When racing pioneers Ron and Richard Muddle hatched a plan to create sand tracks at Southwell and Lingfield Park in the late Eighties, I was cutting my journalistic teeth as the young sports editor of my local paper, the Mansfield Chronicle Advertiser.
Passionate about the game even then, and always on the look-out for an excuse to pen a racing story, I became instantly captivated by ambitious plans to introduce American style Flat racing to a sleepy jumping backwater tucked away in my own corner of Nottinghamshire.
Even from the planning stage, I eagerly tapped out copy that charted the creation of a style of racing that was to polarise opinion among racing’s purists and those with a more open mind for decades to come.
I watched with a handful of other interested parties as champion jump jockey Peter Scudamore galloped along a narrow strip of sand in a tentative test before the Muddles finally committed to their vision.
‘Scu’ gave his nod of approval to a surface created by near neighbours Mansfield Sand – a mix of silica sand and wispy fibres that couldn’t be called anything other than ‘Fibresand’. Racing’s governing bodies quickly approved the plans – amid some wider scepticism – and within a few short months the century-old turf track was encircled by a circuit of pristine, fluffy sand.
A trial meeting was staged in mid-October before the first official fixture took place over hurdles on 1st November 1989 – days after sister track Lingfield Park had raced on their new surface.
A yellowing copy of that week’s Horse and Hound magazine details the trial at Southwell, which ambitiously set out to combine Flat racing with jumping over plastic hurdles designed by former jump jockey Ron Barry.
Northern Flat stalwart Stuart Webster declared: “The ground’s lovely. I can’t fault it.” And lightweight Nicky Carlisle – these days a course inspector – gave birth to a common analogy when he observed “There is some kick-back, but just like walking on the beach on a windy day.”
Having leapt over a few obstacles, ‘Scu’ remained convinced. “I was primarily concerned with safety and have no complaints on that score. “ Neither had Willie Humphreys. “You get far more kick-back riding in the mud at Towcester,” he quipped.
About 150 miles away in leafy Surrey, the Muddles had pressed on with similar plans at Lingfield Park. There, a very different surface draped the undulations.
Though essentially sand based, Equitrack was fortified by shredded plastic and had a more compact feel. Indeed, Lingfield’s tighter turns and its downhill run into the home straight created much more of a speed test than the more conventional galloping lay-out at its sister track.
“It’s the best All-Weather surface I’ve ridden on anywhere in the world,” said top rider Bruce Raymond. Praise indeed, but sorely missed weighing room raconteur Richard Fox was less enthusiastic. “I used to get sand kicked in my face as a kid and now I’m getting paid for it,” he told that no doubt bemused Horse and Hound reporter.
Richard Hannon Snr liked the new Equitrack but would have preferred the winning post to be further down the straight to give horses longer to make their challenge.
Nevertheless, these durable, frost-proof new creations, dubbed All-Weather tracks by the Muddles, finally entered the fixture list in the autumn of 1989 and the opening fixture at Lingfield on 30th October was so well supported that 12 races were framed.
I watched open-mouthed from the local betting shop as the little-known Niklas Angel, trained in Newmarket by Conrad Allen, made himself immortal by winning the first ever All-Weather race in Britain – a claimer on the Equitrack under the following year’s St Leger winner Richard Quinn. The surface rode so fast that Colin Tinkler’s J Cheever Loophole’s 6f track record set a few weeks later stood for almost 20 years.
Two days on, the spotlight turned to my local track, and that pioneering jumping fixture brought about my first ever television appearance. With notepad in hand, I somehow caught the attention of a vox-popping local TV reporter who thrust his microphone in my direction to ask what I thought of Jonathan Lower’s historic victory on the Martin Pipe-trained Zulu.
Given my enthusiasm and the interest the racecourse was generating village to village, my match report from Mansfield Town’s 3-1 home defeat by derby rivals Notts County a few days later was destined for far fewer column inches than usual.
Lower had taken part in the trial a couple of weeks earlier and couldn’t wait to race on it for real, but his record-breaking guv’nor Pipe – ever the visionary – was even more enthusiastic. He told the press he was so enthralled by the concept that he intended to set up a satellite yard in the new American barns that were being built trackside.
A week later I was back at Southwell for that eagerly anticipated first All-Weather Flat fixture, when the sparely raced Crystal Pool emulated Niklas Angel’s achievement by winning the very first race on Fibresand for the late Michael Jarvis. The gelding was ridden by a 7lb claimer called Lanfranco Dettori, whose exploits in the saddle on that historic afternoon were soon to be overshadowed by a most unlikely weighing room rival.
