Winner of the Flat racing category of the RCA Groundsmanship awards, Hamilton Park's team have worked hard to make the most of track improvements and deliver a top quality racing surface to an increasingly discerning customer base
On the outskirts of Glasgow, Hamilton Park hosts eighteen flat fixtures from May to September each year. Racing has been staged in Hamilton since 1782; the present racecourse opened in 1926 and, since 1973, has been owned by the Hamilton Park Trust. Major fixtures include the season opener in May with an £80,000 prize fund, Braveheart night and the Lanark Silver Bell. A public holiday in July, Fair Friday, is celebrated with the listed Glasgow Stakes, part of a £100,000 card. Notable winners include the St Leger hero, Postponed.
Very much part of the social scene due to its location close to the city, Hamilton Park was the first racecourse to trial evening racing in 1947, and its Friday evening meetings are highly popular, attracting 9,000-strong crowds.
Post-race concerts are also part of the Hamilton Park package, helping to introduce the younger generation to racing, and stars including JLS and Tom Jones have also performed stand-alone concerts at the track.
Groundstaff are called on to prepare for non-racing events year-round, including a hectic Christmas party season and some sixty weddings a year, many of which take place in marquees on the lawns.
"The grounds have to be immaculate twelve months of the year, keeping track manager George Murdoch and groundsmen Dariusz Spis and Slywester Semenuiek busy, even outside the racing season," explains Clerk of the Course Hazel Peplinski. "They are joined by Fraser Holmes for the racing months, plus a track repair team of casual labour."
In 2012, a major programme of secondary drainage was put into place, installing sand band to the laterals. Re-draining areas surrounding the track was also crucial, as Hazel explains:
"Heavy rain used to run off the service roads and car parks onto the track. I vividly remember 'Super Saturday' in 2012 - while our athletes were scooping up gold medals at the Olympics, I was taking the decision to abandon racing between the second and third race after 28mm of rain fell!"
The ten year old non-slip surface on the parade ring was also renewed.
Drainage work was undertaken by specialist contractor Central Grass Services, which has enjoyed a long relationship with Hamilton Park.
"Fraser Hillhouse project managed the development of our new stable block in 2005, relocated the parade ring and has undertaken all of the drainage work over the years. He also works closely with our agronomist John Souter and with George on turfcare issues."
2013 was a tough season for Hamilton Park - whilst it was put in context by the struggles of Scottish livestock farmers in the harsh winter, the cold winds meant that grass growth was slow and that there was little ground cover by Easter as the season loomed.
"Whilst we had done all this drainage work - and because there was so little grass growth, it was obvious we had done it - it took a further summer and winter before the track really came into its own," comments Hazel.
Between the 2013 and 2104 seasons, the work was consolidated with annual sand dressing and some remedial sand-banding on the outside of the loop, which is used for morning canters, at a cost of £8,000.
"We ended the 2014 season on really good ground and were able to put the track to bed in excellent shape, which should stand us in good stead for this year. Ironically, we then saw other flat tracks that race later into the year suffer as the weather deteriorated."
Hazel suggests that the improvements to the track are down to a combination of the drainage work, managing machinery movements on the turf, and using the right treatments.
"It's taking time to work out which products are best, but it's a relatively affordable process and an investment in the track like any other."
George Murdoch explains that he initially trialled Terralift Rocastem on the home straight, and the results were impressive enough to treat the whole track subsequently.
The liquid treatment aerates the rootzone and invigorates the indigenous microbial population, working in conjunction with mechanical aeration to decompact the rootzone by draining excess water and freeing silts, clays and fine sands. This has increased percolation of trapped water to maximise soil aeration and root extension and has helped the sward cope with the stress of mowing and wear.
"We applied Rocastem at the start of the season - you could continue through the year, although it would be expensive," he comments.
Whilst racing surfaces need a degree of thatch to provide cushioning, Terralift T-Thatch has proved useful, George says: "Applied at the right temperatures, this product contains microbes which eat through the thatch."
Hamilton Park uses as few chemicals as possible, and Terralift organic products are the fertilisers of choice, with the aim of being able to get the sward off to a good start for the season, providing consistently good going right from the first meeting.
Investment has also been made in new machinery, including John Deere 5090R and 4320 tractors as part of the routine replacement programme.
"We've added a reconditioned Ferrari walk behind bank mower to cut the banks alongside the track which were previously maintained using strimmers," George adds.
A pair of Toro mowers join the fleet for the first time - a Groundsmaster WAM for cutting the track and a triple cylinder mower for the lawns.
"We were offered a very competitive deal for the Toros," he comments. "We swapped to using a WAM on the track in recent years after trying rear and then front-mounted tractor mowers, as we find the ride-ons handle the undulations better without missing or scalping."
Cut heights are set to 3.5-4in, depending on weather conditions; a shorter cut dries out better in the wet, but it's important to maintain traction for the horses hooves on the bends by not mowing too close, George explains.
The pressure to deliver optimum footing for racehorses has never been greater.
"We have a relatively narrow racing surface and, with no separate canter down, each horse will cover the same ground four times in some places," says Hazel. "Speeding the recovery process is important - it used to take a week to repair the track, now we use more labour and it is done in twenty-four hours. There's less dieback and it helps get the turf back to racing condition in the tight time window that we have."
A vital part of the Clerk of the Course's role is to give an accurate going description, Hazel points out. "We also have to present consistent going so that horses do not suddenly encounter firmer patches. It is something we pride ourselves on and we have also succeeded in making the course consistent across the track, eliminating draw bias in the home straight."
"Some courses are notorious for favouring horses drawn on one side of the starting stalls, but with many trainers having to travel horses many miles to race at Hamilton Park, eliminating the bias has been an important factor in continuing to attract entries."
"We are remote from the major training centres, so anything that we can do to encourage trainers to run their horses is important," Hazel explains. This includes good prize money - a new series for two year-old horses in 2015 will climax in a £20,000 final in September.
"We hope this will attract runners - it's a nice prize to aim for."
And the track improvements seems to have paid off in terms of offering a quality racing surface, as Hazel points out. "Horsemen commented on the tremendous cover of grass and lack of bias that was in evidence in the 2014 season."
A new development for this year is the installation of twenty furlongs of brand new Fornells rail from Watt Fences - at a cost of £40,000.
"It's a big job to take down the old rail and install the new," admits George. "The old rail is going to a good home - several local trainers have agreed to take it for use on their gallops in exchange for a donation to the Injured Jockeys Fund."
After a long winter, spring has finally sprung, and racegoers from Glasgow and further afield can look forward to a summer of exciting racing at Hamilton Park.
Professional development reaps rewards
George Murdoch, Track Manager (Head Groundsman) has undergone a process of professional development in terms of how he operates as part of the Hamilton Park Executive.
"George has been part of the team at Hamilton Park for twenty-nine years, working his way up from a casual labourer to the role of Head Groundsman and Track Manager," explains Hazel. "As I am also Clerk at Kelso, I'm not at Hamilton all the time, so we needed to find a way to formalise communications between us. We came up with a pro forma which allows us to standardise groundsmanship procedures and record the work done - I can then add notes and queries where necessary and it helps me report back to our chief executive."
She adds: "It has given George so much confidence as well as enhancing our working relationship, and makes him feel much more valued and part of the team. The role of head groundsman can feel like being a lone worker at times, so the process has proved highly beneficial."