Good Going – are ground descriptions accurate across Europe?

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?  “In Austria, sadly we have just one racing day and the condition of the ground is mostly very good”, says Ziva Prunk. “But when we race abroad, we often notice that the ground is not how they announce. It’s on me to check the ground and make the right decision for each horse. In Slovakia, you get a fine if you withdraw a horse after declarations, unless you send a vet report that the horse was not able to run because of health issues.  “Absolutely I think that withdrawing a horse due to the bad condition of ground is in the best interest of the horse, and to fine a trainer is not appropriate at all. I have already withdrawn a horse due to the bad ground and, if I had not, I could be responsible for a tragic injury of the horse that I would never forget or forgive myself”.  Rupert Arnold explains that in Britain, the only circumstances when trainers are fined for withdrawing a horse due to the ground condition is if the official going has not changed between the declaration stage and race day. If the horse has travelled to the racecourse and is there, no fine will be applied.  “It’s one of the trickiest subjects in racing because it is so subjective. We’re under pressure from the BHA over the rules, and some take the view there are too many non-runners,” Arnold says, “but if a trainer believes the ground is unsuitable, they just won’t run the horse. We would say it is not correct to fine a trainer when they are acting in the best interest of the horse and owner. The welfare of the horse is very important, and the rules have to reflect that”.  He feels that most clerks do their best to give accurate going descriptions, but in some cases there is a suspicion that going descriptions are calculated to encourage trainers to enter and declare horses for particular races. “It’s not widespread, but there is a suspicion among trainers that this is sometimes the case.  “The 48-hour declarations create a problem because trainers are being asked to make a decision when conditions can change before race day. Sometimes racecourses have not updated their going report. Ideally we’d like to see the going report updated every day or whenever there’s any change”.  Another area of concern to trainers is the watering policy of racecourses. “It’s a difficult area”, Arnold admits. “Sometimes there is a view that racecourses are putting on too much water when there doesn’t need to be. It’s such a subjective area; the weather patterns in Britain are so volatile, it can be very difficult to manage a watering policy. What trainers want is a consistent surface; they don’t want false ground. They would rather it was quicker than too loose”.  The issue of fining a trainer for withdrawing a horse due to the going is of far greater concern in Ireland, where fines of €200 are commonplace, reflecting the policy in Slovakia. “It’s for the welfare of the horse they don’t run, and it’s wrong to fine the trainer”, insists Michael Grassick. “The fine in Ireland is €200. We’ve had discussions with the IHRB (Irish Horse Racing Board) on this. A trainer may decide to run one or two but withdraw one.  “The Going Stick is an aid and helpful as an aid. In time, we would get to know what the readings are telling us. The problem is, we declare at 10am the day before the race, and a lot can happen in between, especially if the race is at an evening meeting. It costs the owner 1% of the prize fund to enter. His intention is to run. If a trainer feels the ground doesn’t suit, he’s protecting the horse and the punter”.  Irish trainer John McConnell is in full agreement and is adamant about that it is not in the interests of the welfare of the horse to issue fines to trainers. “Going descriptions don’t always match a trainer’s expectations. I feel there should be regional professional panels of people checking the ground. When I enter a horse I want to see an accurate assessment of the current ground, and I suspect that in some cases the Clerk of the Course may have other agendas, such as estimating the number of runners and their possible effect on the ground ahead of the meeting.  “What really bothers me is that some tracks don’t provide updates. We can go to the HRI (Horse Racing Ireland) website, but not all the tracks have up-to-date ground reports; some could be from three days ago. We can phone the track and speak to the clerk, but that’s inconvenient for all concerned”, McConnell points out.  “Providing a going description is very subjective and there’s no consistency. If we had a local panel for each region, so that they are familiar with the tracks, it would be less dependent on a single opinion. The GoingStick is a good aid and can at least provide some uniformity in a figure. Using both traditional and new methods can only be a good thing and help.  “Fining a trainer for withdrawing on the day due to the going is wrong. I know the reasoning behind it is to combat people declaring a horse for two days in a row, but those cases are few and far between and, at the end of the day, it’s the owner’s decision. There’s a lot of perceived skulduggery that isn’t actually going on.  “A bad run by a horse on unsuitable ground could see that horse gone from the stable; it could be a huge loss for a trainer. Expecting a trainer to run a horse on ground he or she is not happy about to avoid paying a fine they may not be able to afford is playing with fire. If an owner decides not to run their horse, that’s their prerogative, and the trainer shouldn’t be fined”.  Mark Johnston doesn’t entirely agree with the welfare argument but does see a longer-term problem that we may not have considered. “I don’t think going is a significant welfare concern in flat racing. It does, however, lead to inconsistencies in form, and it might be argued that it has a long-term effect on the development of the breed. If we never race them on firm ground, we aren’t conditioning them for firm ground or selecting to breed from those that excel on it.  “I think there is something ridiculous about fining a trainer or owner for not wanting to run their horse. If, while paying circa £30K per annum to have a horse trained, connections don’t want it to run, the racecourse and BHA should be asking themselves why not—not trying to force them to do so”. Like McConnell, Johnston doesn’t think it should be down to the Clerk of the Course to provide the official going, feeling the clerk has ‘a vested interest’.  Nicolas Clément also agrees that a fine is not right for withdrawing because of ground conditions, arguing, “Trainers usually like to run with a chance and protect bettors. I believe owners pay 1% of the total purse when this is the case”.  This is verified by Criquette Head-Maarek who tells us, “In France, we have four kinds of ground: light, good, yielding and heavy, with differences like soft ground or dead ground. When a trainer withdraws a horse from a race, he or she has to inform the stewards and give them the reason for this withdrawal. If it is due to ground conditions, the stewards can decide to penalise the trainer with a fine, according to Article 130 of the French Rule Book”.  Article 130 states: “If the explanations provided by the trainer or the owner are not considered satisfactory or are not provided within the time indicated, the stewards may apply a deduction—the amount of which can be fixed up to the value of the nominal prize. The deduction cannot, however, exceed 10% of the endowment total of the prize if there are no bets recorded outside the racetrack on the event concerned”.  It would appear that in most countries a penalty for withdrawal is discretionary and reliant upon the explanation provided by a trainer. Given that the officially stated going remains subjective, regardless of the descriptive methods employed, and the trainer must take ultimate responsibility for the horse in his or her care, it is time that all stewards in every jurisdiction adopted a more common sense approach to race day withdrawals.

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. 

ATMRBR

“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). 

T30R2P

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?

TO READ MORE —

BUY THIS ISSUE IN PRINT OR DOWNLOAD

July - September, issue 66 (PRINT)
6.95
Quantity:
Add to Cart

WHY NOT SUBSCRIBE?

DON'T MISS OUT AND SUBSCRIBE TO RECEIVE THE NEXT FOUR ISSUES!

Print & Online subscription
24.95 every 12 months

4 x print issue and online subscription to European Trainer & online North American Trainer. Access to all digital back issues of both editions.

Add to Cart