Dramatic technical advances have improved the training, nutrition and conditioning of racehorses, as well as the spectacle of the race itself, but the unpredictable weather and its effect on the course will always have the biggest influence over itscharacter and outcome. It may be the world’s greatest flat race, but the Investec Derby is no different. The condition of the ground upon which the race is run – the ‘going’ – is a factor which has a huge impact on the race and its runners.
The clerk of the course is responsible for preparing reports on the going to the racing authorities in the UK. Since 1996, that responsibility at Epsom Downs has fallen to Andrew Cooper. He determines which of the seven recognised categories for describing the going should be used for each race day. From softest to hardest, they are: heavy; soft; good to soft; good; good to firm; firm; and hard. "The instruction the racing regulator asks us to work towards in our preparations for flat racing is ‘good to firm’ – that’s on the quicker side of good,” says Cooper. “That’s when most flat-race horses are at their best”.
Epsom is a flat racing course, and the Investec Derby the foremost flat race in the country, if not the world
But given they are the same for everyone, can conditions underfoot really affect the race that much? “The going has a huge impact on which horses even run in the first place,” Cooper explains. “A horse will have a going preference over the course of its career; a horse who prefers hard going is unlikely to run on soft ground. And then as you get towards the race, the going affects the betting angle, with punters considering backing different horses based on their preferences.”
Success in the Derby requires passion, energy and stamina. While there is a limit to how far the runners can adapt to the condition of the course, the best will look to find a way.
“He might go in search of better ground and look for a strip by the rail and take the horse in that direction, but not much more than that,” Cooper says. His team focuses on controlling the controllable elements, through irrigation of the course, to achieve the targeted going.
Modern technology alongside traditional methods
The first steps, in a literal sense, to measuring the going involve walking the course. At Epsom that means a mile-and-a-half at 6am to get a physical feel for the state of the ground. To test it, the clerk deploys a trusty technology that’s stood the test of time. “Traditionally to assess the going we use a wooden stick that doesn’t bend, usually made of ash, yew, chestnut or some other hard wood. By pushing it in every couple of yards and feeling the resistance from the turf, experience tells you that a certain feel corresponds to a certain type of ground.”
However, innovative modern technology has augmented this process. Following attempts from the UK horseracing regulator to standardise going reports, Cambridgeshire-based company TurfTrax created the GoingStick. From 2007, all UK turf racecourses are required to issue a GoingStick reading with their official pre-race declaration, and with the race-day going report.
The GoingStick objectively measures the penetration and shear at different points throughout the course, processing the data on-board to deliver an average reading that can be compared to previous readings at the same or different courses
“I push the GoingStick into the turf in at least 30 locations, three times in each, and it generates a statistical reading. It averages out all the readings and produces a numerical output on a scale of 0-15, 15 being the firmest," Cooper explains. "Mostly our readings end up being in the 6-8 territory, and we aim for the middle of the range, which generally translates to good or good to firm.”
Before punters consult their morning racecard and make their selections, Cooper must deliver two assessments to the racing authorities. “On Investec Derby day, I give out two pieces of information: the state of the going, in my opinion; and I’ll back that up with a statistical going reading from the GoingStick."
It takes years of experience on a given racecourse to develop an understanding of the going, and even advances in technology must be questioned from time to time. “The GoingStick gives objectivity to what is otherwise a subjective area,” says Cooper. “When I started out with the GoingStick there was certainly a learning curve – you learn to occasionally disregard what appears to be a rogue reading. At Epsom the probe might hit some chalk which gives you a freakish reading which could distort the average. Your experience tells you to disregard those readings – although that’s rare.”
Infographic: Investec Derby Festival racecourse
Explore the racecourse that makes the Epsom Derby truly Out of the Ordinary.
A sport like no other
Extreme weather could affect the going to a degree that might endanger the meeting itself. That’s thankfully rare, particularly at Epsom; the course sits on ground rich in chalk, and as such drains incredibly quickly. The Investec Derby’s schedule in June means an unexpected downpour is unlikely – although the British weather often has a few surprises in store. “We’re still beholden to the weather,” emphasises Cooper.
“We’ve looked at covering the course, but the scale of a racecourse makes that virtually impractical. Equally in the winter we could look at undersoil heating, but the scale of a racecourse makes that unaffordable. Ultimately, the wear and tear of 60 horses racing in a single day on turf is incredible and not replicated by any human activity or any other sport.”
Despite advances in technology, the Derby’s unique character has remained, to a large degree, unchanged since its inception – which undoubtedly forms part of its charm. “At its most basic, racing is a person on a horse running around a field with nothing more than a white rail to guide them to a finishing line. In its essence it’s very similar to how it’s been for 240 years. Turf is natural, a horse is an animal and there’s a person riding him with a horse-friendly whip. It ultimately remains a question of who can get from A to B the fastest.”