The Day I Almost Met Tony McCoy

Hello everyone! My column for this week has traveled even further than usual to meet you. My very lovely sister-in-law got married last week, so Wednesday afternoon found me on a plane on the runway at Cape Town International pointing in the general direction of England. To add to the distress of flying, my filly was off in the first at Durbanville. All I can say is thank goodness for modern technology (and lenient air hostesses). The filly came fourth and I was spared an agonizing wait by the grace of Vodacom and my dad, who proclaimed her ‘perhaps not totally useless after all!’ So satisfied, we managed to turn off our devices just in time to be flung into the air and make our way on the well worn airspace path to old Blighty.

The weather held, the bride was beautiful and the wedding was a triumph. But this is not GQ and you are probably not all that interested in the latest in bridal fashion. So I’m pleased to report that your roving reporter did manage to fit in some horse time.

Firstly, our B&B was owned by the most delightful family who breed and hunt to hounds and set in the sort of countryside that makes you want to say ‘splendid’ a lot. The house was the sort of thing Country Magazine would sell their interior decorating souls for – properly muddied Wellington boots in the kitchen, hunting prints jostling for space on every wall, fantastically rustic old furniture with tweed caps and red coats carelessly draped across the backs of chairs and sofas.

We were invited to hound exercise the following morning. One of the ladies (looking straight out of a Josephine Pullen Thompson novel) extolled the virtues of her mount in her wonderful lilting Somerset accent – ‘head loike a lady an’ back en’ loike a cook’ which apparently made ‘Crash’ the epitome of the old fashioned hunting cob. Ah yes, I was back in horse country!

We also happened to be in the vicinity of Hereford racecourse, so invited ourselves in for a visit.

The Classic Country Racecourse

Hereford racecourse is a self-proclaimed ‘Classic Country Racecourse’ and is nestled within what I guess could be termed ‘greater Hereford’. The track is a mile and a half in length, square-ish in shape and boasts an 18 hole golf course in the middle. The surrounding skyline comprises a mix of residential, industrial and leisure facilities.

We parked behind one of the grandstand buildings and then made our way to the gate. The bright, bubbly and newly installed Assistant GM Rebecca Joy met us at the gates and showed us around with the utterly charming and clearly passionate Clerk of the Course, Keith Ottesen.

A Little Background

Hereford racecourse is owned by the Reuben Brothers and is part of Northern Racing Limited’s portfolio of 10 courses across the UK. It is considered one of their smaller courses, currently hosting 19 annual fixtures of hurdle and steeple chase races. Because it is so small, there are only 2 permanent staff and the rest divide their time between Hereford and nearby Chepstow.

Course Layout

We walked along the far side of the oval parade ring (neatly manicured with a rubberized walking ring and the winner’s enclosure at the far end) and had a quick peek at the wooden saddling enclosures on the left hand side. Keith told us that there were another 120 stables tucked away at the back.

The race day office was situated at the far end of the parade ring and comprised a longish rectangular building housing the jockeys’ room, weighing room, therapy room, Stipes’ quarters and adjoining Owners and Trainers bar. The entrance doors opened directly onto the main race day office. The floors were wood and we were greeted by electronic weighing scales and a plain wooden desk for the Clerk of the Scales, still unfettered by race day paraphernalia. The walls were lined with wood paneling and the feel was a little like an old fashioned schoolroom, but very much one of age, tradition and firm efficiency. We were shown through to the jockeys’ room. A traditional red Avery scale, more wood paneling and a row of saddle stands occupied one wall. The rest of the area was set out very much like a high school gym with low wooden benches with an area above for hanging clothes and silks. A valet had thoughtfully turned on the heaters, put out sets of towels and started laying out the day’s equipment. I gather there were separate changing facilities for lady jockeys in an adjoining room.

We crossed back through the main office, had a quick peek into the jockeys’ therapy room and a look at the Stipes’ office with its collection of flat screen TV’s to accommodate the different camera angles. Keith explained that there was currently only 1 permanent TV tower at the finish line and additional cranes are brought in on race days.

We headed back out into the sunshine and followed the neat rubber track down the chute out onto the track itself.

