Surface tension in the land of the kickback

Fresh ground rules are planned to help punters find their way through a sandstorm

All-weather racing is the servants quarters of the Sport of Kings. The hectic, burst-from-the-stalls-and-go-like-the-clappers style of racing on sand recalls Lord Cardigan's day, but owners of runners at the likes of Southwell are more likely to have a scrap-metal business than a stately home.

All-weather racing is the servants quarters of the Sport of Kings. The hectic, burst-from-the-stalls-and-go-like-the-clappers style of racing on sand recalls Lord Cardigan's day, but owners of runners at the likes of Southwell are more likely to have a scrap-metal business than a stately home.

As for the horses who whizz around Lingfield, Southwell and Wolverhampton, it is all part of a day's work to have sand kicked in their faces. That feeling is frequently shared by punters risking their cash on a surface a world away from turf.

Now help is at hand. Not a lot, but a little. The official going on turf tracks has a variety of descriptions, while on all three sand tracks every day is "Groundhog Going Day". It is always, always ''Standard''. Now, it can be revealed, a new five-tier grading system for defining going is being discussed by the Jockey Club and the all-weather tracks.

Michael Prosser, clerk of the course at Southwell, said: ''The aim is to keep punters better informed.'' The system has a figure 3 equating to ''Standard'', while 1 is ''Fast'', 2 ''Faster than standard'', 4 ''Slower than standard'', and 5 ''Slow''.

Prosser stressed that the weather affects the going on a sand surface far differently to turf. Drying winds can make the sand slower. Persistent rain makes the sand particles bind together and quickens the track. It is similar to a beach. Where the sea-swell has been, the sand is firmer. Further up the beach, it's deeper and more tiring to run through.

A growing number of punters feel that all-weather racing is more punter-friendly than turf. The surface is usually more consistent, while running rails are not moved as often as at turf tracks - making analysis of race times more reliable.

But there are negative factors too. The dreaded word ''Standard'' is just one issue. The kickback on sand is the crucial one. Ability to tolerate a sandstorm or, more importantly, be nimble enough to avoid it, sorts out the losers from the winners.

''Some horses just won't face it,'' Tom McLaughlin, a specialist all-weather rider, said. ''At Lingfield the kickback comes up like pebbles. Horses put their heads up and they don't want to face it. They want to get out of the pain.''

McLaughlin went on: ''Riding on sand involves a different technique compared to turf. You need to be fast out of the gate, sitting handy, close-up in the early part of the race, and staying out of the kickback. If you look at the sectional times, you're going an awful lot quicker in the first few furlongs than at the finish. On turf, jockeys are more patient, saving their mounts for the finish.''

Nick Littmoden, a Newmarket-based trainer who has exploited all-weather track prize money very successfully, said: ''Some horses will perform well on turf, but can't transfer that ability to sand. The determining factor is the kickback. Some horses don't seem to mind it, others won't have it at all. There's a haze of sand coming up into their faces.

''Unless they face up to it, they'll retreat and try to dodge it. Pulling horses wide is one way to avoid it.'' Southwell, Littmoden said, has the most kickback of all three tracks, but at Lingfield it ''stings more around the head and eyes''. He added: ''Unless they get into a prominent position I like my runners pulled wide.''

Lingfield's problems intensified following the track's annual refurbishment a month ago. A total of 80,000 tons of sand, plus 40,000 litres of oil, was poured onto the track.

Tim Sprake, one of Britain"s top all-weather riders, said: ''At Lingfield the sand is sticking together more, balling up under the horses' hooves, like snow. It's coming up in clumps hitting riders as well as the horses. In the weighing room you can see the marks on jockeys' shoulders and arms.''

Sprake, though, believes the replenished surface will settle down when winter settles in.

The reason why horses show varying levels of form between the three sand tracks is because the courses are constructed differently. Lingfield, where the surface is Equitrack, uses a silica sand, mixed with oil and sprayed with a chemical to bind it together. Underneath is a firm base of sand.

Wolverhampton and Southwell (both Fibresand) use a coarse sand, mixed with a man-made fibre to hold the grains together. Both tracks have seven or eight inches of sand on top of a tarmac base. Wolverhampton, a newer track, is not as slow as Southwell.

And while Lingfield is cambered all the way round, Southwell is cambered only on its bends. At Wolverhampton, to assist drainage, the tarmac base has a slight camber stretching from the middle out to each side.

Heavy rain and use can shuffle sand across the tracks, making it deeper in some places than others. All-weather racing in Britain is fairly new. Discovering more about its intricacy is vital for punters hoping to be as happy as sand-boys.

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