Timeform Annual revives debate on watering

Timeform has never been short of a strong opinion in its publications, and its latest annual, the 1232 page Racehorses of 2011, maintains that tradition. An anonymous essay on Margot Did, surprise winner of the Nunthorpe Stakes at York last year opens up once more the debate about watering of racecourses.

In the Nunthorpe, Margot Did, a 20/1 chance, was one of a group of six racing up the stands rails from which three of the first four home came. Market leaders Hoof It and Bated Breath were not in this group and finished well beaten in sixth and ninth positions. Yet weeks later these two went on to fight out the finish in the Betfred Sprint Cup at Haydock.

William Derby, chief executive at York made it clear that no watering of the course took place in the preparation for the Ebor meeting, as there had been plenty of rain before the meeting. But there was still criticism, led by trainer Mark Johnston, of variable ground across the track, which he claimed was caused by “excessive watering resulting in a permanently loose surface.”

The Timeform essay picks this idea up, and concludes that it is time to pick up on Johnston’s suggestion that there should be no watering for five or six days before a meeting. The essay says, “Courses used to be instructed to water only to promote grass growth but they are charged now with watering to provide going that is no firmer than good to firm.”

Well, I’ve no problem with that, and neither should anyone else. Good or good to firm ground is what is most suitable for most horses running on the flat. So the question then arises of whether watering frustrates that objective.

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Timeform again: “The number of courses that over-water, or water too late, is a concern. The way forward is to consider adopting Johnston’s view that tracks should not water within five or six days of racing. As he has said: ‘If good management techniques are applied and sufficient nutrient and water is given for maximum grass growth at times when racing is not taking place, a sound racing surface should be achievable without watering within a week of racing.’ ”

This smacks of another case of a blanket approach that would bring its own difficulties. How can a clerk of the course prepare for a one-day meeting at Warwick and the five days of Ascot or Goodwood in the same way? The British Horseracing Authority certainly does not embrace Johnston’s idea. Head of the racecourse department Fraser Garrity said of the policy to avoid firm going, “It is a guideline to aim for but it allows for individual racecourses to take different action, based on individual circumstances.”

What would be the outcome if Johnston’s approach of a ban on watering were to be adapted? Chris Stickels, clerk at Ascot, had his view, particularly in respect of the Royal meeting. He said, “Owners and trainers would be able to take their own decisions about whether to run, but I suspect we’d end up with smaller fields and, fundamentally, less competitive racing.”

Adam Waterworth, chief executive at Goodwood shared that view, though he put it slightly differently. He said, “I can understand the arguments to let nature take its course. But we race on chalk at the top of a hill. By the time a Saturday came round, I don’t think we would be able to race without horses getting jarred up, and nobody wants that. Sometimes we get it wrong but the aim is always to produce the perfect racing surface. Do we really want to go back to the 1980s and watch racing on a brown turf in a dustbowl with two-runner fields?”

No, we don’t. And the best way to ensure that situation does not arise is not to introduce a blanket ban on watering before a meeting, but to continue to charge each course to water when necessary to produce good, safe racing ground.

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