Much more to a day at races than a winning bet
HUNDREDS of racegoers are expected through the gates at Wincanton next Thursday as they eagerly await the return of National Hunt racing at the course.
The Under Starters Orders event has attracted a star-studded field, including the likes of trainers Paul Nicholls and Colin Tizzard.
Whereas there is no doubt their horses' performances around the picturesque course will grab the headlines, they would not be in a position to do so without the dedication of a committed ground staff.
Last season Wincanton saw more than 1,000 runners compete across 17 meetings at an average of 63 per event.
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Next Thurs- day's racing sees that effort start again and the culmination of a summer of hard work from clerk of the course Barry Johnson, head groundsman Nigel Payne and their team.
Last week I joined Nigel, Barry and Wincanton general manager Steve Parlett as they welcomed Richard Linley, senior inspector of courses for the British Horseracing Authority, for the yearly preliminary report.
Richard, a former jockey based in North Brewham, spent almost four hours meticulously examining the course, fences and hurdles and the facilities to ensure they were up to scratch.
As expected, only minor adjustments - such as trimming birch fences, altering their angle and cleaning changing rooms that had lain empty since the spring - were necessary.
But what struck home early in the tour was that punters may not fully appreciate just how much more there is to a day's racing than the card, drinks with friends and a bet.
We were first taken around the course's stables, able to home 94 runners for any one meeting. The vet's room was looked over and hygiene records checked, with each stable steam cleaned at least once a year unless illness or injury makes more regular attention necessary.
Moving on to the course itself, the expense of racing soon became apparent. Wincanton boasts nine fences at 4ft 6ins tall, costing £1,200 to replace when built from scratch with birch.
Unless demolished by racing, the fences are replaced every two years and are portable, allowing them to be shifted laterally across the course to ensure even ground wear.
Each of the smaller hurdles contains five birch panels at £180 each. Nigel explained leaping horses could ruin anything up to ten panels a hurdle per meeting.
The team are precise in picking their materials, birch sourced from across the country, with only twigs thinner than a little finger considered suitable, as not to present a stabbing risk to the horse.
Having listened to jockeys over the summer, greenery has returned to Wincanton's two open ditches, with riders reporting that horses stand off and look at the fences including the Christmas tree branches before jumping them better.
As well as noting the heights of every fence and advising Nigel whether he believes they should be trimmed, Richard always had one eye on the safety of stray horses.
Whilst I admired the stunning view towards Shepton Montague, Richard wanted to know what measures were, and could be, put in place to direct jockey-less horses safely towards the stables.
Back on the spectator side of the rail, we were led through the stewards room to check their view of the finishing line as well as the positioning of the photo-finish camera, before heading to the weighing room.
Calibration dates were checked on the all-important scales and we walked through the changing rooms. Although empty and eerily quiet, it was easy to predict a lively atmosphere on a race day with jockeys clammering for space, a washing machine to clean silks between races and the sauna to lose those all-important final pounds.
As Richard completed his 21-point report, every tick of approval brought the course closer to Thursday's first race. A summer of hard work has almost come to fruition as anticipation builds for a day at the races.