Drama aplenty in grand production as Fairyhouse takes centre stage
Getting Fairyhouse ready for its biggest week of the year is no easy task
NOT for the first time in the day, Peter Roe wraps himself tight against the cold, grabs his staff and sets out for the two-mile haul around the racetrack, past the groups of workmen beavering away in the forecourt, the feverish activity a hint that the biggest day of the year is looming. "We're two or three days behind where we should be," Roe says, cursing the inclement weather. Not to worry, though. The day before, he reckoned they were a week in arrears.
He pokes his stick into a deep hoofprint, several weeks old now and painfully slow to heal. There's nothing more frustrating than the sight of damaged ground, their abject powerlessness to intervene to do a job only nature, given the right conditions, can do. In a normal year, he thinks, they'd have the mowers out now, topping the lush cover of grass, sprucing things up for the big day. But this, he knows, is anything but a normal year.
"It's like preparing your child for Holy Communion," he sighs, carefully choosing an appropriate seasonal metaphor. "You want to give him or her a nice haircut to look the part. But we haven't been able to do that. There just hasn't been enough warmth. A month ago this course was much greener. It looked so much better."
Funny to think back a year now. A star attraction of the 2012 Easter festival was the appearance of Flemenstar in the Powers Gold Cup on the opening day, but Peter Casey was adamant his stable star wouldn't run if the ground was unsuitably fast. Ultimately, Roe decided to water, not to pander to any trainer's demands, but to ensure they delivered safe racing ground. And then, as if to order, the heavens opened that evening. "And it hasn't stopped raining since," Roe winces.
Ahead in the distance Jim Murphy and his team work diligently away at the first fence down the back. High in the grandstand there is movement in one of the suites already sold out for tomorrow's meeting. Piece by piece, everything comes together. Roe thinks of Nina Carberry winning the National two years ago, his first as Fairyhouse general manager. Organisedconfusion the horse was called. Yes, he smiles. Just about sums it up.
Before Fairyhouse, Roe spent 10 happy years in Tipperary, but the opportunity to work at one of the country's top racecourses was too good to turn down. He loves the vibrant history of the place, the way the Irish National is as woven into the Easter fabric as ham and chocolate eggs. Once, in the 1980s, they toyed with the notion of giving the race a fixed date but the experiment failed and was quickly abandoned. The National remains a moveable feast on the calendar, like Easter itself. Roe reminds you too that in three years' time we'll be marking the centenary of the Easter Rising, an event indelibly linked with the National and the enduring tradition of the capital emptying as the hordes head out to Co Meath for a day's racing. "When it was all starting off in town, where were the British soldiers? Like everyone else, they were all out here watching the Irish Grand National."
For sure, it is a grand production but one conducted in a working environment that is tight and intimate. Roe presides over a full-time staff of just seven of which four are employed as ground staff. In the office there is just Roe, operations manager Gillian Carey and caretaker Gordon Reilly whose job is to keep the racecourse functioning at all times and, Roe quips, "to make me look good".
As the big Festival approaches, though, the numbers swell to eye-popping proportions. "In all, our Fairyhouse casual staff would probably be around 40 on racedays," says Carey, "between the people on the doors and turnstiles, selling racecards, that kind of thing. And that doesn't include security, cleaners, car park attendants, stewards. There could be another 60 on the track on top of that."
Roe is inclined to believe that a major raceday like the National could entail close to 1,000 people in varying degrees of employment. "If you think about it," he says, "between jockeys, trainers, stable staff, bookmakers, doctors, all the staff needed to keep the circus going, it must be near that figure. A lot of those people are self-employed. If there was no racing on Easter Monday, they wouldn't be drawing a wage."
The work is constant and never-ending. This season Fairyhouse will race 15 days over jumps with five Flat meetings during the summer and, if that seems a light schedule, it is about as much as any winter track can withstand. "Because we have four lads here full-time," says Noel Fanning, Fairyhouse's genial racecourse foreman, "fellas would be saying to me, 'Jaysus, what do they all do?' They don't realise the damage one day's racing can do the ground."
Jim Murphy gives you an idea how labour-intensive the work can be. A typical fence will contain around 120 bundles of birch and perhaps the same number of leylandii sprigs on the take-off side. Putting it together, he says, takes nine man days or three men three full days to complete and fences are constantly in need of upgrading. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, it is circular work, hand-crafted and never-ending. "It's time-consuming," Murphy says. "There's no fast way of doing it."
Fanning's first Grand National was 1997 – "Mudahim just got the better of Amble Speedy," he says, "you never forget your first National" – and the intervening 16 years have seen the onset of tougher working conditions. Back then, he remembers, they'd have 15 meetings a year, the guts of 160 horses running each time and bad ground was rarely an issue. Now they have the benefit of an inside track to ease the pressure and yet, it seems that the ground gets progressively worse by the year.
"This has been a particularly hard year," he says. "Even though we've taken half of the meetings off the main track the damage done is nearly twice what it used to be. That's the way the weather is gone. The track just isn't recovering. The snow is the worst thing. It stays on the ground so no heat can get in. Then it thaws out all of a sudden and you get big pools of water."
A climate change student could do far worse for a compelling case study. Over the years Fanning could generally bank on the racecourse receiving an average annual rainfall of 790ml but for the past couple of years that has risen to 1,000ml, a sharp increase of 20 per cent in a short space of time. There are only so many preventative measures they can take.
"The problem now is that it's coming down in the space of a couple of days, then it dries up and you can do nothing," he says. "Before, it would rain, you'd race and you'd have time to repair it. Now, you get so much coming at once that, first of all, the ground can't handle it and, second, it dries up and there's nothing you can do. It gets poached. But it's not just us. Everywhere is the same. You just have to work with it."
His sense of frustration is evident, though. The course will be raceable, but it won't be as pristine or as lush as they'd like. For the past couple of
years, Fanning has travelled to Aintree and marvelled at the slickness of the surface they produce. "Like a billiard table," he says. But Aintree has a vastly superior budget and doesn't race between November and April, a luxury a winter track like Fairyhouse will never enjoy.
So they do what they can. A new drainage system along the track's most vulnerable section has helped ease the heaviness and, as the sun peered out on Thursday morning, there was renewed hope that enough heat might get into the ground to stimulate growth for the weekend. It won't be perfect, they concede, but that won't be for want of effort or diligence. "I think trainers understand how it is," says Fanning. "They're land men too and they know what it's like in their own places. They accept how difficult it has been this year."
Despite the difficulty they'll get there and the eyes of the world will descend on Fairyhouse for its biggest weekend of the year. "The Grand National was watched by 382,000 on RTE last year," Roe reminds you. "It's the most watched race on RTE. You'll have 600,000 people watching on At The Races too so that's one million people watching in all."
"It's an extra pressure," adds Carey cheerfully, "the fact that the race is so public. You come back to work on the Wednesday morning and hope you hear nothing. That's when you know that everything has gone alright."