Why synthetic surfaces are gaining ground in Britain

Britain's 2014 All-Weather Championships at Lingfield Park. RacingFotos.com

They may have had their day in the United States and Dubai, but synthetic racetracks are going from strength to strength in Britain. And there is every indication that the demand is likely to continue, as Chris Cook reports.

Even for established fans of the sport, there is remarkably little to like about all-weather racing, starting with the label itself, which is misleading since there are several kinds of weather that can still defeat us. Judged by prize money, field size, betting turnover, or attendance, all-weather racing in Britain compares poorly with flat racing on turf.

Then there are the less measurable factors, such as aesthetics. The general view is that action on a synthetic surface is less pleasing to look upon, whether it be because of the brown stuff itself, the extra tangle of necessary white railing, the knowledge that a lovely stretch of grass has been chewed up to make way for it, or a distaste for the crowding that takes place on such tight 10-furlong ovals. 

And of course, all-weather racing is regularly associated with racing's shadier side, thanks to the regularity with which strokes seem to be pulled. For all its midwinter utility, it is a subculture somewhat lacking in charisma. And yet it now makes up a third of flat racing's fixture list and, although the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is hardly keen for that proportion to increase, there may be no way of preventing such an outcome. 

Racing's rulers probably felt comfortably in control of the phenomenon in October 1989, when Britain's first all-weather fixture was staged at Lingfield Park Racecourse, south of London. Southwell Racecourse in the East Midlands followed nine days later, and Wolverhampton Racecourse (West Midlands) four years after that. The point was to ensure that, when jump racing was stifled by snow or ice or frost, Britain's punters still had something to entertain them, something that would keep the income from betting rolling toward the sport.

It is a function that the all-weather still performs well, and it is more important now than ever, with racing's share of the betting market under continual pressure from other sports and alternative attractions such as roulette machines. Many people in and around racing would cheerfully restrict “sand racing” to just that function and would see no need for it from April to October. But all-weather tracks are owned by private companies that – while delighted to be doing their bit for the sport's general health – are also understandably keen to make the most of their own assets. 

It so happens that Lingfield, Southwell, and Wolverhampton are now owned by the same company, Arena Racing Company (ARC), though such was not the case when all-weather racing began in this country. ARC's racing director, Jim Allen, pointed out that the cost of installing a new synthetic surface is very high but, once that initial hurdle has been cleared, the owner should have a clear run at a long-term profit, because the track will cost less to maintain than a turf one and can stand much more racing.

Allen did not spell it out, but the logical thing to do is to race as often as possible. You won't draw much of a crowd, because it will hardly seem like a special occasion if you open your gates every third day, but the sums paid by betting shop owners for the right to screen your racing is sufficient reason to make the effort. While the amount paid has never been made public, it is understood to be at least £8,000 ($13,500) a race.

It only works if racetracks keep a tight control on overheads, which means there will be little in the way of frills, and your bars and restaurants will tend to the functional. That doesn't matter because you are not expecting much of a crowd – it also tends to ensure that you will never get one. And so, the internal logic of racing's economics leads us to the current position: all-weather racing as betting shop fodder.

Allen, rather an evangelist for all-weather racing, has made a spirited attempt to change perceptions of this less-loved branch of the sport by creating the All-Weather Championships, staged for the first time on Good Friday in front of a sell-out crowd at Lingfield and immediately praised as a great success. The Championships are not just about one day. Qualifying races were held through the winter, so that many all-weather cards were enlivened by at least one contest of unusual quality and interest. 

“[The all-weather] was a part of the sport that a lot of people didn't care for and didn't want, but it's a big part of our business and of British racing as well, so we decided to do something about it,” Allen said. “We feel if we can improve that sector of the sport, we will improve the sport as a whole, as well as our business model and our reputation. 

"We've only had one year of it [the Championships] and there are improvements to come,” he added. “We're in this for the long haul. ARC is never going to get the 2,000 Guineas or the Cheltenham Festival, but we do stage 40 percent of British fixtures. The only way to compete and improve our image is to grab the all-weather side of the sport, control it, develop it, and move it forwards. 

"Synthetic surfaces are fantastic, in my opinion. They're safe, they're consistent. If, as a trainer, you target a race on a certain day, you know how the track will ride; you're not waiting for sun or rain. I like to watch horses running against each other, regardless of the surface. And most, if not all, trainers in this country train their horses on synthetics, so it makes sense to race on them, too." 

ARC does not have a monopoly on British all-weather racing. The Jockey Club's Kempton Park Racecourse, just west of London, got in on the action in 2006, while Great Leighs Racecourse, in Essex – just to the northeast of the capital – operated for about nine months in 2008-09 and is expected to reopen as Chelmsford City next year.

But, ARC has most of it and will have even more from next spring, by which time, under present plans, flat turf course at Newcastle Racecourse in the northeast will have been replaced with an all-weather one. There has been significant anguish from some trainers at the loss of a turf circuit of such quality, which Allen acknowledged.

