The Prestbury people
PUBLISHED: 10:49 26 January 2016 | UPDATED: 12:52 26 January 2016
It might all seem calm on the surface, but beneath the pond the legs are paddling like crazy
When one thinks of Cheltenham Racecourse, the image of a swan is not on the radar. Excited crowds creating what is affectionately known as the ‘Cheltenham Roar’, pounding hooves, and a blur of colour as jockeys take their horses to the finishing line is more the picture. But in truth it’s the majestic white bird that best captures what happens behind the scenes at Prestbury. Elegance, poise and calm on the outside; frantic paddling under the water’s surface.
So who makes up the workforce that ensures events at Cheltenham happen? Over The Festival which features the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, Stan James Champion Hurdle, Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and LadbrokesWorld Hurdle, up to 5,000 people are employed for that 96-hour period alone for catering and security roles; but normal staff numbers all year round is 65. A staggering 248,000 people visit the site over four days so there’s much to do leading up to this time and it’s vital those involved in the planning work together - down to the intricate details.
“We call it swanning - cool, calm and in control on the top, but underneath your legs are working away furiously. During Festival week, we have always got an ear to the radio, an ear to the mobile as well as trying to engage with the person you are having a conversation with. Everything we do at Cheltenham is on a big scale. It is great fun, if not a little stressful at times!” admits Sophia Dale, press officer for Cheltenham.
She like her colleagues, work for what is known as The Jockey Club, an establishment which dates back to 1750 and was set up by a group of gentlemen - some of the most influential people in the country at the time - who shared a passion for horseracing. They set the Rules of Racing and took on the responsibility of becoming the official governing body for horse racing in Britain. In 1964, it formed Jockey Club Racecourses and bought Cheltenham Racecourse in order to secure the track’s future. Wincanton, Nottingham, Warwick, Market Rasen, Newmarket, Haydock Park, Aintree, Huntingdon, Epson Downs, Kempton Park, Sundown Park, Mandolin Gallops and Exeter all subsequently joined the group over the past four decades, and in doing so guaranteeing their racecourse futures.
At the helm at Cheltenham is regional director Ian Renton, a man who has worked in racing all his life. Ian took over from Edward Gillespie three years ago. Under him are five different departments, all with their specialist skills and responsibilities: finance, marketing, operations, racing and sales. Then there is Jockey Club Catering, a venture partnership between Jockey Club Racecourses and Compass UK & Ireland, to provide top quality catering, hospitality and service at all 15 racecourses.
Each department dovetails with each other, employees constantly work together to ensure everyone knows what is going on and communication is paramount. Without it, Cheltenham wouldn’t operate at its high-class efficiency as it does. But there is another factor which is equally important - morale. And judging by those I have interviewed thus far at Cheltenham it is high.
“The key thing about The Jockey Club is that it invests all the profits back into the sport, which is really huge for morale. It certainly makes me feel proud to work for the company knowing that it puts back into the very industry we love and I know a lot of the team feel the same,” admits Sophia, who falls under the marketing spoke of the team wheel.
Heading up her department as Regional Head of Marketing is Matthew FoxtonDuffy, responsible for ticket sales, website, advertising, especially those adverts you see around the region on trains and on The Tube in London, communication, the marketing of conferences and events such as Jools Holland, conference events, food awards and other big name concerts. Regional Financial Director Sheila Handley, responsible for accounts and finance at Cheltenham has just celebrated 25 years working for The Jockey Club - a testimony of what working at Prestbury means to staff.
Another loyal worker who is celebrating his 17th season as Clerk of the Course and Regional Head of Racing is Simon Claisse. When cameras move in on the action at Prestbury, it is Simon they follow as he tests the ground and announces what the conditions are for the race ahead. In many ways, Simon’s job during The Festival is one of the most stressful. He works very closely with the British Horseracing Authority, provides medical provision for the jockeys and works with on-site doctors.
“I do get a lot of grief from trainers who don’t always agree with me when I announce what condition the turf is. I have to be pretty resilient. I am sure if you ask the horses what they thought, they would agree with me!
“Everything I do comes under scrutiny by the public and the media, the consequences of anything going wrong is in the public domain.” admits Simon, who says he moved from being a sports regulator in his previous job, to being an action man. A former amateur jockey, Simon rode a horse called Provide, in an amateur gold cup at Cheltenham in 1990. It was the last year The Foxhunter was the race before The Gold Cup.
“That race stimulated my determination to come to work here. When I got the job in 1999, I was asked what I intended to do after being Clerk of the Course, and I told them that I considered it a job for life.”
That dedication and passion shows and Simon is not the only one. The other two departments apart from the catering team, is Sales, headed up by Lee Moulson, and Operations led by David Mackinnon. Sales has a 17-strong team and deal with sponsorship, partnerships, hospitality race bookings, conferences and events booking; where as the Operations team is responsible for ensuring Prestbury is at its ultimate in terms of safety - whether it relates to the structure of buildings, fences or the grandstands themselves.
Maddie Webster, regional sponsorship co-ordinator, is part of the sales team and gets to see a lot of the action on race days. Responsible for trade stands, making sure all sponsors have the right tickets and that trophies are where they should be, Maddie explains what it is about Cheltenham that she loves.
“Everybody works together as a team across all the departments. It is such a great place to be especially during The Festival. To be part of that is pretty amazing. The weeks building up to the first meeting is tense as everybody has a lot of work to do. We have to prepare for the season as a whole not just the next race meeting. As I am based in the parade ring, I do get to see a lot of the action,” says Maddie.
Of course as time gets nearer, there are perks to the job which help staff keep going. Sophia Dale admits as the heat rises in January, staff needs are met in a very practical way. “We are so busy as the festival draws closer that in January, February and March the catering team feed us staff as well, which we all look forward to!”
Of course, with so much to do and such a big site to oversee, there are the inevitable obstacles for the Jockey Club staff to overcome.
“It can be anything from a lightbulb, lock on a door, the jockeys’ sauna or something on the Grandstand not working to a delivery of smoked salmon that hasn’t arrived; a fridge containing all the champagne breaking down or people losing tickets. Operationally we always have challenges to overcome,” admits Sophia. But once the hard work is done and The Festival is over, staff are the first to celebrate their achievements.
“Pretty much as soon as the horses have jumped the last race of the season, at the end of April, we as a staff are out there playing rounders on the course, just about where the horses jump the last in the Champion Hurdle, which is always good fun.”
For now though it is back to the swan image. After all there is a lot of furious leg work to be done behind the scenes to ensure The Festival in 2016 operates as it should.
Tickets for The Festival increase over the next few months. Prices rise after November 15th and again at the end of January, so if you are looking to spend a day out at Cheltenham, it is recommended you book your tickets sooner rather than later. www.cheltenham.co.uk