A Groundsman’s Derby Blog: Aiming for the Perfect Track Record
Ahead of this weekend’s Star Sports and ARC Greyhound Derby quarter-finals, we spoke to Nottingham Stadium’s Grounds Manager Paul Smith who is in charge of maintaining the safest possible surface for the canine athletes. Here, Paul discusses how he and his team are always aiming for perfection.
“I have been working at Nottingham for the past six years, taking on the role of Head Groundsman in 2016 and then becoming the Grounds Manager since then. My background is in engineering, but I had an agricultural upbringing and was driving tractors from around the age of six. My grandfather was a farmer and, looking back, I think that initially sowed the seeds for my interest in what goes on in the subsurface. I have also always been fascinated by animals – my favourite book as a child was Black’s Veterinary Dictionary!
I think the combination of these two interests put me in good stead for this position. To fulfil the role properly, you need to understand the mechanics and anatomy of dogs and how they run and move as, ultimately, this will help you produce a better, safer track.
We are currently a small team of three preparing the track at Nottingham. Whereas last year I was also driving the hare for the Derby once the track had been prepared for the day, this year I will be on the track both before and after each race to monitor for moisture levels and compaction in the track. We have an excellent hare driver, John Charles, who is in charge of that important role this year.
Whilst the Derby is obviously the jewel in the racing calendar, the track preparation is no different from any other day. We do absolutely everything the same as we would do for any other graded race during the year. We have the highest standards for every single race and always aim to create the very best track we can. Of course, the Derby brings with it the excitement and added kudos, but it doesn’t change how we do our job for those canine athletes.
We had lots of rain predicted for the first round of the Derby this year which certainly delivered! We planned for this and knew how the track should be prepared to cater to this weather. We were confident that there were no undulations in the pan or anything that would create an issue underneath the surface. The track was a little slower, but all the dogs ran safely, which is, of course, our highest priority.
A track may look perfectly flat but be wrong underneath; it is my job to get it to look excellent and, more importantly, be perfectly flat and even underneath so that the dogs have the ideal surface to perform on.
For this week’s quarter-finals, we have been closely monitoring the weather patterns so we know if any adverse weather may be ahead. It looks like it will be a standard preparation but we have to remain flexible to any changes in the forecast. The track will take the full day to prepare and I always start by walking around it to inspect it for any anomalies. This involves testing it at various points by gliding a trowel roughly three and a half inches into the sand until it meets the hardpan. It is vitally important that this pan remains regular and flat throughout the track as it changes very quickly from traffic from tractors, water and various other factors.
It is always a massive compliment when our trainers or owners praise us on the track and appreciate the work we do to keep things running safely and smoothly. I’ve previously run some seminars with our trainers, vets and apprentices to show them exactly what goes on underneath the track – something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing. I believe it’s important that they understand the science behind why we do what we do and how it impacts on their own dogs. One of the sports’ commitments is around ensuring that each race is run fairly and safely and the work we and other track staff around the country work to ensure this commitment is met day-in-day-out.
One of the best improvements from over the past few years in track preparation is being able to work closely with the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), who inspect our track annually and give us a full report. I fully endorse their involvement in our sport. It is always helpful to have a fresh pair of expert eyes on the track and have an independent assessment of the pan, angles of the bends and the general condition. Although each track around the country is different and STRI now has a collective pool of knowledge from the GBGB tracks, this is helpful for us all to improve wherever we can. I also enjoy advising other tracks if they have any mechanical or any other specific issues wherever I can lend my experience.
It is fantastic to have the Derby at Nottingham again. We put on a good display of racing last year but I really applaud the sponsors and everyone involved in making sure it goes ahead this year. It has not been an easy task whatsoever amidst Covid-19, but it has been extremely worthwhile. I am hugely proud to be part of the Nottingham team and it is always a pleasure to see the very best dogs in our sport compete on our track.”