"But it's still going to be a galloping track, which is something unique,” Allen said. “The all-weather tracks we have tend to be tight ovals. There's still going to be no hiding place at Newcastle. When you come down the straight, it will still be four furlongs long after the bend, and the best horse will probably still win." 

The jumps track will be retained and, according to Allen, will be improved during the installation of the all-weather alongside it.

Allen pointed out, as is widely acknowledged, that there is a need for an all-weather circuit in the north. Southwell Racecourse is currently the most northerly sand track and it lies 160 miles south of Newcastle. For a whole new community of trainers, it will be economically viable to send regular box loads of horses to race on the all-weather, rather than simply mothballing the yard each winter. 

How often they will be able to do so remains a question. ARC would like to convert all Newcastle's turf fixtures into all-weather ones, but the BHA's permission is needed before a fixture can be moved from one surface to another. Official word is awaited, but a green light for wholesale transfer appears unlikely.

The BHA approved the introduction of all-weather racing at Newcastle, and simultaneously agreed to the revival of Great Leighs/Chelmsford City. "However," it insisted, through Racing Director Ruth Quinn, "this should not be interpreted as a guarantee or indication of an expansion of all-weather fixtures."

A report has been commissioned from management consulting firm Deloitte, examining the question of how much all-weather racing there should be. Given that it doesn’t do as well as turf racing on so many key indicators, the case for more of it is hard to make, especially at a time when the average field size is falling for all types of racing, a decline the BHA would like to arrest.

It appears that lawyers are being consulted on both sides and a judge may yet be asked to decide who has ultimate control over Newcastle's fixtures and the use to which they are put. More likely, a compromise will be reached, affording the track a number of sand fixtures fewer than the 18 turf days it currently holds.

ARC is well placed to add to that as it has more than 200 all-weather fixtures at Lingfield, Southwell, and Wolverhampton, any of which could be switched onto Newcastle's all-weather track without official intervention, unless the BHA changes its policy on such matters. It has even been mooted by some that ARC might be tempted to close Southwell and move all its fixtures to the northeast. ARC denies it is considering such a move, but Southwell has repeatedly fallen victim to flooding, which is why its Fibresand surface, the cheapest synthetic in use in Britain, has never been upgraded.

At an estimated cost of £10-12 million ($17-20 million), Newcastle will be fitted with what is seen as the superior synthetic surface Tapeta, also being laid down this summer at Wolverhampton, where it will make its British debut later this year. ARC's choice of Tapeta was surprising to some, given that the surface fell so publicly from favour at Dubai's Meydan Racecourse, where it has been in use for four years.

"We wanted to try a change," said Allen, who reports especially favourable comments from some American trainers. He suggested that the Tapeta in Dubai may have suffered because of high temperatures.

Close-up view of the Tapeta surface at Meydan. Two ARC tracks plan to install Tapeta. RacingFotos.com

The National Trainers' Federation conducted a survey of its members and found that Tapeta drew as much support, 46 percent, as Polytrack, the dominant surface in Britain for years. While British trainers have limited experience of racing on Tapeta, some use it for their home gallops and there are suggestions that it copes well with low temperatures and vast quantities of rain. 

Polytrack will remain at Kempton, Lingfield, and Great Leighs/Chelmsford City, should the latter ever reopen. So far, the Essex track has been blighted by mismanagement, which was evident long before stalls ever clanged open there, two years after the date of the first fixture that was allocated to it, for what was supposed to be its grand opening. 

When the managing company went bust, the BHA withdrew its racecourse licence and has been slow to give it back, but the involvement of the successful bookmaker Fred Done appears to have persuaded officials that a robust business plan is finally in place. The track is expected to receive a start-up allocation of perhaps a dozen or so fixtures for next year, with the chance to acquire more through a commercial process. For an independent venue, such things do not come as easy as for those under the ARC umbrella, but then, nor is it so vulnerable to being cannibalised for the sake of a sister track.

So, there will be more all-weather venues from 2015, which probably means a net increase in fixtures, however many reservations the BHA might have on that subject. The sport's ruling body is not in full control of fixture allocation and cannot simply assert its will.

Even if it could, it would have to work out what it thinks first. Twenty-five years from its creation, all-weather racing ploughs ahead, unguided by any official. There is no agreement on what it is for and its future will be shaped by commercial opportunism rather than policy.

"I personally don't see a difference between horses racing against each other on turf and horses racing against each other on the all-weather," Allen said. "There is a feeling that British racing, historically, is about turf racing and they [the BHA] want to protect that." 

But that association is a general one. From the perspective of a particular track, switching to sand need not be seen as betraying the wider sport, so long as there is still grass at Ascot and Newmarket. Allen thinks that, if fixtures were easily come by, "you'd see a lot of tracks willing to change."


Chris Cook is racing correspondent for The Guardian.

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