With heavy rain forcing Redcar’s second fixture of the month to be abandoned this week, PETER BARRON finds out what it means behind the scenes when a race meeting is called off

WHEN Stephen Berry arrived for work at Redcar Racecourse at 5.30am on Monday, he had no reason to think the day’s meeting wouldn’t be going ahead as planned.

After weeks of hard graft by Redcar’s track manager and his team of seven full-time ground staff, the 2024 season was finally poised to get underway at the seaside course where horse racing has been staged for more than 150 years.

But then the heavens opened. Between 6am and 6.50am, six millimetres of rain fell on ground that was already ‘heavy’. It led to Stephen, alongside Acting Clerk of the Course, Steve Gofton, carrying out a 7.45am precautionary inspection and, with standing water on the track, they had no option but to abandon the meeting.

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“It’s heartbreaking for everyone, but the safety of the jockeys and the horses has to come first,” said Stephen, ruefully. “In days gone by, they may have taken more risks, but not anymore.”

As he spoke, little more than an hour after the abandonment, the sun was shining on Redcar’s thick, soggy turf, but it was too late to save the day.

Redcar is not on its own in suffering from the exceptionally wet weather. Race meetings throughout the country have been lost, but what makes it particularly frustrating for the team at Redcar is that this is the second consecutive fixture this month to be called off.

The 2024 season at the course had been due to open on April 1 – a traditional day of family fun for Easter Monday – but that was washed out too.

Everything possible was done to stage racing two weeks later. With the ‘round course’ still waterlogged, Redcar officials worked with the British Horseracing Authority to revise the April 15 racing programme, so all seven races would be run on the ‘straight course’.

Meanwhile, Stephen and his team re-positioned the running rail on three furlongs of the straight track to avoid more areas of water-logged ground. In addition, each race was restricted to a maximum of ten runners to lessen the impact of the number of starting stalls on the soft ground.

But all that effort and planning – along with heavy investment in Redcar’s drainage system in recent years – proved to be in vain, with nature proving irresistible on the morning of the meeting.

“There isn’t anything else we could possibly have done, but we’re at the mercy of the elements, and there’s nowhere for that much water to go,” Stephen explained.

In 2022, 493 millimetres was recorded on the course’s rain gauge. Last year, the total rose to 660mm, and 210mm has already fallen since the start of this year.

“It’s the worst period of prolonged rain I’ve ever known,” added Stephen, who’s been a member of Redcar’s ground staff for 39 years, 15 of them as track manager, following in the footsteps of his dad, John.

Having grown up a few furlongs from the racecourse, it’s been part of his life as long as he can remember, and his job has turned him into an obsessive weather-watcher.

“I drive my wife mad,” he admitted. “The first thing I do in the morning is open the curtains to check the weather, and I’ve got every weather app on my phone.”

He even has a rain gauge in his back garden and has been known to creep outside in the dark, during many sleepless nights, to check the level with a torch, knowing how much is at stake.

Indeed, what members of the public don’t see when a race meeting is abandoned, is the scale of the logistics operation it entails. A decision has to be taken as early as possible to prevent horses being transported from around the country, and an extensive communications exercise swings into action.

Around 500 people – in a long list of roles – are needed to stage a race meeting at Redcar. As well as the jockeys, trainers and stable staff, the list includes raceday attendants to man turnstiles and car parks, caterers, security staff, paramedics, first-aiders, vets, farriers, stall-handlers, plumbers, electricians, and technicians.

On Easter Monday, the extended list featured an array of family entertainers: stilt-walkers, face-painters, bouncy-castle operators, and the Easter Bunny himself.

When an abandonment is announced on the morning of a meeting, the racecourse has to bear 100 per cent of the staffing costs, and refund all advance tickets, meaning Redcar has suffered a significant financial loss so far this year.

“It’s been really tough but all we can hope is that when we do get some decent weather, people support us by coming racing,” said Redcar’s general manager, Amy Fair.

Redcar has 16 more meetings scheduled this year, starting on May 2, and building towards the next big family day on Bank Holiday Monday, May 27, when the highlight is the historic Zetland Gold Cup.

“We’ll get this latest disappointment out of our systems, then get back to doing whatever’s needed ahead of the next meeting,” added Stephen.

“You watch, within a few weeks, we’ll probably be having to water the track because there’s been too much sun!”

There’s a well-worn phrase that there’s no such thing as a racing certainty – and Redcar’s experienced track manager knows it as well as anyone.