Sunday, 07 February 2016

Racing faces another winter of discontent

THE winter freeze has already started to hit the horse racing world after last year’s decimation of the fixtures. PAUL TURNER talks to two South Cumbrian horse trainers about the prospect of another tough season

THE winter of 2009/10 is one that will live long in the memory of the horse racing public.

Across the country, meetings were abandoned, courses unusable and trainers left with nowhere to run their horses out as the cold refused to release its grip.

Even all-weather courses were not immune – if their surfaces were usable, the car parks and stands were often unsafe for spectators.

The sport essentially ground to a halt.

Already this year, there are signs a repeat is on the cards – with meetings at Kelso, Newcastle, Market Rasen, Leicester and Plumpton just a few of those to be wiped out in the past week-and-a-half.

For South Cumbrian trainers Roger Fisher and James Moffatt, 2009/10 was one of the worst winters they have encountered in their time in the sport.

For them, any repeat of those months of discontent is unimaginable, but that is exactly what they are facing, with the current Arctic snap already approaching two weeks worth of destruction. “We’re outside all the time working it from morning until night and I certainly haven’t known it to be this cold in November before,” said Moffatt.

“It’s looking ominous, but you hope these things run in cycles and we will maybe have a drier spell after the freeze.

“My glass is always half-full, so we’re not setting up for four months of horrible winter!”

There was no jump racing for the whole of last week – all-weather tracks the only ones to survive and host meetings – and none is expected until at least Wednesday.

But the lack of races is not the main problem facing Fisher at present – his gallops are frozen over and the snow and ice one the roads make the trip down to his other option, the beach, impossible as well.

“We have had races called off, but we’re even struggling to train them now,” said Fisher, who had only just seen a virus clear his yard when the new weather problems started.

“The ground is hard, the gallops are frozen up and it’s even treacherous to get down to the beach, so we have been hibernating really.

“It has been bad and the forecast isn’t very good either.

“On the Flat, you have the all-weather tracks, but if you can’t even train the horses at home, there’s no point sending them down to places like Wolverhampton, because they won’t be fit.

“It’s a difficult time for us just now.”

Fisher is now two weeks without a runner – several of his mounts having seen races pulled from under them. That, though, is modest when you consider, at one point last year, Moffatt went more than a month without a runner as card after card was wiped from the fixture list.

Conditions at his Pitt Farm Stables were just as bad. For three weeks, snow and ice prevented his mounts from leaving the stable blocks to exercise on the gallops.

The idea of similar conditions striking again – unthinkable come spring, but now a real prospect – was enough for Moffatt to take action to ensure he could make the best of it.

Instead of sitting still and waiting for the cold to snap into place, the former jockey worked hard at his Cartmel base, making sure everything possible was done to ensure his stables at least could cope with the snow and frost.

That has meant he has faced the opposite problem to Fisher, with training still possible, but no meetings to send his horses to since his last runners at Musselburgh on November 26.

“Everywhere has been abandoned. We were meant to be at two or three meetings, but everywhere I look around, the north of England is struggling.

“Personally, though, my horses are a little bit better prepared than they were last year.

“I know it sounds ridiculous, but it is a different kind of snow and frost to what it was last year.

“It’s a dry sort of snow. It’s not wet and it’s not boiling up underneath. There’s a particularly bad freeze with it, so we have been able to keep our gallop working and keep them exercised.

“But we can only tick over at the minute because there are no meetings. We can’t really prepare for a race because at the moment, even this week, they don’t think there will be any chances of racing.”

The 38-year-old added: “We are keeping our fingers crossed over the weather, obviously, but we also have plans in place.

“We have allowed a grass canter about five furlongs long to grow very deep in thick turf, which will protect us down to something like minus five or minus six (temperatures which are now being approached with regularity in South Cumbria).

“We haven’t had to use that yet because the all-weather gallop is working fine.

“We bought a new set of harrows and we have only just started using them. They are special harrows that really break up the surface well and as a result the all-weather is working really well.

“We have also put a sand exercise ring in, which should – theoretically – protect us from short, sharp frosts and that should protect us up to about minus seven or minus eight.

“I have made some contingency plans, plus we are resurfacing the gallop as well, which also protects us from light frosts.

“We are really hoping we are not going to have another winter like we had last year, but I haven’t been sitting on my hands.”

While Moffatt has been forced to put new facilities in place to help ensure his horses can train, Fisher has hoped to take advantage of an age-old resource right on his doorstep – Morecambe Bay.

The Ulverston trainer has used the sands at Bardsea and Conishead for decades to run his horses whenever there is a hard frost or freezing conditions.

It was going to be the same again this year for Fisher, but the snow and ice on the roads mean it is unsafe for his horses to be taken along them to reach the sands.

He said: “We’re normally fairly lucky in that we are on the beach, so if the gallops are frozen up then we just go down on the beach.

“We did that last winter and we have been training horses on the beach for the last 30 years in moderation.

“Now, though, we can exercise the horses on the walker, but that’s just walking around and as far as galloping is concerned, we haven’t had any on the gallops for two weeks.

“We could use the beach for the first couple of days of that, but then the snow and the ice came in.

“We had the virus and there are still one or two yearlings with it now. We had hoped to give the yearlings run-outs before Christmas, as we normally do, but we are going to be delayed with those as well.

“We can’t do anything about it, we just have to keep our heads down and wait for the thaw.”

While all-weather tracks a Flat option when the weather clears, many of Fisher and Moffatt’s horses go over fences or hurdles and there is no alternative when those meetings are called off.

Moffatt is feeling particularly frustrated at that state of affairs as he felt his mounts were starting to run into form.

“I feel like the horses were going in the right direction,” he added. “Although the results haven’t shown an awful lot yet, I think the horses are starting to get the benefit of the new gallop.

“It was always going to take us a few months to get the job working properly, but we were encouraged by one or two of them the other week and I am happy with them.

“We want to get them back racing as soon as possible, but I suppose it is the same for everyone.”

The best Fisher can hope for is that the weather does not decimate the calendar as it did in December and January last year.

“Last year was a really bad winter,” he added. “We are hoping it’s not the same this year as it was last year.

“These days, with the all-weather, there is an alternative – not that you can jump them on the all weather, but there is that alternative to keep them going.”

Moffatt is also hoping the racecards will continue to run throughout the winter months after this current cold snap.

His new facilities mean he should be able to keep on training in all but the harshest of frozen conditions, but the races themselves are beyond his control.

“We obviously stopped completely last year and I don’t want that to happen again,” he added.

“We can make sure we can tick over with the training and if we can just keep them ticking over, then that will be a big help and we can hit the ground running when we are able to race.”

Have your say

Be the first to comment on this article!

Make your comment

Your name

Your Email

Your Town/City

Your comment


Hot jobs

Evening Mail homepage

Bluebird project


Are there enough affordable homes in the South Lakes?



Show Result