Horse racing is an ancient sport whose origins can be traced back to circa 4500 BC. It is currently the second most popular spectator sport in the UK, coming only behind football. According to industry surveys’ approximately six million people attend the races each year in Britain alone.
However, to the average racegoer, little is known about the behind-the-scenes preparation that goes on to deliver these events.
“Sticking” to tradition with The Clerk of the Course
Before any racing can commence, The Clerk of the Course, responsible for track management and race day preparation at a racecourse must undertake a course inspection. This means that he must make an informed assessment on the state of the ground and then declare whether that ground is deemed “fit or unfit” for the horses to race on. Official going descriptions are measured on a scale from Firm to Heavy (very soft) with four points in between. If the ground is unfit, the race will be called off. If the ground is fit, race day is on. Owners and trainers receive this crucial information to determine whether the ground conditions are suitable for their particular horse or horses before deciding whether to race.
Q: So, what important apparatus is used to perform this crucial task?
A: A simple traditional stick.
As recently as the late 1990’s, this manual task was carried out solely by pushing a stick into the ground at various points around the course to ascertain the course conditions. The Clerk uses the stick to analyse the surface in order to determine what “the going” is. It is inserted into the ground and conclusions drawn on soil type, dirt, density and the amount of moisture in the ground, all of which can affect a horse’s performance. Once determined, this crucial ground information is passed to horsemen and bookmakers. These statistics, together with information on breeding and past performances, bookmakers can then decide on their odds to offer racegoers.
TurfTrax – Delivering an odds-on favourite product
In November 2000 British racing’s regulator, The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) approached Cambridgeshire based company TurfTrax, to create a technologically advanced measuring device (stick), for the systematic and objective assessment of track conditions on British racecourses.
TurfTrax is a world leading, technologically advanced company focussed on improving both standards and data to enhance sporting and leisure events. The BHA also recognised the company’s expertise in soil physics/sports turf management which is the critical information passed to owners and trainers to make their decisions and then onto bookmakers.
Mike Maher, Founder and CEO of TurfTrax explains: “The Industry, has always used traditional sticks to understand track conditions. There was a lot of nervousness, apprehension and uncertainty about moving to a more advanced measuring stick. I knew that much research and testing lay ahead, not only to produce the correct device, but after years of using traditional methods, the industry would have to build up that position of trust in this product which we had been commissioned to design. However, this type of project had never been undertaken before and we were unsure as to the R&D costs. Being a young SME, it proved challenging to secure funding to sustain the project, so I was sign-posted to Finance East (FE) based in Ipswich to see if we would be eligible. I am pleased to say that Francis Kenealy and the Finance East team agreed!”
TurfTrax worked extensively for many years with some of the UK’s leading soil scientists and in collaboration with Cranfield University. After design and extensive testing in the controlled environment of Cranfield’s unique soil laboratory facilities, live on-course trials started in late 2001. Testing of the device involved device calibration at all 59 UK racecourses. Over 100,000 unique measurements were taken covering all ground conditions and these were compared and analysed against the subjective assessments made by the Regulator’s officials and experienced course representatives.
After over five years in development the advanced measuring device was produced, and later was to become mandatory at all UK turf courses.
And the winner is: “The GoingStick”
Together with his collaboration with Cranfield University they launched The GoingStick. Miles away from the traditional stick, The GoingStick accurately measures the required statistics to record “the going” of the ground. The GoingStick accurately measures the penetration (the amount of force required to push the tip into the ground) and the shear (the energy needed to pull back to an angle of 45 degrees from the ground). These two measures taken in combination represent a scientifically based proxy for the firmness of the ground and level of traction experienced by a horse during a race.
The information is automatically stored in the GoingStick memory and an average of all readings can be provided instantly. The information can be downloaded and printed out from a PC using TurfTrax software.
A furlong ahead and galloping into the future
From March 2007, all UK turf racecourses were required to issue a GoingStick reading with their official pre declaration and race day Going report. It is now mandatory at all UK, French, German, American, Hong Kong and Australian turf courses.
Mike’s company has gone from strength to strength. To complement the GoingStick his product range has expanded to include:
- GoingMaps – To accompany the GoingStick they provide owners and trainers with a detailed, accurate and up to date representation of the ground conditions
- TurfTrax Weather Systems – An easily accessible and accurate log of both historic and real time climate conditions enabling better informed turf management decisions
- TurfTrax Tracking – A world leading real time location system, accurately tracking and timing horses during their race. This works with leading bookmaker’s apps allowing racegoers to make informed decisions as to how their horse is doing in the race and whether they should “check-out” or not
All of TurfTrax’s technology is accredited by the BHA.
Used in conjunction, these products combine to produce unique and commercially valuable data sets for individual racecourses and specific race meetings. Data is archived by TurfTrax creating a database of detailed historical information which can be used to assist in a variety of track management applications.
A recent further development is WeatherTrax Live which made its debut at the iconic Royal Ascot fixture in 2020 and has since been rolled-out at Newmarket, the home of British Flat racing, Kempton Park, the Cheltenham Festival and at Aintree, host to the world’s most famous steeple chase, the Grand National.
Delivered via a dedicated webpage WeatherTrax Live streams accurate real-time weather data direct from the on-course weather station including rainfall, air temperatures, wind speed and direction and humidity alongside official going descriptions, GoingStick readings, Going Maps and rails positions.
Finance East (FE) were favourites to assist with TurfTrax’s growth plans
FE is The FSE Group’s regional funding organisation for the six counties of the East of England, providing an alternative source of term debt finance supporting high-growth businesses.
Francis Kenealy, Fund Manager at Finance East comments: “I first met Mike nearly 10 years ago and was really pleased to be able to help him secure debt funding for his business. Running a business is hard anyway but working within an industry that is quite traditional and somewhat untrusting of modern technology requires patience! Mike had the vision that the GoingStick was absolutely the right product for the job, in fairness as did the industry, it was just going to be a slow process to build the trust backed up with the results from trials. I was able to help Mike secure term debt finance so that TurfTrax could invest in the necessary development and trials to take the product forward and to prove its worth in the marketplace and to prove that the GoingStick really is the holy grail of data relied upon by owners, trainers and bookmakers. I am so pleased to see his range develop and to go from strength to strength.”