Wetherby working hard to try to defeat the Arctic temperatures

The majority of race meetings have been called off due to the sub-zero temperatures seen in recent weeks but Wetherby is doing all it can to beat the deep freeze for Boxing Day. Nick Westby reports.

The staple diet of any good Boxing Day is a sporting event in the afternoon and cold turkey and chips in the evening.

While little gets in the way of leftover Christmas lunch in front of a roaring fire, an Arctic chill has put the afternoon fare in serious doubt. Freezing conditions throughout the country threaten to decimate the football and rugby union programmes, and more pertinently for the racing fraternity, some of the most lucrative meetings of the year.

The Boxing Day card at Wetherby is one of the highlights of the calendar, yet every time racecourse chief executive JonJo Sanderson has looked out of his office window this week, he has done so with a sense of dread.

"We've had two nights of minus 10 degrees, we've had the covers on since last Thursday, and with a forecast of minus four on Wednesday, minus four tonight and minus 10 for Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day night that doesn't help," he says.

Perhaps wisely, and considering that last year's schedule was cancelled due to snow, the financially-rewarding Boxing Day meet at Wetherby is not included in the racecourse's budget. Although it accounts for a quarter of the venue's annual attendance, Sanderson says any time the course does stage the six-race card it is considered a 'bonus'.

"We are well placed because this meeting doesn't always go ahead so we don't budget for the income from it," he explains.

"It's by far our biggest crowd and accounts for up to 25 per cent of the people that come through the turnstiles on an annual basis.

"But we don't budget for it so any Boxing Day meeting we have is regarded as a bonus."

The six-race meeting that follows on Monday is, however, factored into the annual budget and still presents hope to Sanderson and the many staff at Wetherby who have been working hard to combat the conditions.

"There is a band of warm weather coming in from the 28th and if that comes in earlier then we have a chance of putting on our meeting on the 27th," he said. "We've got an inspection at 1.30pm today and we'll see where we are after that. But that inspection is only for Boxing Day. If we have to cancel then we lose the 26th, but we will continue to monitor and take precautions for the 27th."

The prospects are poor, though, with further nights of sub-zero temperatures set to take their toll.

Sanderson said: "We've had temperatures of plus one today and where the sun has been on the course it has taken some of the frost off but elsewhere it is absolutely white over.

"So if the warmer weather's not taking it off the tops then it's not getting through the surface. It's not looking great at the moment."

Sanderson and his staff are doing all they can. Last Wednesday they purchased covers from a local strawberry farm and by Thursday they were on the course in anticipation of the forthcoming arctic blast.

Spanning 75,000 square metres, the covers are made of a fleece material and are held in place by sandbags.

As Sanderson points out, once the temperature drops below minus three they are rendered effectively useless, and by Tuesday he confessed the frost had already got underneath. But they have got to do something.

"The covers stretch for the entire area where the horses would run on," Sanderson continued.

"There are areas that aren't covered at the moment but they will not be run on. Unfortunately because of the weather various people are using these types of covers for various things. Fortunately we were able to buy some off a local strawberry farm down the road."