There was as much stigma about female jockeys as All-Weather racing generally back in 1989 but a young girl from North Yorkshire was about to take this new style of racing by storm. Alex Greaves, an unknown 7lb claimer, quickly forged a formidable partnership with Thirsk trainer David Barron and, like the fresh-faced young Italian, was about to embark on a glittering career of her own.
In a matter of a few short months, horse racing as we knew it had taken on a whole new persona. Unlikely new stars were being created before our eyes and Greaves was soon battling it out with another talented girl, Emma O’Gorman, who fashioned an equally effective American style of riding on board her father Bill’s horses.
Multiple victories on warhorses like Bronze Cross, Irish Passage, Pop To Stans and Amenable earned Greaves the affectionate nickname of ‘Queen of the Sand’, while O’Gorman delighted punters at Southwell and Lingfield with repeat victories on sand specialists African Chimes, Appealing Times and Sally’s Son.
Greaves thrust the All-Weather into racing’s headlines in March 1991 when she became the first female jockey to win a big race on turf. She had racked up a Fibresand hat-trick and another success on the Equitrack on Amenable and I was proud to be on the grandstand steps at Doncaster when she struck the front in the Lincoln Handicap, beating cock o’ the north Mark Birch and future greats Dettori and Kieren Fallon in a driving finish.
Amenable wasn’t the first All-Weather horse to strike a blow of such magnitude, however. The late Jimmy Fitzgerald became fond of a trip to Southwell and won two handicaps with his gelding Evichstar before Alan Munro took advantage of his horse’s undoubted match fitness to strike a 33-1 blow in the previous year’s Lincoln. Imagine winning the great cavalry charge today off a mark of 82!
Speaking of future greats, Mark Johnston was establishing his training career in nearby Lincolnshire when Hinari Video won a 5f handicap for Tyrone Williams in the new year of 1990. Who would have thought back then, as I hastily scribbled quotes for the local paper, that I’d be interviewing Johnston about his record-breaking 4,194th winner in my capacity as a TV presenter almost 30 years later.
Meanwhile, hurdling on the Fibresand appeared to be flourishing and Pipe did indeed support the track, but was overshadowed by veteran trainer Reg Hollinshead who became the punters’ hero with a remarkable bay entire called Suluk, who won no fewer than 12 times over hurdles between 1990 and 1992. His haul included six wins on the bounce in the hands of wiry young jockey Steve Wynne.
Another personal favourite was a tough little chestnut by the name of Cosmic Dancer who won four times for Sean Woods – later to enjoy success as a trainer in Hong Kong - and jockey Tony Carroll, who continues to support the Fibresand as a top dual-purpose trainer in his own right.
Jimmy Harris, a tough jockey turned trainer from Melton Mowbray who was confined to a wheelchair after breaking his back in a fall at Huntingdon in 1971, was another regular in the winner’s circle with trojans such as Tristan’s Comet and Have A Nightcap – the latter owned by track boss Richard Muddle.
The Harrises epitomised the enduring family atmosphere at Southwell. Son John was stable jockey, daughter Vicki turned them out to show standard and wife Ann never missed a fixture. But the anguish they suffered when their highly promising multiple winner Munir took a crashing, fatal fall at the last in a handicap hurdle in deepest November 1993 resonated through the sport.
The gathering gloom on that sombre afternoon cast a creeping shadow over a concept that was to be somewhat predictably short-lived. Jumping at speed over obstacles that were far less forgiving than conventional birch was deemed too dangerous to continue.
Back on the Flat, All-Weather racing at both venues was proving such a hit that the Muddles bought a jaded Wolverhampton in the early Nineties, dragging the track from the grim backdrop of a Black Country viaduct and illuminating it like no British racecourse before it.
By this time, I was even closer to the action in my new role as a freelance journalist, churning out a regular flow of press releases for the Muddles, promoting the tracks from my new office opposite the old grandstand at Southwell.
On Boxing day 1993, I perched high above the winning post in the newly built panoramic grandstand at Dunstall Park to witness another slice of racing history, and poignant it was that the very first winner of a floodlit race in Britain – on trusted Fibresand - was ridden by a jockey from my own patch.
Steve Williams, who later swapped his saddle for a pair of boxing gloves, lived minutes from Southwell in the heart of Sherwood Forest and got the verdict in a photo-finish on the Neil Smith-trained Petraco. And remarkably the horse he inched ahead of – the diminutive Strip Cartoon – was trained in the same village by farmer Roy Bowring.
