Racing: Worcester hoping to ride a summertime tide: Tradition dictates jumping courses are left high and dry in the hottest months, but one aims to make waves. Greg Wood reports

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The Independent Online
AFTER 16 years a general manager at Worcester racecourse on the banks of the River Severn, Jack Bennett has learned to be philosophical about flooding. 'The fences are floating well, and except for the Tote building everything is out of harm's way,' he said yesterday. 'Though it rubs salt into the wound when I see the Worcester rowing eight going down the course and screaming 'photograph' as they pass the winning post.'

But though he is philosophical, he is not complacent. Looking out from his office, which perches defiantly on brick stilts, Bennett has had plenty of time to consider his course's almost annual drowning. He believes that he has found a solution which turns the track's riverside location to his advantage.

At present, National Hunt racing takes a summer holiday in June and July, when firm ground would make it very difficult for courses to attract runners and - so the theory goes - for trainers to prepare them. Even during August and September, when the jumping season has resumed, double-figure fields are a rarity.

At Worcester, however, Bennett has 'an unlimited supply of water and a first-class watering system to put it on with.' He would like to relinquish Worcester's traditional midwinter fixtures and instead race between early April and early November. His chief opponent, tradition, is one of the sport's most formidable, but Bennett is optimistic that the British Horseracing Board will see a chance to justify its modernising rhetoric.

'It is absurd, crazy, that the BHB requires courses like Worcester to race during the winter,' he said. 'I can guarantee, in writing, at least good to firm jumping ground, no matter how bad the drought, as long as the National Rivers Authority will allow me to abstract the water. I have a licence for 15 million gallons a year and I have never used more than nine.'

Bennett is not the only racecourse manager thinking along these lines. Stratford, Perth, Towcester and Southwell also have access to substantial water supplies which they are eager to exploit.

'We will get together and work out an equitable programme,' Bennett said, but the provisional fixture list for 1995 will be published in little more than two months, so the racing authorities will need to be persuaded quickly if Worcester is to start its first summer season in April next year.

Opponents of the idea believe that National Hunt racing in June and July would be uncompetitive, and reduce betting turnover on the Flat programme. To Bennett, 'they are talking through their hats. There are something like 13 slots during the Flat season when the criteria for (sufficient) afternoon and evening racing cannot be filled by the Flat. We will fill them so that the bookmakers have an additional meeting to bet on.'

Now that most trainers have access to an all-weather gallop there is no excuse for a shortage of well-prepared runners, a problem from which Worcester has never suffered in any case. 'After Liverpool, we have more runners than any other course. We are so central that we can have 120 runners and only five or six will need to stay overnight.'

Without the thought of opening the turnstiles on a sunny afternoon in July, Bennett would have little to keep him warm at present. Though parts of his track are already under four feet of water, the river has not yet stopped rising.

'We get the rain from mid and north Wales about three days later,' he said. 'By Saturday we should have a real flood.'

(Photograph omitted)