To race at Cheltenham Racecourse billed as ‘The home of Jump racing’, during The Festival each March, is the pinnacle to which most National Hunt owners, trainers and jockeys aspire.
But, as Head Groundsman Tony Howland is acutely aware, for the four-day championship festival to live up to its reputation, in addition to the horses, the racetracks and jumps themselves need to be in peak condition.
With millions of pounds, years of preparation and training, and thousands of expectations all riding on the outcomes of the races, the state of the ground – the ‘going’ – is critical to decisions about which horses will run, and how the betting will stack up. So Tony cannot afford to have a blade of grass out of place.
The former carpenter has taken over 20 years to work his way up to “the best job in the business” having trained as a Groundsman at Folkestone Racecourse before moving on to Warwick Racecourse and finally Cheltenham.
Here, Tony explains to Eclipse Magazine what makes his job so special:
What does your job involve?
I am in charge of the day-to-day running of the grounds, the actual racing surface, the jumps, hurdles, rails, fencing and also of all the grounds around, so in total we’re looking after 600 acres.
And then on the racedays the job also entails the horses’ welfare and safety, as well as the health and safety of the jockeys. I have 10 ground staff under my regime. We follow each race around in cars, ready for emergencies – we might have to put up the green screens while horses and jockeys are treated by vets and doctors, or we catch the loose horses – then it’s back to the Winner’s Enclosure where we are on standby with buckets of water in case the horses get overheated.
It’s my job to make sure it all runs smoothly and our team needs to be everywhere at all times.
Is it tricky to look after the turf?
The main aim is to get the grass to the proper racing height – we go on a height of six inches here. Most people think the grass just grows, but we need the density in the grass as well so that when it’s slightly faster ground [more dry and firm], the grass will act as shock absorber, which helps prevent strain or stress injuries to the horses’ legs.
Our other main concern is obviously the ‘going’ of the course. We aim to go out on ‘good’ ground.
What happens if the ground is too dry?
Well for example, for our Showcase meeting in October 2009, we went out on ‘good’ ground, ‘good to firm’ in places, after five weeks without rain and with the weather hitting temperatures up to 24 degrees. It actually took 16 million gallons of water just to turn the course round to get it up to a race-able standard for that meeting.
How do you water a course, do you get the hosepipes out?
It is a bit like that! No, we use massive reel systems very much like you see in a farmer’s field for watering potatoes and other crops. Basically we’ve got seven of those, which have got big rain guns on. Then we have an underground ring vein, which runs under the course; it’s fired by a massive diesel pump which pumps the water from our reservoir around the ring vein and out of the guns.
In extreme cases such as the five weeks leading up to October 2009, it got to the stage where we weren’t able to keep up with the actual heat and get the intensity of water on, so we then added in some tow-line systems, which are sets of aluminium pipes with sprinklers on. In that instance, two weeks before the meeting, we had 11 systems set out around the course operating in continuous shifts, so we had no downtime at all, we were just literally trying to get that course workable and get it ready to run.
And what happens if it goes the other way and the course is too wet?
At the end of the day providing you’ve got a good base for your ground you wouldn’t worry too much if it were too wet. Horses will just paddle through it with no problems at all! But you’ve got to have a firm base, which is where we have to treat our ground totally different from football pitches or rugby pitches and especially golf courses.
For golf courses you want a bit of light compaction on the top because you want the bounce on the ball; we aim to get the compaction about six inches down. That way you can actually work with the ground and if it did go a bit wet, then providing that when you put your Going Stick in you have a firm base so that the horses are not going to go knee deep into it, that’s fine – especially for National Hunt horses.
If you bear in mind that all our jumps here are 4ft 7in high, then if for instance a horse went into the ground by 12 inches, that would make the jumps 5ft 7in high, so in that scenario “too wet” would have a detrimental effect. But with a firm base six inches down, it’s not going to get knee-deep, so the worst scenarios are ‘good to soft’, or ‘soft to heavy’ and the horses can cope with that.
We would optimise for ‘good’ ground, then further up the range would be ‘good to firm’. But the one thing we’d never want to race on here is ‘firm’ or ‘hard’ ground, and hard ground by fairness [to the horses] you cannot race on unless you get special dispensation from the Jockey Club.
How do you achieve a firm base?
Here at Cheltenham we’ve got a Blue Lias clay base, which is the same clay you could use for pottery, and so that does hold the water quite well for us. But the ground also gets compacted when the horses are going over it – when you’ve got three quarters of a ton of horse pushing down on it for each competitor, the compaction will build up over a few years.
But you don’t want the entire surface to become compacted – only after six inches down. So then you need to ‘verti-drain’ – big spikes go into the ground and break the heed in the ground to loosen it all up; that gets rid of the compaction. The problem is that if you over-verti-drain, you lose your base and the horses will go down too far into the ground, so that’s why we only do it once every three years here. The exception is the landings and take-offs – because they get so much hammering, they get lightly verti-drained every year straight after the end of the season.
Do you have a special type of grass here on the course?
The grass we use here is rye grass – it’s quick establishing, fast growing, the recovery of it is 100% and it’s quick, and its wear tolerance is very good.
And what are the fences made of?
The fences are made of the traditional material, which is birch. We use here, for our 24 fences, just over 6,000 bundles of birch per year. We have a maintenance regime where we change half our fences every year.
And Cheltenham has a cross country course in the middle of it which is full of laurel bushes to mark the way – presumably they require a bit of maintenance as well?
Absolutely. Bearing in mind that the cross country courses only get used for three races per year, a lot of time does go into them! Because they are living bushes you treat them like your hedges at home. It is actually a fantastic race, I would like to see more of the races introduced to the Cheltenham’s card because it is very under-utilised at the moment.
How do you get to become a racecourse Groundsman?
To be a Groundsman, providing you have got an interest in the actual grounds side of things, the opportunities are there for anyone, although for horseracing it pays to have an interest in racing as well.
Once you have become a Groundsman then within the industry there is a Foundation course for Racecourse Ground Staff, which is, funnily enough, held at Cheltenham – it’s run through the Institute of Groundsmen. Then you go on to do your Intermediate course if you want to become an Assistant Head Groundsman; then your Advanced course will take you up to the Head Groundsman level. If you wanted to go on further and pursue it to Clerk of the Course then you would have to have either the Intermediate or the Advanced level.