Trainers like him quickly found a niche on the All-Weather. Whilst Barron transformed the fortunes of well handicapped turf performers, Bowring became adept at turning cast-offs from bigger yards into local heroes.
I spent many a morning at his Fir Tree Farm Stables, just a short journey from my home, watching his string of All-Weather specialists stretch up his own sand gallop in preparation for the 20-minute trip to Southwell. The winners flowed and track favourites Sandmoor Denim, Count De Money, Strip Cartoon and the classy home-bred First Maite helped establish Bowring among the track’s top trainers as the Nineties unfolded.
David Chapman followed the same blueprint, carving out a niche with Wellsy Lad, Glencroft, Sobering Thoughts and Tempering – a tearaway in Newmarket with the great Sir Henry Cecil who went on to notch a record 22 wins on Fibresand.
No Submission,19 times a winner on the All-Weather, was also testament to Chapman’s skills. David paid just 3,100 gns for Charlie Nelson’s colt, who had shown no promise in two attempts at Southwell before lining up for a mile handicap on 11th January 1993.
Binoculars were already raised when Chapman, observing beside me high on the grandstand steps, peered beneath his brow to tell me: “Mine shouldn’t be 20-1.” With seconds to spare, I took the hint and got my bet on just in time to see Steve Wood bring him home two and a half lengths clear of his nearest rival. “Did you back him?,” enquired Chapman in the winner’s enclosure. “Yes I did, thank-you,” I grinned. “That’s good then,” he replied with that engaging smile.
Around the turn of the century, bigger names than Barron, Chapman and Bowring were being uttered in the same breath around Southwell. Aidan O’Brien, in his quest to simulate the dirt tracks at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, flew two of his greats over from Ballydoyle for racecourse gallops. Southwell regulars had never seen the likes of Giant’s Causeway and Galileo in the flesh, but the gates were opened and my PR juices were in full flow once again.
Meanwhile, watching Bowring and Chapman snap up cheap horses at nearby Doncaster sales inspired me and soon after the turn of the Millennium I had made my first venture into ownership – a share in an un-raced home-bred filly of Bowring’s that I had the privilege of naming Ocean Song.
It took her 24 attempts to get off the mark around Wolverhampton – a priceless moment I almost missed. It was a Saturday evening and I’d been commentating on another Mansfield Town game for BBC Radio Nottingham before making a white-knuckle journey to see John Bramhill bring her home in a maiden off a mark of just 25.
My first winner, however, was a filly called Charm Offensive who I bought at Tattersalls in Newmarket for just 2,500 gns on her fledgling trainer Kevin Ryan’s recommendation. Thankfully, she took only four races to get her head in front, streaking home in a 2m handicap at my beloved Southwell off a more lofty rating of 38!
The ownership bug had sunk its teeth deep into my bones and the orange and purple checks carried by my syndicated runners became synonymous with the All-Weather venues. Tefi, a 1,200 gns buy from Tim Easterby, was another Southwell winner. The apprentice handicap that fell into his lap in February 2003 was his 42nd attempt – a performance that earned him the ‘hero of the day’ award on BBC Five Live.
Better horses followed in their hoofprints. Bargain buy Lady Protector won a Banded race at Southwell before going on to be placed at Glorious Goodwood and Tyzack – brought out of retirement as a lady’s hack - racked up a Fibresand four-timer.
Mind Alert was placed more often than he won and also loved the surface but produced his most memorable performance for me when coming from last with a slingshot off the bend to give me my first success on the Polytrack at Lingfield a couple of years later.
Winning on the All-Weather with modest horses has become a much tougher proposition these days, as the smaller trainers know only too well, but the presence of blue bloods from the battalions of Godolphin, John Gosden and Johnston has helped bring a wider acceptance – and a growing credibility – to All-Weather racing.
Much has changed and evolved since those pioneering days. Lingfield, the trailblazer, is the proud host of Europe’s only £1 million All-Weather race day, and through times of adversity, Southwell’s Fibresand – washed away by floods in 2007 - has stood the greatest test of time.
With a fifth of the domestic fixture list, and the game-changing All-Weather Championships now into their seventh year, racing on sand is no longer the poor relation and the staging of the re-arranged Group 1 Vertem Futurity Trophy at Newcastle is another important landmark for the code.
The All-Weather goes from strength to strength and it’s a thrill and a privilege in equal measure to still be a part of the journey, punctuating the action for Sky Sports Racing and attheraces.com after all these years.