I’m not a ‘grass specialist’ but the turf felt dense and springy and Keith explained that they watered a great deal in order to have the going yielding and soft enough for steeple chasing. The course is laid out to be run in a right hand direction with the flights of hurdle fences arranged on the outside and the steeple chase fences on a more inside track.

There were two grandstands flanking the chute on either side, with a third grandstand complex a little further up the track. Everything was close, compact and efficient and the buildings were all relatively low, adding to the country feel.

Hospitality

We did a quick tour of The Silks Restaurant and a few of the private boxes, which were relatively similar to what we’re used to at home. We also bumped into the head chef and Rebecca mentioned that all the on-course catering is out-sourced, with the course getting a percentage of the turnover.

The main restaurant area offers a full 3-course sit-down meal, but there were a variety of other options available on course, including a facility for the grooms and groundsmen with a cheery chalkboard advertising ‘Good food for everyone and lots of cheek!’

Race card

Rebecca kindly gave me a race card (which I noted usually cost £3) and it was nothing short of a delight. Printed in full colour and packed with information about the layout of the course, how to read the race card, handicapping guidelines, betting options as well as a page of Track Facts about which trainers and jockeys were currently in form. There was a page of tips for the evening meet and on the page for each race, each horse had a Timeform view included as well.

The day we visited had 7 races on the card, with the first race off at 4:55pm and then a race every half an hour until the last at 8pm. The fields were pretty small, ranging from 5 to 11 runners and much to my delight; I noted A P McCoy, multiple champion jump jockey and this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year, carded for several races.

Advertising

The card also contained lots of advertisements for Bet365 (the day’s sponsor) as well as forthcoming events such as a Family fun day, a Winter Wonderland race day and a host of Christmas options. Rebecca explained that they try to keep their race days fresh and varied and they target different demographics for different race day themes. In this way, they draw a range of different audiences and can offer a variety of race day experiences.

I asked whether they spend much on marketing to which Rebecca replied ‘Oh, we have to !’. She said that there is a reasonable budget for marketing and advertising, which they put to use in a surprising number of ways. They advertise extensively in the print media as well as on the radio and run a lot of additional campaigns at local fares, horse shows and innovative initiatives such as gyms, which she says is very successful in drawing female crowds.

I was a little surprised at the entry fee of £19, but despite the rather hefty price tag, Rebecca confirmed that they had already pre-sold a number of tickets and were expecting a crowd of around 500 people for their Monday evening meet.

With their current total of 19 meets (up on previous years), it does still leave the course with a lot of free time and they do their best to fill the calendar with other income generating events such as weddings, corporate functions and the day before we visited they had hosted a truck show.

Changing perceptions

There seems to be a real understanding that the racing public has changed and determined efforts to service their evolving audience. Keith and I discussed the use of whips and with the recent Grand National tragedy he said that public perception is very high on their agenda. There were 54 runners on the day’s card and no less than 4 vets in attendance. I also noticed numerous mentions of horse welfare Although the UK complies with the new, softer whip regulations, there is still a huge problem with public perception. Keith has a horsey background and is clearly passionate about his job and the horses that run on his course. He said that there is no getting around the fact that jump racing unfortunately holds inherent dangers but in fact, the whips are probably most necessary in this field in order to keep horses straight or keep their minds on the job coming into a big fence. However, even on this level there was a clear commitment to servicing the audience and he said that if the public demanded it, then racing would need to make compromises in order to satisfy it.

What I thought

Although we had to leave before the first race and I missed the opportunity of seeing ‘the real McCoy’, I thoroughly enjoyed my outing to Hereford. With enough age and tradition to satisfy my royalist soul, the most interesting and exciting aspects for me were the energy and enthusiasm of the team. They face the same issues of racing the world over – declining attendance, drops in revenue and escalating prices. Keith told us that training fees start in the region of £1200 per month, even though stakes have been falling and the richest race on that day’s card – a Class 3 – offered a stake of £6,000 with £2,972 to the winning horse. And yet, the overriding impression was the dedication to mould and change themselves to suit the evolving needs of their customers.

With a team like that in place, it’s no wonder they are adding fixtures to their calendar.

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