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Guardian of the ground

Guardian of the ground

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As many racing venues make the switch from winter jump to summer flat racing, Lorna Maybery chats to clerk of the course Andrew Cooper about the demands of running two major racecourses.

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It might seem like a very low-tech way of working, but Andrew Cooper, clerk of the course for Sandown Park and Epsom racecourses still uses a stick to test the ‘going’ on race days.

“Ash sticks are good for the job, and yew is a good wood, too,” he says. “We get through about four walking sticks a year, as they wear down and become too short to sensibly use. I’m always on the look-out at car boot sales and country stores for good sticks and often buy one when I see it and get the carpenters to give to a sharper point.”

Although the tried and tested method of pushing a stick into the ground works well, Andrew points out that the official way of testing the course going is by using a very high-tech device that takes a series of readings and calculates the condition of the track.

_44509Above: Epsom racecourse

“The device is still called a ‘going stick’ and each racecourse in the country is issued with one. We have to take stick readings for every day’s race on scale of 0-15, with 15 being the hardest end of the scale and 0 the slowest. It’s a device that measures the penetration into the ground via a probe, but also looks at the sheer factor; you pull the stick back 45 degrees almost replicating what a horse’s hoof does in the ground. So it’s taking two measurements, which you do about three times around the same area, and you then do that about 30 times around the course. 

“The readings are calculated to get an average reading for the course. We have an individual who does the going stick readings here, but myself and my deputy Craig will probably have walked the course an hour before that with the old-fashioned walking stick and decided what we believe the going is and then we back this up with the statistical number of the official going stick.”

Setting the going, which decides whether the ground is designated as hard, soft or somewhere in between, for a day’s racing is just one small part of the big job that Andrew does as head of racing for the London Jockey Club racecourses and clerk of the course for Sandown and Epsom.

“Clerk 0f the course is a historic title going back to when racing was first regulated in this country and it’s an official position recognised by the British Horse Racing Authority,” Andrew explains. 

“Under the rules of racing, each race day has to have a clerk of the course responsible for the racing side of the operation, so I’m not responsible for the public, or car parks or how people get here. What I am responsible for is the safe and proper conduct of the day’s racing in accordance with the rules and regulations of the sport. The layout of the track, the condition of the fences, the hurdles and jumps if it’s a jump meeting, the position of the running rails, the organisation of vets, doctors and ambulances; anything that affects the racing operation ultimately comes down to me and my team.

“I will also be the person who decides what races we run here on a particular day and how much prize money they have attached to them, over what distance they are run, and age restrictions. I pull together the whole racing programme and the calendar of fixtures of races we run.

“It’s a wide remit and that’s one of the attractions of the job,” adds Andrew, who is one of probably only about 30 clerks of the course in the country. “There are only 60 race courses in the country and there are probably no more than 30 clerks of the course. Whenever a vacancy comes up there’s a lot of applications because, although it’s a huge amount of responsibility, it’s also tremendously rewarding and enjoyable.

“You have to be able to put on a good show and performance, because you’re a bit of an entrepreneur and a master of ceremonies, and you have to know how to react when something goes wrong. When you’re involved in a sport involving racehorses jumping fences and racing at over 40 miles an hour, there will be incidents. You really prove your mettle in this job in how you react to problems. The majority of meetings go off perfectly smoothly, but you’re never that far away from a loose horse or an injured jockey.”

Challenging turf care

On a day-to day-basis, one of the biggest challenges for Andrew, who grew up on his parents’ farm on the Overbury Estate in Gloucestershire, is keeping the turf in as best condition as possible.

“We have a lot of professional expertise in our team, and, like every race course in the country, we have a retained agronomist to produce reports from an independent source, but we have all been doing this long enough to have a good handle on grass conditions,” says Andrew.

He has to deal with two very different racecourses: Epsom sits on gravel, which drains without help, doesn’t get waterlogged and only hosts flat racing, which runs in the spring and summer. Sandown Park is more of a challenge as it’s a dual-purpose course, hosting flat racing in the summer and jump racing through the winter. It sits on a varied soil profile, with clay quickly turning to sandy conditions and then back again, meaning the left hand side of the park is wetter than the rest.

Above: Sandown Park

“At Sandown Park, the only month we don’t race is October. We race every month and have a fixture of 25 days racing, of which 16 are flat and 9 are jumping. We don’t race in October and that forms the gap between flat racing and jump racing. Those gaps in the calendar are vital for us in terms of the track maintenance. 

“In the gap we set out to make sure the track is ready for the jump season and that includes the fences, which have to be done to a certain size and specification and made out of birch. A lot of infrastructure work goes on in the autumn as well as making sure the grass is great. 

“We have 13 hectares of actual racing turf at Sandown. It’s a big, oval-shaped course but, unlike most racecourses, it doesn’t have a separate flat racing circuit. We are here racing a lot of the course on the same ground all year round, which increases the challenges. We are dealing with ground you have to irrigate during the summer to make sure it’s just soft enough for flat racing, but not too soft, but then if you get a wet winter the legacy of that irrigation means part of the course gets softer a bit quicker. It’s a real balancing act.”

Andrew has a team of 12 keeping Sandown park in tip-top condition and six working at Epsom, and he couldn’t imagine doing any other job. As a youngster he had always wanted to work in the racing industry.

“There was stud farm at the Overbury Estate where I grew up – my dad kept the estate’s herd of Guernseys – and it was here that the 1975 Derby winner Grundy was foaled and that triggered an interest in racing and it became a hobby from about age 10.”

He followed his hobby, and, after a stint at Weatherbys, the company that provides British horse racing with its central administration, has been at Sandown since 1990 and clerk of the course since 1994.

“We are judged on how race days go and how the track rides. There’s no greater satisfaction than having put on a successful and well-received race day, for the track to have ridden well and looked good, for horses and jockeys to come home safe and the crowd to go home happy.”

For upcoming events at Sandown Park, visit sandown.thejockeyclub.co.uk


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