When people talk about climate change, they usually refer to two things. Overwhelming, hot summers and wetter, colder winters. Of course, these are weather patterns coming to life across the UK and around the world. In 2022, the UK recorded its hottest day ever at 40.2C in July. It was at Heathrow airport that that temperature went on record. The previous record stood at 39.1C earlier on in the day. Before that, 38.7C was the highest temperature recorded back in 2019.
It’s not only the rising temperatures in summer that cause chaos, though. The United Kingdom has also suffered from winter washouts. In 2014, the wettest winter went down on record when the country experienced 486.6mm of rain. That figure came from rainfall between December 1, 2013 to February 19, 2014. Wet weather, while necessary for many things, can also be problematic. That remains the case for the horse racing industry as well. With summers getting hotter and drier, winters are also getting colder and wetter.
Horse racing isn’t possible in either scenario, but how does the wet weather affect things? Well, it has an effect in various areas of the field. Yet when it comes to jump racing, it could be most problematic. Waterlogged courses are more likely, having a detrimental effect. The postponement and cancellation of meetings is much more likely as a result.
Many racecourses have taken action, installing better drainage systems, for example. The cost of these changes is astronomical, though. Many courses cannot afford it, especially the smaller ones. What can jump racing, and the industry in general, expect from wetter winters?
Why the Weather Is an Issue for Racing
The United Kingdom has never had a solid weather routine. It rains more than it shines in most cases. That has been on a bit of a turnaround in recent years, with hotter days during summer. Yet the ever-changing weather experienced has a huge impact on horse racing. It’s why many sports bettors like to know what the Going is at a particular course. The “Going” relates to the description of the conditions underfoot on a track. This is something that can affect a horse’s performance while racing.
Some horses are very happy to run with Heavy Going. Others are much better suited when the Going is Good. The weather can affect all types of tracks, but it can have a huge impact on turf track. The Going for racecourses is something that gets released several days before a meet. It is then updated as the races draw nearer. Rainfall and thawed snow softens the ground, and the more there is of this, the heavier the Going will be. Any time long, drier spells occur, the track will be firm or sometimes hard Going.
Only a small group of horses don’t mind what the Going is. Yet others prefer a specific type of ground condition. When a horse has a preference, it is usually a strong one. Thus, they don’t like racing on other types of surfaces. This results in them being unable to make much of an impression on such. That’s why punters like to know about the Going. The effects of climate change have brought bigger concerns to these people, though.
It’s not only about how the horses perform in different conditions, though. If a meeting ends up cancelled due to flooding, storm damage or anything else, it’s immaterial. Races can’t take place at courses that are suffering waterlogging or damage. Between 2013 and 2021, six of the hottest winters and four of the wettest winters took place in the UK. The Cheltenham New Year’s Day meeting is one of the events cancelled in both 2013 and 2021 due to flooding. Those were two of the wettest years ever recorded in the country.
The Weather Has Been Shifting
Climate change is something that has been affecting industries for a while now. The weather is, indeed, changing around the world. The Met office has confirmed it, warning of much hotter summers and wetter winters. In fact, there has been a turn of phrase coined, stating we will see a “change in the seasonality of extremes”.
That report came out as a stark warning to the UK, and to the world in general. Even so, the changing weather will have consistent effects on the horse racing industry. Those within the racing world need to consider this. The top ten hottest summers on record all occurred in the new millennium, and records go back to 1884. Winters from 2009 onwards were also 12% wetter than those between 1961 and 1990. Doubtless, this pattern is likely to continue at different levels of extremes.
How Does All This Affect Horse Racing?
With data suggesting hotter and wetter weather, racecourses can expect tracks to vary. This means they will either be too dry or too wet. When it comes to flat racing, this works well on dry, hard tracks. Many of the thoroughbreds participating in it are not built to cope with heavy Going. Things will get worse on this front if the weather is to grow more extreme.
A big part of the problem with this is the increase in rainfall by the hour, rather than rainfall in general and flash floods are much more likely to be common on a more regular basis. This will wreak havoc on racecourses across the United Kingdom. Tracks like those at Newmarket and Ascot will need to find new ways to cope. Both those courses host flat racing more than anything else. If they wish to carry on hosting such meetings, they will need new methods in place.
That’s just in the summer period, too. In the winter months, an increase in rainfall will result in waterlogged courses. That will likely occur more often than the industry experiences right now. Meetings will end up cancelled, resulting in the loss of a lot of money. Postponements and rearrangements may be possible. Yet this will have a knock-on effect to the rest of the racing calendar. It also costs money to rearrange such meetings.
It’s not only the courses that need considering, either. Global climate change will likely have an effect on the health of horses. This is something that owners and trainers have to consider if they want their horses in top form.
