Meet the dedicated team ensuring Exeter’s turf is ready for the new jump racing season: Racing returns to Exeter on October 12 and for seven months the action comes thick and fast with 17 fixtures scheduled to take place until the beginning of May.
Up to 89 horses are eligible to run at any one fixture, and with winter’s incumbent rain often turning the ground heavy, around the clock management of the racing surface is vital to ensuring high caliber horses run at Exeter.
It’s the quality of its racing after all, with names like Native River, Unowhatimeanharry, Finians Oscar and Tea For Two tripping off the tongue in recent seasons, that ensures this quiet corner of Devon attracts the crowds in their droves.
The responsibility for the going rests on the shoulders of clerk of the course Barry Johnson, a veteran of some 30 years experience who, with his team of four full-time ground staff, ensures Exeter continues to attract the patronage of the country’s leading trainers.
“We have head groundsman Martin O’Hagan, his deputy Simon Stead, Neil Lumsden, who is also stable manager, and new team member Scott Butler. They are absolutely dedicated and work incredibly hard during the season. They’re a great team,” said Barry.
You’d be forgiven for thinking crisp, cold winters with blue skies and temperatures barely above freezing would on the wish list, but Devon’s damp, wet conditions are perfect for racing. “The wetter the winter the more the course gets cut up and the more damage that needs to be repaired,” said Barry adding, “But we do like a wet, mild winter as although you get a bit more damage the warmth keeps the grass growing.”
During the racing season, days off are rare for the team while summers are spent taking holiday leave, building, repairing, reseeding and mowing so that the racing surface is far more than an aesthetic feast of carefully manicured grass. Walk the track – which takes up 30 of Exeter’s 200 acres – and you can feel how springy it is, an essential when it comes to reducing the risk of injury as a half tonne of horse lands on one hoof before galloping on to the next fence.
This cushioned feel is down to the sward, and the result of a 30-year-long relationship with turf consultant Dr Mick Fuller. “He has helped us apply the best seeds and fertilizers for the soil type and this, together with the dedication of the groundstaff team, has turned Exeter into the best track to run a novice horse,” explained Barry.
That all-important sward is created by several factors and maintenance operations: the choice of grass species and cultivars, height and type of mowing, collection of clippings, use of fertilizers, microbiological life, overseeding, climate and racing calendar, movable rails, repair after the races, intensity of rolling, in-depth irrigation, aeration and sub soiling.
It’s a science as well as an art and something the team have off to perfection that also requires the help of several extra pairs of feet during the racing season.
Head to any meeting at Exeter and you’ll likely notice an army of people seemingly walking around aimlessly. Their technical name is treader-in and they play a vital part in track maintenance. Some 50 of them will be treading in the divots with their own heels – perceived to be the very best way of limiting the damage – as soon as the last horse has cleared the obstacle. Once the final race of the day is run, the staff are back on the track with machines, repairing any damage so that within 48 hours the work is done.
While winters are about damage limitation, summers are for the bigger jobs – drainage work, re turfing, re-seeding – that are carefully monitored before racing returns.
“During the summer we’ll also cut the grass down to two inches to allows the sward to thicken up. Then we allow the grass to grow to about five inches by the end of September ready for racing. In an ideal world you want grass to be between four and six inches long with a dense sward that will give plenty of bounce to the galloping horses and also protect the soil,” explained Barry.
A barn full of machinery is used to help with the process including tractors with turf tyres, spikers, ring rollers, wide area mowers that are renewed on a five year cycle to keep equipment reliable and up to the latest specification.
Come October 12, Exeter will be ready to welcome back racing with a sense of eagerness and anticipation. Barry concluded: “When you see the very best horses racing here, true champions like Cue Card, Kauto Star and Denman, it does give you a tremendous sense of responsibility but its worth it to see them racing here at Exeter and every season we hope that we’ll see another super star in the making in action.”
To read the original article from Devon Live, click here
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