Warwick on fresh ground with winning team

TEAM effort is a phrase that often gets an airing as individual accolades are handed out. When Warwick was named jumps course of the year in the Racecourse Groundstaff Awards for 2017, less than three complete seasons after the track switched from its long-standing, dual-purpose status, the sentiment was more than well earned.

Sponsored by Pitchcare, Watts Fences and Fornells, the awards are much coveted by groundstaff teams as the winners are decided by an industry wide panel including representatives from the RCA, BHA, NTF and PJA.

“It really was a team effort,” says clerk of the course Jane Hedley. “When the decision was made to go solely to jumps, there was input from the south west region of Jockey Club Racecourses, the BHA course inspectorate and Warwick itself.

“So, for the groundstaff team, which comprises five full-timers, with Guy Woodward as the lead, and around 30 raceday casuals, to get recognition from the industry for having done that work is massively motivational.

“It was quite a difficult time for the groundstaff through the transition period, after we ended Flat racing in August 2014 and became a jumps-only track from 2015. To have turned the racecourse into a really successful jumps venue and then had that achievement recognised by the industry so quickly is a huge boost for them.”

Revamping Warwick into a jumps-only track was not simply a matter of moving a few obstacles, Hedley explains.

“The key point was that there was a ridge where the permanent rail separated the Flat track from the hurdles course,” she says, “so the focus of the work was to level that area, in order to move running rails and create running lines all the way across the track.

“There have been no issues with the work at all, which is why the award is such a boost, since the judging has input from jockeys and trainers. In fact, I haven’t had a negative comment from anyone in the two years I’ve been here, which in itself is pretty remarkable.

“The fact we’ve now got a great deal more ground to use than previously means we’re able to produce fresh ground on the majority of racedays. I have every confidence that trainers know what they are going to find when they arrive, that the ground is not going to have been battered by what’s gone on before.”

Awards apart, quantity and quality are the metrics by which Warwick’s management is measuring the success of its switch to jumps-only.

Hedley explains: “We had a bumper 2016, the first season proper where we used the outer hurdle track, with an increase in our average field size of around one runner per race, which is quite an achievement over the whole season.

“We dropped back a little last year, when we had a very dry spring, but were still happy with our numbers.”

Racecourse general manager Andre Klein picks up the theme, saying: “Feedback from leading trainers tells us there’s a real confidence behind the surface, which is a testament to Jane and the team, and we can judge that from the quality of horses we’ve attracted.

“That was really highlighted last year, when three Grade 1 winners and the Grand National winner used Warwick as a platform to great things. Flying Angel went on to win the Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree; Buveur D’Air won one of his novice chases here before he won the Champion Hurdle; Willoughby Court won our Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle before the same race at Cheltenham, and of course One For Arthur won the Betfred Classic Chase and next time out the Aintree Grand National.

“Having those and plenty of other good horses run here gave us the opportunity to talk up the venue. We certainly wouldn’t have been able to do that from the Flat-racing aspect.”

Klein adds: “Having confidence in the track staff and their supporting team is an essential part of the success of any raceday. It doesn’t matter what you do as far as driving up attendance or sponsorship is concerned, there’s no event without the track being in good condition.

“Of course, we’re always at the whim of the weather. We lost our meeting before Christmas, which was a real shame as it would have been close to a record day for us. But that’s life. This was the only meeting we’ve lost since I came to Warwick in November 2015, and looking back through the records, there were a lot more abandonments in previous years.

“As well as increasing public and professional confidence, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of bookmakers, who from the conversations I’ve had have a real sense of belief that this is a racecourse going somewhere. And it’s reassuring that the Jockey Club has identified us as a venue into which they’re prepared to put funds.”

Paying greater attention to maintenance of the racing surface through improved methods has been a general feature of recent years, and the topic will come under the spotlight at the biennial RCA Racing and Turf Management Conference to be held at The Belfry on 22-23 February.

RCA racecourse services director Caroline Davies, one of the driving forces behind the conference, says: “This event is closest to my heart and it’s always a pleasure to welcome delegates and deliver an interesting and varied programme to support the tremendous work and improvements to the condition of the racing surface that have been made by racecourses.

“It provides a brilliant platform to share ideas and best practice, for which the delegates’ enthusiasm is unstinting.

“This year’s conference will be an extra special event, as we are celebrating 25 years of RCA conferences. To mark the occasion, we are holding a celebratory dinner on the Thursday, with Jonjo O’Neill as our guest speaker, while the traditional Duralock Happy Hour will start the evening’s festivities, and we thank the sponsors for their continued support.”

Jane Hedley adds her support: “The seminar is a really good opportunity for clerks and head groundsmen to get together and share best practice.”