We’ve recently looked at the impact on jump racing that is likely to come about because of global warming, with the likelihood that it will cause wetter winters. That’s likely to be a problem for Cheltenham Racecourse specifically, given that it is a venue that often struggles to cope with wetter weather even now. It has become somewhat common for meetings at Prestbury Park to be called off because of adverse weather conditions.
Both the Festival Trials Day at the end of January and the New Year’s Day meeting earlier in the month were called off due to flooding. This came about because of a huge amount of rain dumped on the course in December by Storm Bella, with more rain falling after that. Whilst it had been a wet January in Gloucestershire, it does beg the question about why it is that Cheltenham Racecourse suffers so much because of heavy rains.
The Natural Geography
Situated on the edge of the Cotswolds, Cheltenham is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The River Chelt flows both under and through the town itself, meaning that there is a sense of it being a ‘wet’ area before you even begin to talk about the weather. The town is overlooked by Cleeve Hill, which is the highest point in the entire county of Gloucestershire thanks to its height of 1,083 feet.
Though racing is often referred as taking place on Cleeve Hill, in actuality the racecourse is located at the bottom of the hill. As a result, any rainfall will obviously flow down the hill and congregate at the course, rather than flowing off the course to land somewhere else. This naturally problematic geography is part of the reason why the course can often suffer from what seems like an unusual amount of flooding.
When major flooding hit the United Kingdom in 2007, Gloucestershire was one of the worst affected parts of the country. Over 48 hours in July, Gloucestershire Fire & Rescue attended nearly 2,000 calls, compared to the usual amount of 8,000 or so in a year. 50,000 homes were left without electricity and as many as 420,000 didn’t have access to drinking water. That is the natural geography that Cheltenham Racecourse is fighting against.
While the ground at Prestbury Park is generally good for horse racing, it is an area of Gloucestershire that has long been problematic. When horse racing first started to take place at Cheltenham it did so at a location not far from where the current Old Course can be found. It was moved away from that area because of protests from locals, ending up at Prestbury Park’s new fields.
The issue was that the ground there cut up far too easily, meaning that racing would eventually have to move back to Cleeve Hill and its current location. Whilst this has always proven to be much better, it’s still not perfect and leaves itself open to the elements. Even if the ground itself copes ok with the weather, false ground can come down from the old hill and find itself on the course, causing problems.
That was a big part of the reason why racing had to be scrapped in November of 2019. False ground shifted onto large stretches of the chase and hurdles courses, meaning that race organisers were unhappy about asking horses to run on them. Even when racing did get underway, the third-to-last fence as well as the same hurdle were omitted, with the ground proving to be too soft for horses to land safely.
In years gone by, there’s no question that the drainage at Cheltenham Racecourse hasn’t been good enough. That’s why a significant amount of money has been invested in installing new turf at specific locations around the course. The likes of Advanced Turf is specifically designed to allow for a grassy area that retains the nature of a clean, free-draining and natural grass surface.
Part of a £45 million investment in the racecourse from the Jockey Club in 2015 included new drainage systems, though more was needed in recent years. 2019 saw money invested on installing drainage in the finishing area in addition to the parade ring.
Other areas of the course already have solid drainage, which was installed as part of the course’s turf management plan in the wake of a number of wet Festivals.
Of course, sometimes a racecourse having to cancel events can just come down to bad luck. There are extensive drains all around the Cheltenham Racecourse tracks, with those in the know believing it to be some of the best drainage in the country. Even so, such drainage is only made to cope with a certain amount of rain and when storms come in and deliver an unprecedented amount of wet weather the drains will struggle to cope.
Given the fact that the whole acreage of Cheltenham Racecourse covers some 350 acres, there will always be parts of the course that will drain better than others. When a huge amount of rain falls, it will naturally follow that certain parts of the track will struggle to cope with it and flooding will occur naturally. The good drainage at the course allows it to return to something approaching normality relatively quickly, but timing is everything.
A huge amount of rain falling the day before a race or even overnight will obviously cause the race organisers more trouble than rain that falls a week ahead of a meeting. There’s not a lot that can be done about such things, nor about an unseasonable frost or snowfall. In the mid 2010s, the Going was Heavy in the week before the Festival, only for groundstaff to have to water it midway through the meeting to keep it Good to Soft.
In February of 2020, Storms Ciara and Dennis battered Gloucestershire and up to two inches of rain were forecast to land in the region. Simon Claisse, the Clerk of the Course, reported that around 500 millimetres of rain fell between September and February, which is about 75% more than is normal. There’s only so much that any sports venue in the world to cope with such poor fortune and the drainage will suffer as a result.