It’s hard to believe that over two decades have passed since the pioneer All-Weather fixture was staged at Lingfield Park on 30 October 1989 and a new era in racing dawned.
The idea of an All-Weather track had been under discussion for some time due to many fixtures being lost to bad weather continually denting the industry’s finances. Two artificial tracks were created, the Equitrack at Lingfield Park and a Fibresand track at Southwell, opening within nine days of each other.
Kempton Park was later developed in 2006 and remains the only right-handed All-Weather track.
In the early days, All-Weather racing was regarded by some as a lowly product serving a purpose for low rated horses and betting revenue. But even in those early days, there were horses which either became track specialists or began a more high profile career on the All-Weather. The Charlie Elsey trained Rapporteur will be remembered by many and still holds the Lingfield All-Weather record from 1994 (tbc) with 14 wins. Another true wonder horse – Running Stag put Lingfield Park’s All-Weather track firmly on the map, after winning the inaugural Winter Derby at Lingfield in 1998 he went on to international fame on his successful global tour of the US, France, Dubai, Germany and Hong Kong.
Frankie Dettori had the distinction of winning the first race at Southwell on Michael Jarvis’s Crystal Pool, this was followed in the next by Michael Hills making history on a horse called Verdant Boy who became the first horse to win at both All-Weather tracks. At that same meeting, Kim Tinkler became the first female jockey to ride a winner on an artificial surface in the UK riding Tite Spot for her husband Nigel.
Hurdle racing on All-Weather took place at both venues for a few years until 1994. Even in that short period there were some noteable performances including Viking Flagship’s second victory over hurdles came at Lingfield on the Equitrack in February 1991 under Peter Scudamore. Another early victory in a high class career came from Pridwell, best known for beating Istabraq in the 1998 Aintree hurdle, won his first two starts over hurdles at Southwell in 1994.
Wolverhampton’s former National Hunt turf tack was redeveloped as an All-Weather track with a Fibresand surface during 1993 and staged its first meeting on the 27 December that year. It was the first UK racecourse to introduce floodlit racing. Wolverhampton also led the way with raising the profile of All-Weather racing with the first ever listed All-Weather contest – the £50,000 Bass Walfrun Stakes was launched in 1995 and won by Prince of Andros ridden by Richard Hughes.
With the introduction of the Polytrack surface in 2002, All-Weather racing stepped up another level. The superior surface designed by Martin Collins and already widely used on trainers gallops meant younger and higher class horses were being entered and therefore the quality of the racing began to improve and a new race programme was introduced upgrading races and increasing prize money accordingly.
Since 1998 the grand finale of the All-Weather season has been the Winter Derby, elevated to Group 3 status in 2006 and run at Lingfield Park at the end of March. Appropriately, the great Running Stag was the first winner in 1998 and the Peter Harris trained Supreme Sound in 1999. Since the Millennium it has produced many well known and progressive winners – Zanaay, Sergeant York, Adiemus, Parasol, Caluki the Italian raider under Frankie Dettori, Eccentric, Sri Diamond, Gentleman’s Deal, Hattan, and the Richard Hannon trained Scintillo.
At Lingfield Park in early 2009, a record was broken as Matsunosuke became the highest rated horse to win on the All-Weather surface rated 112 or 117 by Racing Post rating. Matsunosuke was dubbed as the greatest All-Weather horse of all time in the UK.
Since 2009, all the top Yards, Trainers and Jockeys regularly have runners at the All-Weather tracks, with the highest rated horse ever to run on the All-Weather being Planteur (121).
Today, almost 24 years later, racing is reaping the benefits of the millions of pounds that have been invested in the All-Weather courses at Lingfield Park, Wolverhampton and Southwell. The Polytrack surface at Lingfield and Wolverhampton and the Fibresand circuit at Southwell have consistently attracted horses from top stables as well as providing competitive racing 12 months round.
Racing on an artificial surface has a secure future in this country and globally, with races staged up to group level now in the UK. Arena Racing Company’s intense race programme caters for a large percentage of the horse population and we’ll continue to witness many future stars both international and home based on our All-Weather tracks year round.
Written using extracts from David Bellingham’s History of All-Weather Racing.