By Lissa Oliver
The state of the going is one of the touchiest topics in racing. One trainer will be doing a rain dance as another prays for sunshine, while all the time the Clerk of the Course has an eye on his weather app as he tries to balance the protection of his turf with the provision of safe ground for racing. Few would envy him, but many will criticise him. Just what are the issues both sides are facing?
Heinrich Sievert, head groundsman at Baden-Baden, speaks for all those in charge of the turf at racecourses when he explains the complexities of his role and the importance of the root system. It’s not what we see above the track that really matters, it’s what is keeping it alive below.
“Before the race meeting starts we must improve the root system. We make sure the grass is growing to the ideal depth, and most importantly we try to create a solid root system. Shallow roots are not good for horses to race on. We improve aeration and allow water to infiltrate to encourage the root system. We use a small amount of fertiliser, but really we want to feed the roots and we don’t want too much growth above ground. We try to keep growth as natural as possible.
“We must ensure we do good work throughout the whole year to maintain the ground. We work closely under instruction from the Direktorium, who have a checklist to ensure safe ground for horses and riders. If the ground is not safe, the Direktorium stops everything and we cannot race. If they are happy and approve the ground, it’s my job to keep it OK.
“We can’t change the ground conditions on the day; we can only water if the ground becomes too hard, but we can’t do a lot more other than keeping it in the best possible condition before racing. Watering is not ideal, it can make the ground slippery and unsafe.
“On the day of racing, I use a penetrometer and I test the ground all over the course. Unless we have a heavy thunderstorm and rain, the going will not change, and the jockeys will be in agreement with the stated going”.
The good news is that it’s clear that Sievert and all clerks of racecourses are singing from the same hymn sheet as the trainer. The discrepancies arise then from the highly personalised needs of individual horses and prioritising between this afternoon’s track condition or the long-term protection of the track. It is all very well to argue against watering a track and changing the going from firm to good, but it isn’t ideal to race on bare patches of ground, and some consideration must be given to the grass as well as the horse.
There is a common suspicion among trainers that Clerks of the Course intentionally water a track to prevent a description of firm going, but following any successive dry days in warm weather the turf will require watering, with no ulterior motive regarding the going description. Grass is a plant and needs water to remain healthy. Recently at Sandown Park, 5mm (millimetres) was added three days before the meeting, which was run on good to firm.
“For a high-quality card we are aiming for the fast side of good”, says Sandown Park Clerk of the Course Andrew Cooper. “We’ve had almost four full days of dry weather and you’re going to lose 2-3mm of moisture a day. If you did nothing you'd be good to firm, firm. It's a judgement call what you do and when you do it. It's easy to be critical of something on Monday morning when what it all boils down to is what it's like at 6pm on Thursday night".
We are all at the mercy of the weather and while water can be added, if needed, it cannot be removed. State-of-the-art drainage systems may help, but ultimately the ground is what we, and the clerks, are given.
Scientific advances in both groundskeeping and measuring of going may help, but even the GoingStick cannot remove the subjectivity of descriptions. In January 2009, the BHA introduced into the British Rules of Racing a requirement that a GoingStick reading be made available by racecourses for each race meeting at the declaration stage and again on race day itself. The readings are published alongside the Clerk of the Course's official going description. The GoingStick is also used in France, Sweden, Norway and one Irish racecourse (Gowran Park).
The GoingStick accurately measures the penetration and the shear (the energy needed to pull back to an angle of 45 degrees from the ground), combining the two measurements to represent a scientifically-based proxy for the firmness of the ground and level of traction experienced by a horse during a race.
The BHA claimed that, “Moving beyond the traditional subjective approach, the GoingStick is a device that clerks of the Course use to give an objective numerical reading that will reflect the state of the going at any given racecourse.” However, the specific GoingStick figure is subject to any number of course-specific variables and different tracks can produce different going descriptions, despite having the same reading. The verbal description by a clerk is still used alongside the numerical reading. Cooper reflects the views of many clerks when he admits, “I certainly wouldn't ever want to be putting out a GoingStick reading on its own; I think we need the verbal assessment as well”.
The GoingStick, far from providing an objective description, is user-specific and still depends on the pressure used by an individual to push it into the ground. It differs only from the traditional penetrometer in the fact it produces a calculated figure rather than the personal judgement of the user and many Clerks of the Course state they prefer the traditional penetrometer. Whichever version of stick is used, the course must still be measured at a minimum of 30 points across the track, always at the same points for consistency.
A greater issue is in the interpretation of the going description. Not only is it subjective, but even if we can all agree it’s soft, is that softer than one particular horse would like or firmer than the preference of another? Only the trainer of the horse can know. This brings us to the question of welfare, of both horse and trainer. Is it right to run a horse on unsuitable ground? And is it right to penalise a trainer if he or she withdraws a horse because of the ground?