For those wishing for a career in horse racing, the options are far more varied than just dreaming of becoming the next AP McCoy or Ruby Walsh. Though emulating the stars of our sport would be sensational, not all are cut out to jump on board a horse and hurtle along at terrifying speeds.
The core of the racing industry maintains over 18,600 full-time jobs. From Bloodstock Agents to Bookmakers, or Farriers to Stable Staff, opportunities are plentiful for those determined enough to give it a go. Racecourses around the UK employ almost 2,000 full-time staff. On a raceday hundreds more are needed to deliver a service to the paying public, whether in catering or maybe a betting function.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of people are involved in a horses journey from birth to racecourse and then after racing into retirement. Vets, stable staff, trainers and jockeys are the more obvious, and some of those roles may be extremely specialized but others will be jobs that are carried out by hundreds around the country.
As a keen gardener myself, and someone that looks at a racecourse as a thing of beauty, not just a venue for sport, I’ve often puzzled over the complexities of being part of the ground-staff, especially at one of the high-profile festivals. Depending on the size of a racecourse as many as 30 people may form part of the Ground Team.
In a recent interview for Eclipse Magazine, Cheltenham’s Head Groundsman Tony Howland, gave a great insight into the workings of his team at the home of jump racing. When The Festival comes around, preparation has to be meticulous. Years of training and gathering of expertize are put to the test. The state of the ground has now more than ever, become an integral part of the four days. Indeed bets are placed as to just how much ‘soft’ will appear in the ‘going’ description.
Tony describes his role as the best job in the business having trained as a groundsman at Folkestone before a stint at Warwick on his way to Cheltenham. He has ultimate responsibility for looking after around 600 acres, with the help of his ten ground staff. This includes the actual racing surface, the jumps, hurdles, rails, fencing and all surrounding grounds.
On racedays the welfare of the horses and jockeys becomes his paramount responsibility. He and members of his team follow each race in vehicles, ready to help in an emergency. Screens may need to be put in place while horses and jockeys are treated by vets and doctors. Loose horses need to be caught and returned to grateful handlers, and then there’s the buckets of water to be made available for the equine athletes in the winner’s enclosure.
Preparing the grass for these thrilling events is more complex than many would believe. Tony explains: “The main aim is to get the grass to the proper racing height - we go on a height of six inches here. Most people think the grass just grows, but we need the density in the grass so that when it’s slightly faster ground the grass will act as shock absorber, which helps prevent strain or stress injuries to the horses’ legs.”
Clearly the great British weather has a large impact on the day to day preparation of the racing surface. Tony recalls the ‘Showcase’ meeting in October 2009: “We went out on ‘good’ ground, ‘good to firm’ in places, after five weeks without rain and with the weather hitting temperatures of 24 degrees. It took 16 million gallons of water just to turn the course round to get it up to a race-able standard for that meeting.”
He went on to explain how he became a Groundsman: “Providing you have an interest in the actual grounds side of things, the opportunities are there for anyone, although for horseracing it pays to have an interest in racing as well. Once part of the grounds team the industry has a foundation course specific to Racecourse Ground Staff, which is held at Cheltenham. Then you go on to do your Intermediate course and eventually ‘Advanced’ if you aim for the top job. If you wanted to go further and become a Clerk of the Course then these qualifications are vital.”
There’s clearly huge responsibility in such a role, but also great satisfaction when the hard work pays off. Like so many jobs within this great industry, the word ‘team’ is used over and over again.
Over the coming weeks and months, I will be looking at other roles within racing that play a vital role in the every-day running of the sport. For those interested in a career in racing, the website is a perfect place to start. ( www.careersinracing.com )