In a complete reversal of the old nursery rhyme racecourse management teams throughout a large part of the country have been saying "rain, rain, come again" as they fear we may be heading for a summer of drought conditions.
Those areas South of the well-known dividing line running from the estuary of the river Severn to The Wash experienced an exceptionally dry year in 2011, and the first couple of weeks of this year have been no different. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has already warned that substantial rainfall will be needed over the coming weeks to prevent some areas having watering restrictions imposed.
It isn't unusual to hear about any track watering a couple of days before race meeting, but in fact it's often a long-term process to ensure racing can take place round the season. Last autumn, for example, Cheltenham was watering the track before every day’s racing with the exception of two days in January. Whilst average rainfall track is around 30 inches year, in 2011 the area received barely 13 inches of rainfall.
During the autumn period clerk of the course Simon Claisse was pumping an average of 1,000,000 gallons of water a week on to the track for the whole period between the beginning of September at the end of November, using 15,000,000 gallons in total. He said, "It has been an unusually dry year and we have been watering either the Old or the New course since early September. In the run-up to our first meeting in October we concentrated our watering on the Old course, but we took the view very soon after the Open meeting, when it looked as if the weather was going to stay dry, that we should switch onto the New course because that had only one bout (of watering) since the beginning of September and we needed to get some growth into the grass to get it into the winter because it was looking drought-stressed."
The impact of the dry weather can be seen in the number of meetings run on soft or heavy going in recent years. During November that went up from 10 in 2007 to 34 the following year. But over the last three years at number has declined sharply, with 33 2009, 20 in 2010, and just 13 last year.
Of course this isn't a new challenge for racing. In 2006 both Epsom and Sandown came very close to being subject to drought orders before rain finally arrived to make them unnecessary. Clerk of the course Andrew Cooper recalls those events. "At the time we tried all the historical arguments, but we were told as racecourses we were not exempt and at one stage we were faced with restrictions being placed on our ability to water which were thankfully dropped before being put in place, although it did go a long way down the legal process."
Sandown subsequently installed a borehole to supplement the water supply from the on course reservoir, but Epsom's application for a similar approach was turned down.
Northern Racing, owners of fast draining Brighton and Yarmouth, both of which are particularly at risk, are regularly monitoring the position and putting measures in place now that could reduce any problems. Racing development manager Jim Allen said, "Neither track has been contacted by the water authorities yet, but we are looking in detail at both irrigation systems and hoping to do something to increase the capacity is where we can within our capital budgets for 2012. We are obviously aware of concerns. Fingers crossed we will be okay. We're still a long way from having the drought, but it is on our radar and we will do all we can to make sure it doesn't affect racing."