Meet the farmer in charge of the Irish Grand National course

Peter Roe prepping the course for the National
Peter Roe prepping the course for the National
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

From waking up to the words 'God F**k the Queen' sprayed in weed killer on the course on Easter Sunday in 2010, to dealing with droughts and deluges, Fairyhouse Racecourse Manager and beef farmer Peter Roe has seen it all.

He says that nothing can prepare the organising team for what is thrown at them in preparation for the Irish Grand National, run on Easter Monday since 1870.

"We have tightened security in the last number of years. All we could do was cover the words with more grass when that happened in 2010. There's nothing like the stories that the Grand National provides. If you go down through the history books, there's great horses and families involved in it," the Roscrea born and bred man tells the Farming Independent.

Last Easter, Peter was crying out for a dry spell of weather to rescue his waterlogged race track ahead of Ireland's most prestigious steeplechase, which is over three miles long and includes 24 fences.

Fast forward 12 months later and with the renowned National Hunt race less than a week away, the Tipperary man is praying to the rain gods for a cloudburst to ensure his track is in perfect condition to hold a team of horses and their jockeys next Monday.

"The snow last year lingered for a long time and it left the ground very cold and wet. All you can do is deal with the weather that is presented in front of you. This time last year, we had lots of rainfall, last Easter Tuesday we were waterlogged. This year, we are looking for rain, we need every bit of rain to get the ideal balance in the coming days," he says.

Drought

As a part-time beef farmer based outside Roscrea, Peter is well accustomed to battling with the elements on the farm, but his patience was well and truly tested last year as a race course manager when the sweltering drought drained out his track.

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"The drought was a real challenge - we got water in there, but it took a lot of time. We used an irrigation ring mains. We're hoping to change to an umbilical system, which would be a €200,000- €250,000 investment."

While grassland management is key to the proper operation of any livestock farm, Peter says it's also a round-the-clock job for his course management staff made up of six permanent employees, with this number increasing to 12 in the run up to Easter Monday.

"It really is a team effort. We regularly apply a bag of CAN and do regular soil sampling. Unlike farmers, we're not trying to drive growth, but we want a strong root in the grass. It's mainly ryegrass that we have.

"We avoid clover like the plague. We want the grass to be tight and for there to be no slippage. I cannot bear clover. I've got dairy farmers trying to grow it beside me and I'm trying to kill it here," he laughs.

The staff don't reseed the grass, but instead "restitch patches as they go", and never race the same area of the course for two consecutive meetings in a row.

"It's an all-year thing. As soon as every fixture is over, forks are used to pull back the divots. Horses and jockeys aren't like golfers - they don't come back and fill in the grass. I'd love if they did.

"It's tedious, but it leads to the best results and the quicker you repair, the better. We use Wexford sand, but only use a little bit for as least interference as possible."

Peter says the ideal ground for Monday will be a cross between a cross country and a marathon road race track.

"You don't want it to be a bog, but you don't want horses running on a road either. You want firmness, but also a bit of bounce. A nice matt of grass is ideal and you want it good to yielding.

"We cover a lot of ground, 33 pitches all the size of Croke Park, but instead of 70kg inter county players, we have half tonne horses on our grass," he adds.

Peter says, like farmers, his job as a racecourse manager means people often have expectations on him to deliver and that it can be hard to keep everybody happy, especially jockeys and trainers.

"Jockeys are under huge pressure to deliver results, trainers are always going to look for somebody to blame and the track is always an easy scapegoat, whether that's well deserved or not. Like agricultural people, we have to deal with a lot of expectations and appease people."

Peter's late father Robert died last year and was a renowned member of the ICSA, having served as Tipperary county chair and honorary secretary.

Peter says that even in his father's final moments, he was asking him about the grass quality of the race track.

"This time last year, he was asking me about grass. He really understood the challenges of growing the right grass and keeping the grass on track."

Peter's 130km commute to Fairyhouse each day is the reality for the majority of beef farmers who need an off-farm job to remain viable. He says the current low beef price is leaving most drystock farmers despondent and in despair.

"I've only a few cattle, but the situation is really depressing and it's very hard to get cattle moved. It's really frustrating to get them sold. Question marks have to be brought against the meat factories because farmers are very dejected," says Peter, whose wife Alison owns a successful millinery business at their home where they live with their three children Robert (14), Isabella (12) and Charlotte (9).

The University of Limerick graduate of Equine Science and former Gurteen student says he keeps a few "bad horses" and did placement at the Coolmore Stud in Kentucky and in the UK, but soon realised that management rather than training suited him better.

"There's a lot of stress around training. I got a job at Tipperary Racecourse as manager, which I loved, and when the opportunity came up to manage at Fairyhouse in 2010, I jumped at the chance.

"I'd love to breed an Irish National winner or a Cheltenham winner. That's everyone's dream. It's the best industry." to be in."

Fairyhouse Racecourse manager Peter Roe talks to Claire Fox about the challenges of deluges, droughts, unwanted intruders and combining his day job with part-time beef farming

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