Plus, it is important to think about the breeding season for horses. Warmer temperatures across the globe will impact this. As a result, they will be open to complications from reproduction. Furthermore, it leaves them much more susceptible to infectious diseases.
Adequate shelter for horses is an absolute must during colder months. That is true regardless of whether it is wet, cold or both. Neither situation is an ideal one when it comes to the health of a horse. Trainers will likely need to adapt the diet of their horses. High-calorie, high-fibre diets have to come into play during cold winters. Increased rainfall has the ability to affect the ground where they live, too. This means muddy pastures and surging rivers, which makes for terrible ground.
Yes, the biggest issue will likely surround the increasing temperatures around the year. Warmer temperatures can be quite the hotbed for diseases to spread. Too much heat over long periods of time can also cause drought.
Can Racecourses Adapt to the Changing Weather in Winter?
Ask many people about the most important thing at a racecourse, and they will say the Going. It is quite an influential part of a horse race. Groundskeepers aren’t able to do much about it, though. When it’s too dry, they can of course water it, but what about if it’s too wet? It’s almost an impossibility to change the ground. That is unless an adequate drainage system is in place at the course. If this doesn’t exist, then the grass will end up cut up a lot more when horses run on it.
If we go back to 2019, there was an absence of rain in the winter months. Irish racecourses took notice of that, highlighting it to The Irish Times. One of the Cheltenham Gold Cup favourites, Presenting Percy, refused to run. This, the racecourse owners said, was due to the firmness of the ground.
As a result, trainers opted not to enter horses into certain races that year. Their decision was all due to the state of the tracks, and this affected the races themselves. Entries were down by a significant enough amount. That then has a knock-on impact on the available prize money etc.
While the courses were on the better side of good Going, this wasn’t suitable for horses preferring soft ground. Tracks were having to water in January, which was very much unheard of at that time. Most owners of racecourses tend to dislike the idea of watering tracks in winter. Getting it right is one of the most difficult things to achieve. That is especially true when you consider that flash floods are also possible.
It’s easy to say that racecourses can go ahead with installing better drainage systems. Yet it isn’t something that is as simple as that. For a start, such drainage systems come with hefty price tags attached to them. Owners of the UK’s racecourses need to weigh up the benefit of having such in place. When compared against the renovation of a grandstand, it’s difficult to opt for one or the other. The second option may encourage more people to visit the course and spectate. Yet if there isn’t a drainage system in place, it may not be of benefit anyway. Races may end up called off due to flooding.
The change in weather isn’t all about dramatic rainfall, either. A lack of rain can also be as much of an issue as too much. It’s also impossible for a racecourse to install a drainage system around the whole track. Instead, they would have to target very specific areas. Those that end up as the most waterlogged are the obvious locations to start with. This doesn’t mean that other parts of the course won’t suffer waterlogging of some kind.
It’s not easy for owners to make such judgement calls. They’re not made of money, after all. Some venues have a lot more money than others, too. In that respect, what will the courses without as much money do to prevent flooding and so on?
Could All-Weather Courses Become the Norm?
It may be that all-weather courses become more prominent in the UK. Unfortunately, discussions on such courses have been taking place for many decades. The Guardian published an article on such back in 2009. It highlighted how all-weather jump racing was back on the table at that point. That same discussion had been scrapped 10 years prior.
The horse racing industry doubtless knows that the weather is very impactful on its future. All-weather jump racing courses aren’t easy to set up and maintain, though. Right before the new millennium came to life, a course of this nature was on the cards. It was never realised because of the number of injuries and fatalities suffered by horses. Yet, as pointed out by The Guardian in 2009, it was under discussion again. Why? Because freezing conditions had meant the cancellation of jump racing in many instances. High-cost meetings, like that supposed to run at Kempton Park, suffered because of that.
There needs to be a solution thought up for these all-weather courses. In an ideal way, they would be adaptable to jump racing. The BHA will likely need to look into adapting them in a proper way. In the past, horses falling and suffering terrible impact on their legs when landing on the surface hasn’t helped. The BHA has been unable to sanction all-weather jumping as a result.
Yet even flat racing cannot occur on all-weather surfaces all the time. It’s always going to be a lot more useful for this type of race, but it isn’t as good as turf. That much is clear from the quality of all-weather racing in the past. Owners and trainers may end up sending their horses to warmer climates instead. In Dubai, for example, the facilities and the prize money are much better.
In the grand scheme of things, the likelihood is that winters will become too wet for horse racing. Unless more investment in better technology for all-weather courses comes, little can occur. The BHA and horse racing in general has quite the fight on its hands. The future of the racing industry rests with them.