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Clean and green

Grounds crew makes sure Springdale is safe and sound, 365 days a year

Posted: March 27, 2014 5:31 p.m.
Updated: March 28, 2014 5:00 a.m.

At a time of morning when many a Carolina Cup-goer is rolling over in their bed, the men charged with making sure everything on the grounds of the Springdale Race Course and its adjoining property are in working order are already on the job and rolling out, assuring that everything is in place for the tens of thousands of patrons who will make their way through the gates in the coming hours.

For those coming to the Carolina Cup, Saturday is a special day filled with tailgating, seeing old and making new friends while five horse races take center stage. But for Carolina Cup Director Jeff Teter, Springdale Race Course Foreman Grady Humphries and course workers Paul Harris, Bill Martin and Jonathan Smart, it’s business as usual … with a twist.

Those five gentlemen are responsible for the upkeep of the 600-acre facility which includes the schooling course across the street for the main course on Knights Hill Road, as well as for the well-being of the horses, trainers, riders and grooms which call the facility home 12 months each year.

For the Springdale grounds crew, they go to work each day at a site which, oftentimes, members of the general public think is only used twice per year; for the Carolina Cup in the spring and the fall Colonial Cup. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

“I’m sure most people don’t realize the amount of effort and care it takes just to take care of the training center aspect part of the job,” said Teter, “and the amount of work we put into just trying to maintain the racing surfaces in putting on these two meets a year. It’s an ongoing, 52 weeks a year process between mowing, fertilizing, weed control, insect control and fire ants. There’s always something to be done here.”

On Monday afternoon, Humphries, Smart, Harris and a part-time employee were measuring out the reserved parking area on the south end of the race course. Humphries, who retired from the Camden Police Department in 1996 with the rank of captain after serving the community for 30 years, stops every few yards while a worker takes a sledge hammer to a wooden stake to mark a designated parking space.

A lifelong Camden resident, Humphries had gone into business for himself after leaving the police force. Then, one day, he had a chance meeting with Teter who asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested in the job as foreman at the race course. After thinking it over, Humphries met with Teter about the job. That was nine years ago. He said he has learned plenty about the race course, horse and the equine business, in general, since taking the job.

“Growing up here and working at the PD (police department) for 30 years,” he said with a smile while taking a short break from his task, “I never realized how much revenue the horse industry brought into Camden. I never realized how many people were employed by the industry around here and dealing with nothing else but horses.”

For someone like Humphries, working at the race course has been an eye-opening experience. Such is not the case for Teter, a three-time National Steeplechase Association leading rider or, Martin and Smart, both retired steeplechase jockeys; having men like them, who know the lay of the land is greatly appreciated by the trainers and riders around Springdale.

While the Carolina Cup course is the center of attention for most patrons, Springdale also includes a 5/8ths of a mile dirt track and a mile-long dirt track which must be maintained on a daily basis. And when you have millions of dollars worth of thoroughbreds going over the surfaces on a daily basis, there is little wiggle room when it comes to track maintenance.

Even when things get harried in the days leading up to the steeplechase races, Teter said his crew pays the same amount of attention to their regular chores while getting their work done for the Cup.

“I definitely think it helps and they know, even when we’re at our busiest, you can’t cut corners,” Teter said of having horsemen like Martin and Smart on staff. “Whereas, if somebody else hadn’t had that background, they might say, ‘Well, we’re trying to get ready for the races so I’ll cut back here or, I’ll cut back there.’

“You can’t afford to do that because the horsemen will know if we haven’t watered the track the same as we normally would. Around here, you’d get an earful if you started cutting corners.”

Teter’s role at Springdale is one which involves multi-tasking. On race day, he oversees what happens “between the rails.” In the time between race meets, he is in charge of the entire facility. And the past seven months have hardly been a picnic for him.

Last September, in the months leading up to the Nov. 23 Colonial Cup, Teter had the race course over-seeded with no-till drill winter seed in order to get the grass to become lush and green for the fall meet. The germination seemed to take in the first week, but an unusually dry October and November led to the loss of some 95 percent of the over-seeding.

There was some thought given to trying to over-seed again for the Carolina Cup, but the harsh winter in Camden did not allow the ground to warm up enough to where there would be any germination for Saturday’s races. “As far as snow issues and setbacks,” Teter said of the affect the two snowstorms which hit Camden this past winter had on his job, “the weather hasn’t really set us back any more than a normal winter would.”

The color of the grass notwithstanding, it has been business as usual at Springdale. The crew starts their day at 7 a.m. and tries to knock off at 3 p.m., with hours of 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. in the hot summer months.

