Jul 11, 2021

Tokyo Talk with Course-Builder David Evans

David Evans and Carl Fletcher in Tokyo. Photo Courtesy of David Evans

The cross-country course at the Tokyo Olympics will be the focus of eventing fans worldwide next month. We talked to the man responsible for building it, renowned British course-builder and designer David Evans to learn more about what goes into building the Olympic course.

Q: What’s the first thing you do when you’re appointed as course-builder?

When an Olympics or a World Championships is on a brand-new site, and you’ve got committees involved that don’t necessarily know anything about horses, it’s important to get on-site as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter what designer you’re working for; some of them have experience at the Olympics, some of them don’t, so you’ve got to be there to advise them if you’ve been lucky enough to do one before. My team built the course for the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, which gave us a great deal of experience with wetter, humid climates, especially with the amount of rain they can have per hour. Hong Kong, in the last six weeks, we had 2.7 metres of rain. The track has got to cope with that.

The course-designer goes there first, and once you’re appointed as the builder, you go and walk around, and you have to think about all these sorts of things. If the water’s coming down a hill, if it could rain – sometimes we’re talking about 18 inches an hour. That water’s got to get away somewhere. You’ve got to take all of this into account, raise the ground where you need to, or slightly camber it in one way.

That’s probably one of the most important initial visits, and in some countries, you’ve got to drum this into them. It doesn’t just happen overnight. I’m very lucky, for Tokyo, to be working with Derek di Grazia. It’s my first time working with him, but I love his courses. I’ve walked a few and watched a lot, and it’s been very interesting. It’s just great. You’re there as a course-builder to build the jumps, but in my mind, you’re also there to advise the designer if he hasn’t been involved before.

Q: Are you responsible for ground preparation as well?

We only advise on ground preparation because the Japanese Jockey Club has the way they do things, and they know all about the grass growth. It’s totally different to the rest of the world; I’d say in September/October, the grass goes brown, and then it livens up again in March-April time and goes green. They’ve been very good, and they do listen, and they’ve got the machines that we like and have used before. If they haven’t got them, they find them. It’ll be very interesting – we haven’t been there in a year, but we get pictures sent back all the time, and it’s looking green and good.

Q: Do you build the jumps on-site?

That depends on what’s available locally in terms of material, what’s not available locally, and how expensive it is. . . when you go to cities, whether it’s Hong Kong or Tokyo, everything costs 10 times more than your normal wood-mill or timber supply. You’ve got to do all the calculations of what you can do locally and what makes it different.

I think we sent six containers over from the UK to Tokyo for 2020, 40ft containers of fences, wood and carvings because it was cheaper to build the fences at home and send them. I’ve got all my kit at home in my workshop and all my decorative carvings, so it’s far easier to find the wood you want in the UK, bearing in mind we work on a large number of big estates here. We’re very lucky to be able to get the bits of wood you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else that are no good for milling. It’s just easier and quicker, and it’s wood that’s good to work with rather than the hardwoods or timber that isn’t big enough.

You obviously build the ditches, and the water jumps on-site, and you build what you can with the timber available out there. For the rest, you try to cram as much as you can into containers.

Q: How many site visits to Tokyo have you done?

I’ve done 14 or 15 visits, I think since I was appointed in June 2017. A lot of the visits initially were after they started doing the groundwork. I went over for two or three days to check that when they were changing the footing into decent footing – they take the clay or the bad grass away, and then they relay a stone-sand mix and a sand-earth mix on top. Then they turfed the whole course; it wasn’t seeded because seed takes about seven years in Japan to get a decent enough bed. These are all contractors doing this work, so it was essential that we kept checking it. We’d sign off every 100 metres. I think it was once a month for five months, or once every three weeks, that I was going over and checking the footing before we gave the final go-ahead so it could be turfed.

Q: What happened last year?

We were actually over there in March 2020. We’d put all the fences out. Things were a bit quiet in Japan; they hadn’t had many Covid cases there, but the schools weren’t open, and certain businesses were working from home. We had a great three-week visit; we got all the jumps out, and all the main carvings, everything out, so that all we had to do was go back at the end of June or beginning of July and paint, dress, flag, and put the strings out. Then we got back to the UK on 19 March, and everything was in lockdown.

It was a scurry around to work on what we were going to do next, given that a lot of the events that we usually build were cancelled. Very luckily, we had a new event at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire that was determined to run that September, for which I was the course-designer. There was quite a bit of groundwork to do there that fed us into the rest of what we found to do. Since then, the rest of 2020 has been about rebudgeting. We were going to make another visit at the beginning of 2021, in March, but we couldn’t because of travel restrictions – so I had to have the office staff out there in Tokyo put tarpaulins over the more intricate carvings they didn’t get weathered too much.

Q: Were the fences taken off the cross-country track?

Only seven or eight fences came off the track – only the ones at the water jump and a few others came down to the workshop area just because we didn’t want them sitting in water for over a year. Two of my team, American course-builder Travers Schick and Carl Fletcher, a huge part of my own UK team, go out this week, actually, and they’ll put those out with Derek di Grazia. I was meant to go out next week, but because the Japanese government said we could only do one visit because of COVID, we had to swap a load of things over. Carl’s now going out for the whole month before the Games. It’s hard work, and with all the restrictions over there, I’m not sure how everyone’s going to cope. It’ll be fine, but it’s going to be difficult and intense.

I don’t go until about 20 July now. As head builder, most of my work – apart from the final finishing – has been done. Everything’s been built; all the carvings have been done; all the materials are there. That side of the logistics is sorted. What I’d normally do on most of our jobs, whether it be Blenheim, Cornbury, Chatsworth, Bramham – I go for the initial 10 days, and then I drop back on to other jobs or start the next job. That’s what we were going to do for Tokyo, the same – I’d go out for the first 10 days, make sure everything’s sorted and all the right paint’s there, all the bits and pieces we need. But we’ve had to swap it around.

Q: Is Tokyo your only focus right now?

We can’t just give everything else up that we do, even for the Olympics. We have a big UK event - Burgham International, for which I am the course-designer - has to take some time up, and Burgham’s got the British National Championships this year, so I’ve got to spend four or five days there. There’s also a lot of planning for other events, such as Blenheim and Cornbury. I can’t just leave it all until I get back. But the guys out there are absolutely 100%, and they know what they’re doing.

Q: Give us a flavour of what Tokyo’s cross-country will look like. . .

Derek di Grazia has done a great job. It’s on a very tight site, with a backdrop of the city – apparently, it’s the only sports venue for 2020 that has the backdrop of the city in the way it does. It really is cool. Will it look Japanese? I think so. I think it’ll look very, very good, but I suppose I would say that!

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