By Simon Mapletoft
In the spring we’ll be saying farewell to a loyal old friend. A friend that opened our eyes to change over 30 years ago by revolutionising our sport. A friend that has been reliable, durable and consistent and has stood by us even on the darkest of days.
As the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end, and now retirement beckons for Southwell’s pioneering Fibresand surface, which is to be replaced by its younger, sexier modern-day counterpart, Tapeta.
Fibresand, a simple blend of silica sand and strands of polymer fibre created and produced only a few miles from the racecourse by Mansfield Sand, will be vociferously missed by many in the sport, not least those who own and train the many stalwarts who have found their niche on it.
I, for one, could share that reluctance to let go. As a fresh faced reporter for the local paper, I was present with notebook in hand when a strip of this newfangled sand was first trialled at the Rolleston circuit in the late 80s by Peter Scudamore, among others.
Then, when All-Weather pioneer Ron Muddle transformed this sleepy countryside jumps track, I barely missed a fixture as Alex Greaves became the Queen of the Sand and David Barron, Bill O’Gorman, Roy Bowring and David Chapman filled the punters’ pockets.
A decade or so later, the Fibresand made an indelible mark on my heart when my first ever winner as an owner, Charm Offensive, galloped clear of her rivals to gift me a memory to treasure for life.
Buying cheap horses to win on the Fibresand at a time when sand racing was shrouded in stigma was a niche I enjoyed exploiting and many more winners followed in my orange and purple checks: Mind Alert thrived, Lady Protector sprouted wings and Tyzack powered home four times in a row.
And what a privilege it has been to provide a narrative to my local track’s compelling theatre from behind the At The Races and Sky Sports Racing microphones since the early Noughties, championing the achievements of the many Fibresand heroes - human and equine - for the great medium of television.
However, after 31 memorable years, it’s clear to me that Fibresand has run its course and should be retired with its head held high. But this isn’t a time for mourning. It’s a time for celebration, as Southwell Racecourse - for so long the poor relation of the All-Weather brood - prepares to enjoy a newfound status that will make it the envy of its contemporaries across the racing world.
Several years ago its long-term future appeared uncertain. Newcastle, with its £12 million Tapeta track and big city location, understandably became the focus of Arena Racing Company’s attention. Hosting the newly created All-Weather Championships had thrust Lingfield Park into the spotlight, and both tracks were complemented by the relatively new Tapeta venue at Wolverhampton.
But, thanks to the foresight and vision of ARC CEO Martin Cruddace and his team, Southwell has thrived. First came the seven-figure drainage scheme that would protect the track from a repeat of the floods that caused millions of pounds of devastation over a decade ago.
And the addition of the state-of-the-art floodlights from the United States in the spring of 2019 - the best that money could buy - further confirmed Arc’s commitment to Flat racing at this rustic, picturesque location.
With such infrastructure in place, Southwell was clearly ready to be elevated to another level and whilst ARC’s planned investment isn’t a surprise, few would have expected the company to make such a commitment quite so soon given the obvious financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic across its 16 racecourses.
Fibresand has, quite simply, been superseded by technology and the latest generation of the wax-based Tapeta surface created by Michael Dickinson and his wife Joan will become a fitting component to what is unquestionably the best configured All-Weather track in the country, if not the world.
Champion trainer John Gosden and record breaker Mark Johnston agree, and have both pledged to blood some of their expensive young horses at the Nottinghamshire venue when it re-opens in the autumn of 2021.
No doubt all the southern powerhouses will follow suit, making Southwell a geographically convenient launchpad for future stars as illustrious as the greats that have graced Newcastle since its Tapeta track opened almost five years ago.
The prospect of seeing horses with the potential of Enable and Stradivarius is hugely exciting, as is the guarantee of a better class programme of handicaps and the likelihood of a complement of Fast Track Qualifiers for All-Weather Finals Day. Perhaps Southwell could even one day host the Good Friday showpiece, offering the fairest of opportunities to all runners in the six championship categories.
But the development of this racecourse is not just about the big players. The rich rollers. Far from it. I believe the small owners and trainers and the modest horses they cherish will thrive on the Southwell Tapeta, just as they have at Newcastle.
Though it has become synonymous with launching the careers of future champions – and without question will continue to do so - the Gosforth Park Tapeta has provided new openings for those who don’t have the luxury of operating in the champions’ league.
Anthony Brittain from York, Jim Goldie from Scotland and Middleham’s Ben Haslam have farmed the winners of countless low-grade handicaps, taking full advantage of opportunities that previously didn’t exist. In fact, Brittain is also among the top owners at the track, alongside the might of Godolphin.
Now those smaller operators who choose to run their horses at Southwell can look forward to the same opportunities. This is a development that should, in the long run, benefit all participants. Afterall the majority of horses trained in this country are rated between 50 and 70 and they will continue to take the lion’s share of the fixture list at every All-Weather course, including Southwell.
Specialists will still emerge on a track that despite its change of surface will still offer its own unique test. The straight five furlongs will be faster than any other and the round track will still present a relentless galloping test.
Despite their athletic limitations, the Class 6 handicappers will enjoy the sympathetic surface just as much as the blue-blooded novices. The kick-back that has become an accepted hazard of Fibresand racing will be virtually non-existent, which will be much better for the health and welfare of every equine participant.
Scott Dixon, who has trained at the track since August last year, has made his name on the Fibresand with serial winners like Even Stevens, Sir Geoffrey and Crosse Fire, yet has the foresight to recognise the fresh impetus the transformation is likely to bring to his business.
Even champion All-Weather trainer Mick Appleby agrees that the surface he made his name on is now out-dated, though ARC’s decision not to opt for American-style dirt is, in his opinion, a trick missed.
There’s substance to his suggestion and no doubt dirt would have maintained the diversity that Fibresand has brought to the party. It would seamlessly suit the majority of runners that thrive there, but it’s limited popularity would deny the track its chance of staging better class races and becoming a more integral part of the All-Weather Championships.
Dirt would give a small sample of trainers the chance to trial and ‘prep’ horses for the Dubai Carnival, or even make some young performers attractive to the American market, but surely the priority as All-Weather racing develops must be to ensure that our best sand horses stay at home to compete.
It was no surprise, either, that when I canvassed the opinion of a number of established jockeys for Sky Sports racing that all, without hesitation, welcomed the news. No longer will they need to hide behind Perspex shields or pull down numerous pairs of goggles from their helmets mid-race. Each of them relish the prospect of being able to ride a considered race, from off the pace or on it, without the need of putting that proverbial gun to a horse’s head from the get-go.
In the meantime, I for one will continue to enjoy the challenges that Fibresand presents before the diggers move in in the spring. The very last meeting on the old surface, presumably in March, will hopefully become a well planned celebration of the role it has played in racing history.
Even those who didn’t approve - owners, trainers, jockeys and punters alike - must at least acknowledge the significant contribution it has made to British Flat racing over three decades. But if Southwell is to claim its place in the premier league of All-Weather tracks worldwide it can only fulfil its potential with a surface equal to its ambition.