Some of the work burden was lifted from the group when the Colonial Cup went from packed brush Colonial Cup fences to the plastic national fences following the 2011 Carolina Cup. The cost-cutting measure was voted on by the Carolina Cup Racing Association, which probably would have received a hearty “thank you” from the course maintenance workers who had to go out and find limbs from pine trees and re-pack and repair the jumps which were unique to Springdale and used in both race meets.

“We are where we need to be, right now, I believe,” Humphries said as the Carolina Cup approached. “In years past, when we had to manually build (the Colonial Cup) jumps, we would have been working weekends and everything else. But since they’ve changed and gone to plastic jumps, it’s saved us a tremendous amount of time, work and expense.”

“In years past,” Teter said of the time involved working on the Colonial Cup fences, “when we were still jumping over the natural brush fences, we would pretty much start the first of December, on decent weather days, trying to gather brush and start re-stuffing and re-painting those fences for the spring. Now that we don’t have to do that, there’s a little less pressure involved but we still have a timeline that once the first of the year gets here, we get things ready and organized, starting in various parking areas and then, working toward the day of the (Carolina Cup.)”

Race week and Cup day

The Springdale maintenance staff kicks into high gear on race week. This week has been no different.

Monday, the course was abuzz with the daily routine of watering and harrowing the dirt tracks, using front-end loaders to remove manure and straw from the stables and making sure the needs of the trainers are being met. Then, there were those Cup-related responsibilities.

Sitting atop a tractor, Teter drove into the old hay barn, picked up pallets of garbage boxes and loaded them onto a flat bed which would take them to locations throughout the race course. Once their everyday tasks were finished, the crew went into full race week mode.

“Our scenario is a lot different than the average steeplechase meet because we continuously have to deal with 180 horses training here every day leading up to the races,” Teter said.

“It’s extremely busy the week of the race in trying to get all these trash boxes out. That’s a big job and weather certainly plays a big role in when you do that during the final week. For instance, this year’s Carolina Cup: Monday was a nice day, but Tuesday, it is supposed to be wet and windy.

“My biggest nightmare leading up to the week of the races is wind. That makes it extremely tough, not only from the standpoint of the trash boxes but also for the people who put the tents up on the course and that type of thing. Rain is much easier to deal with than wind.”

On a sunny Monday afternoon, Humphries felt that things were where they needed to be at Springdale and hoped they would stay that way, weather permitting.

“The race course itself is already done,” he said while looking out toward the track. “All the jumps and everything else are all ready to go. Now, it’s the other little things like the parking lots, getting the fences up and stuff like that.

“Our busiest day will probably be Friday because there are a lot of things that we can’t do until the last minute, like finishing up the fence on the south and west rails, blocking off the practice track because the races run on that side of the track. It’s just a lot of stuff to do, in addition to the everyday things that we have to do.”

“It’s always something last-minute,” Teter said of the countdown to the Cup. “You’re busting your tail to get it all done.”

Even the best-laid plans can go awry on race day, though, when work hours are thrown out the window or as Humphries said are from “can ‘til can’t. It’s from 6:30 (a.m.) until … let’s put it that way.” Jobs for the crew also change. There is no such thing as wearing just one hat on Cup day.

“My biggest worry on race day is like that one year that the jockey got hurt so bad that he died,” Humphries said in referring to the fatal fall involving Jorge Torres on the 2009 Colonial Cup undercard. “Horses going down and the riders getting hurt, those are our biggest concerns.”

Humphries has seen about everything on Carolina Cup day from his years making sure patrons had an enjoyable day when he worked with the CPD to seeing the races from a different angle in his current job.

“With the police department,” he said, “I didn’t have to do the stuff that I have to do now like, if there is no water, no power or, if something is broke and needs to be fixed. It’s a constant ‘on the go’ deal on the day of the races.”

Come Saturday, Teter will take his customary perch atop the grandstand with walkie-talkie in hand and an EMS worker by his side. Teter becomes a maestro, conducting an orchestra from which no sheet of music on any of the musician’s stand is the same.

He is responsible for the safety of the horsemen, the horses, jockeys and, the race patrons. It is a task which he does not take lightly. It is his team which answers an on- or off-track emergency. And when something out of the usual occurs, the eyes of the patrons are focused on Teter and his response team.

“I think the biggest concern is that once race time gets here,” he said, “you’re as prepared as you can be for an emergency on the race course if a horse goes down or, a rider goes down … something like that. No matter how good you think you are, you can always do it faster and do it better. You’re always in the spotlight of the public’s eye and they’re probably going to be less concerned about the rider and more concerned about the horse.

“Your response time is going to be looked at; communication is the biggest key for everything, especially if you have to respond to a situation out on the race course. You try to have people in place to deal with the non-racing aspects of the day to handle those type things. Then, after the day, we can assess what types of issues we had and try to figure out what works, what didn’t and what we can do better for the next race.”

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