A perfectly clear blue sky and unbroken sunshine make for enjoyable conditions in which to go racing. At Ffos Las, they help turn a former open cast coal mine into a delightful venue, in a natural bowl surrounded by low trees. Watching racing from Ffos Las on the television simply doesn’t do justice to what a wonderful setting it is. Mind you, it has a very different feel on a cold, wet, windy winter’s afternoon, as Clerk of the Course Tim Long acknowledged when I went to meet him at the weekend to talk about the development of Ffos Las racecourse and his work there.
Ffos Las has been operational since 2009. Were you here from the start?
I was here before it started. I was clerk of the course at Bath and Chepstow and was recruited by the constructors here because I’d met Mr Walters before. They had already started laying the track and they had a sports turf designer advising on that and I came in then with a view to advising on the set up of the racecourse itself right from then. It’s all about running rail positions, hurdles, and so on, and then you’ve got to build a team up.
Because of its location and not having a racecourse in close proximity we had to recruit a whole new team and my role increased then when Mr Walters (course owner) asked me to be the manager as well, so I left Chepstow and I’ve been here since then.
From the top to the bottom of the Walters group they are very, very driven. The word ‘impossible’ just doesn’t exist and everyone just got swept along on that enthusiasm really. There was never a question of it not opening on time, or of it opening and not being a success because that just wasn’t an option as they say.
And it’s certainly proved itself.
I think the industry appreciated what it had taken to do There are no frills around the place in terms of the grandstand and that sort of thing. The structure is done to a very high specification; the racing surface is good, there’s a lovely stable yard, the facilities for the racing staff, so the money was spent in the right areas. Everything else can follow on from that. If we’re still being successful in ten years time we can build a bigger stand. It’s no good building a bigger stand at the expense of not having a decent stable area, and not having a good racecourse.
And yet there still seems to be a perception that you’ve got drainage problems here.
What, in terms of lack of, or too much? I think the problem was that in the last two winters the drainage wasn’t coping, so we actually did remedial drainage work. When you construct a course, a new turf course, and you put in the drainage, which, because of the rainfall we get here it had to have, the drainage was working at about 96% efficient. Within 12 or a8 months all these drains slow down, they fur up slightly.
We did remedial drainage work in the back straight last year, because that was getting too wet. It’s the same at every course. What you end up doing when you start these remedial works is that you end up chasing the water around the track. In that respect we’re no different from any track in the UK.
I wanted to ask you where you think Ffos Las might be in five years time.
I think in terms of the actual track itself, that’s maturing all the time. We’ve endured a very, very hard time over the last 18 months weather wise. It’s been so wet and so cold, yet we haven’t lost that many meetings considering. The track has coped with that, and it’s testimony to the track and the way the staff have learned to deal with it that it’s in such good condition as it is now. Off the back of a very harsh winter its back, it’s good and level, there’s a lot of grass, there’s a lot of nice runners. I think we’re getting the confidence of the industry, which is crucial.
In the last few years we’ve seen an emergence of Welsh trainers: Tim Vaughan, I think has runners here tonight, Rebecca Curtis and so on. Do you think Ffos Las has anything to do with that?
I think we’ve probably gone hand in hand. I don’t think either of us would claim that we were leading the way with that. A lot of that emergence, Ffos Las has been a great asset to them. Owners can put horse there now, especially owners based in the Principality, and know that there transport costs aren’t going to be huge, because that is a major cost when you are an owner. Evan Williams said to me, “Apart from that, it’s great because owners are now driving past my door, and I can invite them in to have a look at a horse.” I think it goes hand in hand.
Turning to your actual role, can you explain what a typical raceday is like?
The day always starts early on a race day, so I’ll be here by six o’clock regardless of the time of year or the time of the meeting. I have a look at the track, and I like to have been most of the way round the track by the time I do my first going report, which is ringing it in to the radio through the RCA. I’m then back in the office to update the BHA site. I also use a text service which we subscribe to, so I can then contact the trainers. I send a text on the morning of declarations and another on the morning of racing. It is an age of communication now and we’ll use Twitter as well, whatever medium we can to get the news out there.
Then on a raceday it’s just the general preparation of the track. For example, this morning, because of the warm weather, we were watering. We made the decision this morning after we’d looked at the track, where we would water, how much to put down, and the cracking on and doing it. Then we have to consider if any changes are needed to rail layout, hurdle positions, all that sort of thing, until we get towards the start of the race meeting.
I have to be sure all the correct people are in place; medical, veterinary, and until those people are in place we can’t race. Once you get nearer the time, you’re more or less just like the ringmaster really, making sure everybody is in the right place at the right time, and you’ve got seven race that are going off on time, and where there are incidents, that they are dealt with in the correct fashion really.
I’m incredibly proud to work in an industry where both medical and veterinary resources are quite phenomenal really and everybody is very highly trained and it’s a credit to the industry.
There must have been quite a lot of learning for those people, given that you are so far from any other racecourse?
Oh yes, and we’re still doing that. At the start we relied on doctors that were coming from England that had worked at Chepstow. Even today there’s a local doctor here acting as a supernumerary learning the job. It’s here last training day today and then she’s up and running. We’re much more self sufficient, but we’re also still learning.
To finish on a lighter note, are there any amusing incidents you can share with us?
In this job there are lots. It’s a privilege to see both the equine and the human stars. Sprinter Sacre won his first novice hurdle here, and you know when you see a horse like that in the flesh that it is quite something special. To see at first hand the likes of AP McCoy at first hand, what he is and what he does is a privilege, you couldn’t put it any other way.
Probably what I enjoy most is a good bollocking from Richard Lee. Mind, every clerk of the course gets that.