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What the Romans Didn’t Do For Us

The abandonment of racing at Kelso this week means that we’ll never know the result of the fourth race on the programme, The ‘Blessed Are The Cheesemakers’ Handicap Steeplechase. The title, taken from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, prompts the inevitable question: What did the Romans ever do for us?

Whatever you think the answer might be, they didn’t install an underground-heating system at Kelso Racecourse – as evidenced by the loss of Friday’s festive fixture due to frost. But they could have done…

When Appius Claudius Caecus decided that Rome required a better water supply in 312BC, his solution was to build a carefully graded, predominately subterranean, series of passageways designed to carry water over a distance of ten miles. Five hundred years later, having deployed a mixture of slave labour and military might, the Romans had developed almost 500 miles of water-tight tunnels carrying aqua to the city of Rome. Creating a series of subterranean heating tunnels on a racecourse, with a large fire pit at the lowest point, would have proved a doddle for Appius and his army of friends, or friendly army – whoever they were.

The Kelso version need only have been a mile and a half round, with a thousand or so lateral pipes to carry the heat sideways underneath the turf. I don’t suppose it would have taken a few hundred men more than a year to build. And I’m pretty certain that it would have been more effective than the gargantuan frost sheets that are enterprisingly deployed at many racecourses today. I have long been a supporter of fleece sheeting, particularly for growing lettuces, but they are expensive and sadly only provide marginal protection against severe frosts – which can still take a hold when the covers are removed. Even now, it is difficult to prove that frost sheets have genuinely saved a single race-meeting that wouldn’t have taken place without their use.

So I’m looking for some volunteers. Or some slaves, either would do, to help build a turf heating system. It won’t be the first time that workers have been conscripted to undertake a major infrastructure project at Kelso Racecourse. The track owes its drainage system to the herculean effort of Italian prisoners of war, who dug a half-mile tunnel from the inside of the racecourse, under the neighbouring hill, towards Eden Water – a tributary to the Tweed. It’s unclear whether the prisoners were making an attempt to escape incarceration at the time.

I can imagine the huge fire-pit required for the proposed heating system becoming an endearing feature of Winter racing – as well loved as the multitude of small fireplaces that warm the jockeys, stewards and racegoers in Kelso’s listed Grandstand. In fact I’m beginning to like the idea so much that I’m going to add it to my list of New Year Resolutions which looks a bit like this: sit by the fire, abandon fewer race-days and back more winners – starting with Upsilon Bleu at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day.

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