The effects of climate change, though denied by some, will unquestionably have an impact on horse racing. The UK is projected to have longer, drier summers, which will be a good thing for flat racing, but also wetter, warmer winters that could create issues for jump racing. We will almost certainly witness more waterlogged courses, for example, which will have a detrimental affect on the infested as a whole given than meetings will be pushed back or re-arranged.
It’s likely that racecourses will need to install better drainage systems in order to cope with the damage done to ground by endless days of rain or defrosting snowfalls. The cost to courses will be difficult for them to cope with, perhaps influencing other changes that can be made to different areas that require improvement but will have to wait. What can jump racing expect from the impact of wetter winters?
Why Weather Matters
It seems obvious when you think about it, but the ever-changing weather that we experience in the United Kingdom has a huge impact on horse racing. It’s why punters like to know what the Going is on any given circuit, such is the extent to which whether rain has changed the turf that the horses run on can affect a race. Some horses love Heavy Going, for example, whilst others are much better when the Going is Good.
Whilst the weather will have a slight impact on all-weather tracks, the difference it can make to a turf track can be huge. The Going on a racecourse is given days in advance and then updated as the meeting in question draws closer. Rain obviously softens the ground, with the more rain a course experiences resulting in a heavier Going. If we experience long, dry spells, however, the track will be firm or even hard Going.
There are a small number of horses that don’t seem to mind what the Going is, whilst most prefer one form of Going or another. When horses do have a preference it will often be a strong one, meaning that they really don’t like racing on other types of surface and will struggle to make an impression when they do. It’s why many in the horse racing industry are concerned by how much global warming may impact the sport.
It’s not just about the horses response to wetter weather either as that doesn’t matter if a meeting is cancelled due to waterlogging or storm damage. 2013-2021 saw six of the hottest winters and four of the wettest winters on record. Indeed, the Cheltenham New Year meeting has been canceled due to flooding in both 2013 and 2021, two of the wettest years on record.
The Weather Is Changing
Whether we like it or not, the weather is changing. That’s been confirmed by the Met Office, which has warned of summers getting hotter and winters getting wetter. A report by the Met Office, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Environment Agency said that we’re likely to see a ‘change in the seasonality of extremes’.
The report is meant as a stark warning to the United Kingdom in general, but there can be no doubt that it will have an effect on horse racing and that needs to be borne in mind by those within the industry. When it comes to summers, all of the top ten hottest on record have come since 2002, with records dating back to 1884. Winters between 2009 to 2018 were 12% wetter than those between 1961 and 1990.
What It Means For Horse Racing
The data suggests that summers will get both hotter and wetter, meaning that racecourses can expect tracks to vary wildly between being too dry and too wet. Flat racing is a side of the sport that is built for dry, hard tracks, with many of the thoroughbreds that take part in it not built or bred to cope with Heavy Going. Over time, weather is expected to get much more extreme than we currently experience, making things worse on this front.
Part of the problem is that we can expect an increase in hourly rainfall extremes, not just rainfall in general. This means that flash flooding can be expected on a regular basis, which will play havoc with racecourses up and down the country. Racecourses like Newmarket and Ascot, which are predominantly built for flat racing, will have to find ways to cope with extreme rainfall if they wish to carry on hosting those meetings.
In the winter, meanwhile, increased rainfall will result in courses being waterlogged more often than we’re currently used to. Meetings will have to be either cancelled, which will result in large amounts of money being lost, or else moved. Rearranging meetings isn’t an easy task and will also cost money, but in addition it will have a knock-on effect to the rest of the racing calendar at a time when meetings often occur in quick succession.
It’s Not Just About The Racing
Whilst it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that how weather changes will affect racecourses and therefore the races themselves, we must remember that that’s not the only factor that needs to be considered. Global warming is something that will also have an affect on the health of horses, which needs to be considered by owners and trainers if they hope to keep their animals in the best racing conditions.
Whether climate change is something that man has forced on the planet or is just the natural cycle of the manner in which the earth warms and cools, it is happening. These warmer temperatures around the planet will have an adverse affect on the breeding of horses, leaving them more susceptible to both complications from reproduction and to infectious diseases that can ravage their bodies.
Heat exhaustion-related illnesses are common in horses that find themselves in hotter temperatures, which may lead to racecourses considering the length of the races that they put on. More water will need to be available in the summer months, as will an increased amount of shade. This will be almost impossible to account for during the actual races, but will need to be thought of between the events of a meeting.
