and free from disease.
Mowing: Over winter we maintain the grass to 75mm (3") to keep the sward tidy and even. In February and March we gradually increase the height until we reach the Aintree racing standard, set at 100mm.
Aeration: We have our own verti-drain machines, Wiedenmann terra XP aerators, that we use when conditions allow. They are used regularly to de-compact the take off and landing areas. Being a sandy course we have to be careful when we use the machines, we try to avoid aerating during the winter months. In the lead up the Grand National we maintain the course no quicker than a GOOD going.
Other works: From December to March we implement a programme of hydro seeding using Penn mulch, which is made from recycled newsprint and absorbent polymers.The fibre pellets expand and retain moisture. Mixed with water, organic stimulants and grass seed it is then put in a pressurised spray tank and applied to any worn areas. Irrigation is sometimes required, we have a 50m boom and a 30m boom with hose reels on the stands side and a rain gun in the country part of the course. Water is pumped from 3 boreholes within the course site. We can apply around 10mm over the whole course in 24 hours. We use a wetting agent called Monsoon which has proved to be very effective.
The 2006 Grand National Course Programme
January - Cold and dry, rainfall was minimal, less than 15mm, compared to last year when we had between 35 and 40mm. The combination of cold and dry weather meant we did not have to mow the grass at all during the month. We spent three weeks reconstructing the Foinavon fence, replacing the centre core structure. We will complete the dressing up with spruce in March. We continued with the hydo-mulching, even though temperatures were low, we want to build up the seed bank ready for when the temperatures rise.
February - an application of one of my liquid fertilizer concoctions, a 12.5 :15 :9 NPK plus amino acid, seaweed extracts, humic acid and chelated iron, all contribute to help the establishment of our newly sown grasses. The aim is to bring on the new seedlings, promote root growth and improve sward density. At this time of the year I do not want to promote quick growth. Continued mowing at 75mm to promote tillering. Subject to favourable temperatures, towards the end of the month we increase the height of cut to 89mm. Also, we make a start on refurbishing all the Chase fences, replacing and adding new birch wood materials.
- Being on sandy soil, ground temperatures can warm up quickly. Once above the desired 10 degrees centigrade we begin to see some significant grass growth. Mowing frequency is 1 or 2 times per week, increasing our height of cut to the desired 100mm. To help promote growth we usually apply a standard spring/ summer NPK 9:7:7 granular fertilizer to the whole course. One of our last jobs is to spruce dress the Grand National fences. The spruce is sourced from the Lake District and starts to arrive in mid March; we leave it as late as possible to ensure the highest quality and with the minimum time for it to dry out. Around 230 cubic metres arrive 3 weeks before the meeting. It is delivered to the side of each fence, then the "fence dressers" get to work, it is a specialised operation and unique to Aintree. We have 3 teams of 2 "dressers". I tried it myself once and failed miserably. I leave it to the professionals.
As with all disciplines of groundsmanship, the weather can make or break us. Sometimes you think you are getting ahead of it then, all of a sudden, nature will drag you back and remind you who really is the boss. However, the team will be working tirelessly and I am confident that we will be able to produce a consistent, safe surface for the world's greatest and most famous steeplechasing event.