Racing's hopes lie in sand of Southwell

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The Independent Online

On the last day of 2001 it might just as well have been 1951 or even 1901: man-made technology proved no match for the forces of nature. The artificial surface that forms the track at Wolverhampton racecourse showed that it could not stand up to a hard frost and no horse racing took place anywhere in Britain.

On the last day of 2001 it might just as well have been 1951 or even 1901: man-made technology proved no match for the forces of nature. The artificial surface that forms the track at Wolverhampton racecourse showed that it could not stand up to a hard frost and no horse racing took place anywhere in Britain.

That is a scenario that is supposed to have disappeared a decade ago with the arrival of the all-weather tracks at Lingfield, Southwell and later Wolverhampton. Yesterday, we were reminded that something is wrong about the application of the words all-weather – not that the tracks had failed to live up to the name by delivering continuous racing whatever the conditions, but that we had been mistaken in ever coining the term.

"It's not all-weather really," Ian Renton, the racing director of Arena Leisure, which now owns all three tracks, said. "We've tried to call it winter Flat racing but unfortunately it was called all-weather racing when it started and the name sticks."

Renton stressed that on occasions it gets too cold even for racing on a man-made terrain: Fibresand at Wolverhampton and Southwell and a new surface, Polytrack at Lingfield. "In exceptional conditions – and we had nine and a half degrees of frost last night – even Fibresand can't cope.

"We can cope with an awful lot of conditions and we have just installed a new track down at Lingfield which we hope will be able to cope with temperatures down to -12C. But even in those circumstances we have had problems before, when the track is raceable but the roads are unsafe for travelling so we still have to abandon."

The pressure is now on Arena to deliver a raceable surface at Southwell today. To that end some unfortunate groundstaff at the Nottinghamshire track spent their New Year's Eve working under floodlights, harrowing the track to ensure that frozen clods do not form as they did at Wolverhampton.

If they fail, then 2002 will begin without any horse racing as the turf cards scheduled for today at Catterick, Exeter, Leicester, Plumpton and, most significantly, Cheltenham, gradually fell by the wayside yesterday as the previous night's frost stayed in the ground. The only good news is that instead of television coverage from Cheltenham, Channel 4 are showing the film Best Of Everything. Joan Crawford for John McCririck does not seem such a bad swap.

Punters could consider asking their bookmakers for a price on when and where the next turf meeting will take place. Tomorrow's cards at Ayr and Folkestone would be at extremely long odds as both courses inspect at 8am today with the notion that they will be called off then. Sedgefield on Thursday has a negligible chance, although Taunton on the same day has a ray of hope if warmer weather slinks in from the west. Friday's cards are at Hexham and Ludlow where the tracks are frozen and Saturday's programme is Haydock, Musselburgh, Uttoxeter and Sandown, featuring the Mildmay/Cazalet Chase and Tolworth Hurdle.

It is particularly bad luck that Cheltenham should lose both days of their fixture after having to abandon the second day of their last meeting. Simon Claisse, the clerk of the course, reported: "There have only been four days this winter when we could not have raced and three of them have been on race days."

Bad weather in Co Durham has also disrupted the preparation of the Grand National winner, Red Marauder, who was due to start his racecourse build-up in February towards an Aintree encore. Instead, he could return at Cheltenham.

"He is a long way behind schedule, but he will get an entry for the Gold Cup and the National," Richard Guest, his Aintree partner and assistant to the gelding's trainer, Norman Mason, said. "He's in brilliant form, really well, but we've been held up by the weather – it is frozen solid here.

"If there is any sign of heat in a leg we will stop, though. He loves being in training and loves being a racehorse but we love him and don't want to risk him."

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