The same sort of thing is true for the colder months, with adequate shelter being an absolute must. This will be true regardless of whether it’s too cold or too wet, with neither situation being good for the health of a horse. Their diet will also need to be looked out for, with high-fibre and high-calorie being the two main things during the winter. Increased rain can lead to surging rivers and muddy pastures, so they must be kept safe.
The biggest issue is likely to be the increase in temperatures all year round. Studies have found that warmer temperatures can become a hotbed for the spreading of disease, whilst too much heat for too long a period can cause droughts. In short, any extremes in weather are likely to be a nightmare when it comes to the maintenance of horses and keeping them fit, healthy and safe, either at a racecourse or during their normal life.
How Racecourses Will Need To Adapt
The Going of a racecourse’s track is arguably the most influential thing in a horse race. It’s something that groundskeepers can’t do much about, unless it’s too dry and they have the ability to water it. When it gets too wet, on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to change that unless a decent drainage system has already been installed on the course. If not, the grass will be cut up far more when the horses run on it.
In 2019, Irish racecourses noticed the effect of an absence of rain in winter months. Major names such as Presenting Percy refused to run because of the firmness of the Going. The decisions of trainers and owners not to enter horses in certain races because of the unusual state of the tracks had an impact on the races themselves, with entries down by a large amount, which then has an impact on prize money and so on.
The courses were on the easy side of Good in terms of the Going, but that was not suitable for horses that prefer Soft ground. Tracks were having to water in January, which has been hitherto pretty much unheard of. Most course managers loath the idea of trying to water their course during the winter because getting it right is virtually impossible, especially when you consider the possibility of flash flooding.
Plans Cost Money
The most obvious thing that a racecourse can do to cope with the impact of an increased amount of rain is to install a good drainage system. Whilst this might be easy to say, it’s not even close to being an easy solution and obviously comes with a heavy price tag. Owners of racecourses need to weigh up the benefit of installing a drainage system on a course compared to, say, renovating a grandstand.
The latter might encourage more punters to come and watch the racing, but if there’s no drainage system then it’s not going to help as races might not be able to take place. Then there’s the fact that the current change in weather isn’t all about increased rainfall. As the Irish racecourses discovered in 2019, a lack of rain in the winter months can be just as much of a problem as too much of it.
It’s virtually impossible for a racecourse to even consider the idea of installing a drainage system around the entire course, meaning that they’ll have to target certain areas. Those that become the most water-logged when there’s an excessive rainfall is the obvious place to start, but that doesn’t mean that other parts of the course won’t also get water-logged if the rain is incessant, making it a waste of money.
These are the considerations that racecourse owners have to look at, making judgement calls depending on how much money they have available to them. It’s all well and good for the likes of Wimbledon to install a roof to ensure that play can happen regardless of what the weather’s doing, but what about venues that don’t have that sort of luxury? What decisions can they make that will prove value for money?
More All-Weather Courses
One thing that we might see in the future is an increase in all-weather courses. Conversations about creating all-weather courses that can host jump race meetings have been going on for decades, such is the extent to which the horse racing industry realises how influential the weather might be to its future. Having an all-weather jump racing course is no easy task, however, as the industry well knows.
A course that allowed jump racing was scrapped before the turn of the millennium because of the number of injuries and fatalities that the horses were suffering. Ten years later, though, and it was back on the menu because freezing conditions meant that no jump racing was able to take place. Valuable meetings ended up being cancelled at courses such as Kempton Park, meaning solutions were sought.
Finding a way to make all-weather courses adaptable to jump racing might be a key part of the British Horseracing Authority’s job in the coming years as the industry looks to adapt to ever-changing weather conditions. Sadly, the effects of horses falling and the impact on their legs of landing on the surface when leaping jumps has made it all but impossible for the BHA to sanction all-weather jumping to date, but that might need to change.
It’s also not as if the quality of flat racing is guaranteed on all-weather surfaces. Whilst the type of surface is always going to be more useful for flat racing courses, the simple fact is that it isn’t as good as turf and that is reflected in the quality of the races. This means that owners and trainers are more likely to send their horses to race in warmer climates such as Dubai, where the prize money is also much better.
The only thing that can be done to combat this shift is for more investment in the technology of all-weather courses. Improving the surfaces that the horses race on would both allow jump racing to take place on all-weather courses but also encourage more flat racing horses to take part in events when turf is simply not suitable to be used. That, in turn, might well lead to bigger amounts of prize money being offered.