All around the world, great sport requires great grass
If you ask Frankie Dettori, he’ll tell you what he told us: Riyadh’s wide, galloping dirt track is the best in the world. Now a turf course is under construction inside King Abdulaziz Racetrack’s sandy oval, on which three valuable new international races will be run as part of the Saudi Cup undercard. And, according to Richard Stuttard, head of consultancy at STRI Group, the British company building it, ‘the goal is to create the best grass track that the jockeys will have seen’.
It may seem an impossible task to grow turf in a land where the temperature can rise above 50°C. But Stuttard says the job is ‘entirely practical’ because the racing will be held in February, in the depths of what amounts to the Saudi winter, when the temperature drops to a lovely 25°C. Think Derby Day at Epsom in June.
In some ways, the venue will be reminiscent of Belmont Park, stage for the culmination of America’s Triple Crown, which has an emerald ribbon of turf looping inside the golden dirt track. But there is a difference in the constitution – what agronomists call the ‘profile’ – of the root zone of the two tracks. Belmont has a base layer of natural soil, a thick layer of sandy topsoil, and a verdant carpet of Kentucky Bluegrass. By contrast, the Riyadh track will have a sandy profile that befits the climate and geography and which is being ameliorated to produce a rich sward ideal for horseracing.
The foundation layer is compacted limestone. ‘It’s not concrete,’ says Stuttard, ‘but it’s as good as.’ Above this is an 11cm layer of finely-graded gravel, which facilitates not only the drainage of the course but also, by a quirk of physics, the necessary moisture retention in the upper part of the root zone. On top of the gravel layer is a 30cm layer of sand. In each case, the gravel and sand have been scrupulously selected. ‘You can’t just go to the nearest quarry and pick up some gravel and sand,’ explains Stuttard. ‘We have been to various sites across Saudi Arabia, collected samples, and then tested the gravel and sand for their suitability at our laboratories in England.’ In other words, he says, ‘we’ve mixed the best available gravel with the best available sand…and what we now have is a scientifically-designed profile for growing grass in the anticipated climactic conditions of a Saudi winter.’
The experts at STRI Group – which was founded in 1929 and which, among other things, advises Wimbledon on the development of its world-famous grass courts – have mixed the sand with other ingredients: organic material designed to improve the biological activity and moisture retention that facilitate the growth of the grass and some ‘artificial stabilising material’ that ensures the track has a uniform surface traction. Explaining this approach, Stuttard says: ‘You have to make a track that is safe. That’s a given. Of course, it wants to look great – and it will – but the primary thing is safety. It’s critical that you have a consistent surface. For the horse and the rider, they need to have confidence that the track will perform in a uniform manner for the duration of the race.’
STRI Group takes a very scientific approach to everything it does. It has testing facilities in Yorkshire and uses the latest computer-aided design technology to develop a sports venue – whether its a golf course, a football or rugby pitch, or a racecourse. As Stuttard discloses: ‘We work for Wimbledon, and we simulate Wimbledon tennis courts here in Bingley in Yorkshire. We subject those to simulated tennis-player wear so we can determine what the best grasses are for Wimbledon each year.’ It does the same for other sports, including football, rugby, cricket and, of course, horseracing – it worked, for example, on the redevelopment of Ascot racecourse, realigning its straight mile. So it knows all about the impact of 14 horses, each weighing about half a ton, thundering down the King Abdulaziz Racetrack’s home stretch at speeds up to 40 mph towards the winning post. That, and more, is what STRI Group’s turf is designed to withstand.
The construction work began in July, and the first step was to remove the top layer of sand and dirt from the existing training track – which is a little over nine furlongs (1,832m), and covers around 39,500 square metres. Once this was completed, workers from Desert Group, a Dubai-based company contracted by STRI, started installing the gravel and sand layers as well as an irrigation system. In a land of searing heat, the watering of the course will be critical to the success of the project.
Riyadh lies about 250 miles from the Arabian Gulf, and so desalinated water is transported to the track by tankers, supplemented by supplies from nearby wells, and stored in vast tanks. As Stuttard noted: ‘There’s more than sufficient water to ensure that the grass is kept alive even if the Saudi winter is warmer than anticipated.’
The computerised irrigation system uses a series of automatic pop-up sprinklers to irrigate the track. ‘They work their way around the track over several hours,’ says Stuttard. ‘Over that time, the whole track gets an even watering. There are a few hours off, and then the whole thing starts again.’
‘We’ve studied climatic data for Saudi Arabia over the past 50 years so that we can understand all the potential highs and lows’
The irrigation system will be in place by the end of September. After that, says Stuttard, there’s ‘a waiting game’, as STRI’s experts watch how the climate changes and decide when to begin sowing the grass seed. As preparation for this moment, they have left nothing to chance. For a start, they have conducted detailed research into the local environment. ‘We’ve studied the climactic data for Saudi Arabia over the past 50 years so that we can understand what the potential highs and lows could be,’ he reveals.
Also, they have selected a ‘cool-season’ grass seed that will thrive as the thermometer drops to the pleasant mid-20s°C. ‘We’re going to be using a grass that’s ideal for a race in February,’ says Stuttard. ‘There’s no point using warm-season grass for an event that’s going to be held in the Saudi winter. So we’re waiting for temperatures to drop to a point that’s not excessive. If you sow cool-season grass, and the temperatures are still pushing 40°C, then it just wouldn’t be able to cope with that kind of heat during the establishment phase.’
Sowing in the autumn, observes Stuttard, leaves plenty of time for the grass to get properly established. ‘Grass will appear within just a few days of sowing. But, of course, it’s not going to be very strong at first. Critically, in a climate like Riyadh’s, you need to encourage the roots to grow deep into the profile. Otherwise you could have a surface that superficially appears to be lovely and green but in essence is not very strong. You need some time to get sufficient water and sufficient nutrients into the track to allow the roots to penetrate down into the sand.’
The process of establishing the turf will take place between November and January, and during this time, there will be a rigorous monitoring regime by STRI’s irrigation and drainage engineers and the team of consultants who designed the turf track prepare the going for race day. As Stuttard says: good, or good-to-firm, ‘we can basically manipulate the track conditions by careful agronomic management to produce the required going for race day.’
The first horses will test out the turf track a few weeks before the Saudi Cup and its lucrative undercard of turf racing treats. But already the excitement is building. ‘We’re ahead of schedule,’ says Stuttard, ‘and currently we have no concerns that the track will be anything but fantastic for race day.’ He, like the rest of the team at King Abdulaziz Racetrack, eagerly await Frankie Dettori’s review.