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Issue 5 - A day at the races

Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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A day at the races


Aday at the races is a delightful way to wile away an afternoon. But do spare a thought for the small army toiling behind the scenes …

6.30am It’s an overcast Wednesday morning and Gillian Meikle has a decision to make about lighting a fire. Will the day be warm, or will the rain arrive with the cold winds sweeping off the Lammermuirs?

Gillian decides the rain may well put in an appearance, so finding the right bunch of keys she climbs the old winding stone staircase of the main stand at Kelso’s racecourse and lights the coal fire in the Dukes Room. Some eight hours later grateful race-goers will warm themselves here, but how many of them will think about Gillian’s early morning efforts?

Kelso is known as one of Britain’s friendliest racecourses, mainly because of its compact size. Unlike other more sprawling courses, it would be just about possible to pick up the stands, parade ring and hospitality boxes at Kelso and drop them inside Murrayfield.

With up to 7,000 people visiting at a time it takes a small but dedicated staff to keep it all running smoothly. Not all of them start work as early as Gillian, but one does – her husband Brian.

Whereas Gillian is inside wondering about the weather, Brian is often outside. As the Head Groundsman he has to walk the course, inspect the jumps and telephone the Clerk of the Course to brief him, all long before most of us have reached out to silence the alarm clock.

8.30 Steve Horlick, the Race Day Health and Safety Officer, receives the numbers for the guests in the 19 hospitality boxes, and the happy news that he’s got 100 pensioners attending today …

8.45 The briefing goes okay. Radios are checked and frequencies for the vets and doctors are confirmed, then Steve sets out again to check fences, doors and handrails for safety’s sake.

9.30 Steve nips back to the office to see Trish Punton, who is unpacking the race cards and badges and has apparently brought over every other bit of paperwork that allows the course to run smoothly for the day.

Trish is the bubbly, attractive P.A. for the course’s Managing Director, Richard Landale, and already it seems that she is the first port of call if anyone has a problem. Today, however, she has challenges of her own to meet.

The Jumps Race Planner from the British Horseracing Board is in charge of all jump racing in the UK and this morning has arrived on the course for his first-ever visit.

“As well as my normal duties I need to show him round for a while,” she explains as she tears past me clutching notebook, radio and pencil. “On top of which I’ve just been told the Tourist Board are sending an Inspector. The day isn’t going quite as planned!”

10.00 The lads who man the 40 positions including gates and access to the different parts of the course arrive to get their briefing from Bob Bell.

"Every visitor to the course has a badge depending on their hospitality box or area for watching the racing.” says Bob. “The lads make sure that no one gets lost or accidentally walks into the wrong area. Then they put out signs, direct car-parking and make sure no one gets run over by horses or vehicles going out to the track.”

Behind the new Tweedie Stand I come across the technical wizardry of modern racing: huge trailers crammed with television screens, microphones, miles of cable and half drunk cups of coffee – a hive of activity. With cranes and hoists for the cameras, the pictures can be transmitted to all terrestrial and satellite channels, bookmakers around the country and all the screens around the course. They tell me it takes 11 people for this operation to run smoothly, from cameramen to commentators – and they started setting up yesterday.

11.00 In the stand above me Peta Garrad is setting out the race cards on the tables for the guests in the hospitality boxes. Chairs are arranged, table cloths and cutlery checked and the TV screens that bring the races to the comfortable, dry boxes hum into life.

12.00 The valets arrive bringing the jockeys’ silks and other equipment. I notice a stall being set up that stands out from the others. Gary Spencer travels the country from his base in Banbury, Oxfordshire, taking his Raceday Saddlery business to different courses, selling what appears to be standard riding equipment you would see at any country show – but how wrong could I be?

“Actually we only sell to the jockeys, trainers, grooms and serious riders. We don’t do clothes, but it’s amazing how much people need in the course of a day’s racing.” With a start I realise I’m going to be late for the PR briefing in the Director’s Box. Here, Trish (looking remarkably unflustered) goes through the card [programme of races] with the PR staff whose job it is to guide owners, sponsors, guests and jockeys to various venues and presentations throughout the day. The majority I recognise from pony clubs, point to points and Hunt Balls – the sort of people you’ll find at country events wherever you travel.

1.00pm The first visitors are arriving, bookmakers setting up their pitches and jockeys calling at Gary’s stand for goggles or boots before going on into the dressing rooms. I pause for lunch, one of several that will be cooked today at the course.

The first race is at 2.10pm, so for a brief moment I enter the parade ring and watch the PR girls working away and Clerk of the Course Jonnie Fenwicke-Clennell supervising vets and stewards.

Brian comes and picks me up to watch the first race from his position in the centre of the course. “The safety of horses and jockeys is paramount.” he says. “From here we can watch what happens and take any required action immediately. It could be anything from collecting loose horses that could be dangerous to helping jockeys who become dismounted. My groundstaff also have to ensure that all the
jumps are repaired after the horses have gone over them.”

2.30 The first race is over and all the lunches have been eaten. Judith and Jim Hettrick, from one of the three catering companies on the course, can breathe a bit more easily now in the Younger Stand where they and their staff have just served 250 meals in the hospitality boxes as well as operating 13 private bars. “It can be busier,” says Judith. “Sometimes we can have marquees outside as well, and you think you’ve got it taped when someone asks for a certain liqueur or whisky and we have to find it quickly!” This is exemplified when one of the staff comes up to Jim to announce that one of the hospitality boxes now wants afternoon tea.

“They haven’t booked it,” he says, “but we’ll do it because it’s all about doing right by the customer and the race course. But then again, we came here yesterday to prep up and we’ll be back tomorrow to clear away tables etceteras, so it’s all part of the job.”

The afternoon is slipping by and I get waylaid by the NFU [National Farmers’ Union] in their hospitality box and take a shortcut past the Weighing Room where even more of Bob’s lads are carrying out their duties. Emerging into the Winner’s Enclosure, I notice Steve at one end implementing crowd control whilst in the middle John and Anne Grossick, the course photographers, are snapping away.

Standing in the middle of it all is Richard Landale, Managing Director of the racecourse. I have seen him around and about all day, and at a conservative estimate he’s already walked about five miles, checking that everything is going smoothly, eyes darting everywhere.

Time to go and give my thanks to Trish at the office. “Sorry Steve, I can’t talk to you now,” she says. “There’s a problem with the water in one of the kitchens and I’ve got to get the plumber in.” Amazingly, as she hurtles through the crowd she’s still smiling and laughing with regular race-goers and familiar faces.

It makes you wonder how hectic it would be if things didn't go smoothly!

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