Interview: Brian Crawford - Garthorpe Clerk of the Course

by Emma Forman

Brian Crawford

Brian Crawford - Clerk of the Course at Garthorpe

The alarm in the Crawford household goes off at 6am on a race day and by 6.45am Brian has travelled the 16 miles from his home at Aslockton to Garthorpe racecourse, in order to begin his duties as Clerk of the Course. His first job is to check the rain gauge in the winner’s enclosure in case there has been overnight rain, before walking the course to see if any going updates need to be made. “A few years ago there had been overnight rain and when I arrived I went to check the gauge only to find it empty. I was scratching my head and looking for a hole where the water had leaked out when I realised my dog Bodger had got there ahead of me and drank it! Needless to say I was unable to assess it; he always was a bit of a comedian,” he reminisces. Brian then checks that the heater is on in his office and that the changing rooms are tidy before sorting out the number cloths; he has a separate bag for each race and the responsibility for the laundering of them after the meeting. He also checks that the scales and commentary box are all in working order.

Once other people start to arrive he checks that the secretary is happy before ticking off the helpers on his race card and answering numerous phone calls. “The jockeys then arrive and start prodding and poking the ground; if they’re happy then that’s always a good start,” he says. There are always new doctors, St John Ambulance personnel and paramedic teams who may be unfamiliar with the job so it is important that they have a course plan and know where the rails lift out if necessary. “There is always an issue- usually a peg is missing so someone cannot set up their trade stand. We also have to ensure that all the radios are working,” confirms Brian.

Richard Swain helps by briefing the fence stewards and giving them leaflets in a waterproof case so that they are aware of which flags to raise and when. At this stage there is around an hour and a half to go before the first race and Brian and Richard re-convene for a bacon buttie. After this things become even more hectic: Brian needs to brief the starter and make sure that there are two people on the course with a whistle should a race need to be stopped and declared void. All contingencies need to be covered to ensure the smooth running of the meeting. He checks that the vets, paddock stewards, senior steward and declaration teams are all happy.

“It’s then time to get the jockeys out for the first race and we have to be careful not to forget the ladies! It works best when Richard Godson brings his bell; if he forgets it can be chaos but this year I have borrowed my Mother’s bell so we have it in reserve. Richard is an excellent announcer; he includes all the details like tongue straps and cheek pieces, therefore keeping people up to speed,” says Brian. He keeps an eye on proceedings making sure tongue straps have been checked by the vets, fallen jockeys have been seen by the doctors as well as making a note of any issues highlighted by the stewards. After the race he makes his way to the winner’s enclosure to greet owners, thanking them for coming. The Garthorpe welcome is always a nice gesture. Brian will also speak to jockeys to assess how the course is riding and whether there needs to be a going update. Throughout the afternoon he oversees proceedings responding to issues as and when they arise.

Once racing is over, the debriefing session starts with the doctors, stewards, fence stewards and vets. Brian takes a note of any comments made, the radios are then collected and number cloths sorted before he makes his way to the bar. “I always ask if there is a beer left; they always tell me that it’s all gone so that’s that. Sometimes I am given a bottle of whisky which is funny really as I probably only have two whiskies a year! Once everyone else has left I ring my wife Susie; I tell her that it’s okay to get some food cooking and make sure there is wine chilling. She very rarely comes racing unless the weather is particularly good. When I arrive home I feed my dog Finbarr the Cocker Spaniel and have a glass of wine. I can never remember much after that,” he jokes.

The following morning the treading in team arrive at Garthorpe at 8.30am and thoughts turn to the next meeting; the fences need to be refurbished and the bends moved to fresh ground. “We always have three weeks between meetings at Garthorpe and we need it; the three weeks go by like three days,” explains Brian. His farm work has to be fitted in around racing and he has been known to go spraying in the middle of the night so that his duties at the track can be accommodated. Brian makes these sacrifices because he loves the job and takes it very seriously. “I aim to do the best I possibly can and produce ground that I would be happy to run a horse of my own on.” He says. The course at Garthorpe has been gradually improved under Brian’s direction to include extensive drainage works and portable fences as well as changes to the density of the fences; they are softer now as much finer birch is used, they are however all four feet and six inches in height. The ratio of fallers to runners is very low which pleases him and he points out that nowadays the horses are better quality, people get them fitter and school them more thoroughly which also helps. With the changes to the track in order to use fresh ground for each meeting it makes comparing times more difficult although Brian has a good knowledge of race timings and will tell people if he thinks their horse has come close to a track record. “The best result is if we get two or three horses coming to the last together; this is great for the atmospherics of the course as the excitement builds.” He enthuses.

The course preparation time is greatly increased in a dry time and watering is something that Brian and his team now have down to a fine art. However, in the early days it didn’t always go quite so smoothly. “We used to borrow a farm tanker to do the watering and one year we put the pipe into the dike but it wouldn’t draw up any water; we thought maybe there was an air lock or something. Philip Hewitt was standing in the dike and when nothing was happening I turned it the other way. Something did happen then and poor Philip nearly got drowned; he was dripping wet when he emerged! On another occasion we had left the watering job till the last minute and time was running out. Once again we had a problem; we couldn’t get the water out of the tank so I rang James Hardstaff to see if he could lend us a different water tanker. He was happy to help but pointed out the shortage of time and suggested I check for a blockage. Sure enough I disconnected the suction pump to find a massive rabbit blocking the pipe!” he laughs.

However, nowadays modern pipes and pumps are used; they take a day to get out and the team need to start watering four or five days in advance of the meeting. The track is divided into four sections and is watered a section at a time. The amount of water is carefully monitored using a meter and Brian has to consider the wind direction and temperature in order to get it just right. “The job is difficult when it is hot; the water just evaporates and sometimes we work during the night either at 11pm or 3am as there is no sun at that time so the water will soak in. I don’t mind it really; I can drive around the course with a bit of Rod Stewart blasting out and I’m fairly happy when everything is going well.” He explains. Brian also stresses that people should not walk the course until watering has finished so they get an accurate assessment. Everyone has confidence in Brian and his team to get it right, well almost everyone… “Sometimes you get people coming to walk it in their plimsolls; they don’t think of using a stick to test it and then say that it is firm. The hardest bit to get right is the stretch between the start and the first fence. One time a jockey was walking it and told me he couldn’t get his stick in near the outside of the wing of the first fence. I pointed out that if he was going to go that wide he was wasting his time coming. He had to accept that I had made a fair comment. Another lady showed me a patch of firm, rough ground that she didn’t like. I informed her that she wasn’t even walking on the track!” He muses.

In his younger days Brian was a successful jockey at a time when the Point- to- Point season started after hunting finished in March and lasted for around six weeks; he rode for 26 years and hung up his boots aged 45. He puts this longevity down to the shorter seasons and the fact that jockeys didn’t have as many rides as there was no Sunday racing. Brian thoroughly enjoyed his riding, in fact he harbours a secret ambition to make a come-back on the right horse. “I wouldn’t mind having a spin around Garthorpe on Palypso De Creek; in fact if Mike Dawson allowed me to ride him I’d even put on lipstick, gain a blonde wig and masquerade as a member of the opposite sex for a day!” He jokes. Brian is passionate about the sport and indeed pointing is lucky to have such a stalwart; his love and enthusiasm for the game is very evident. “It’s a great hobby, the last true Corinthian sport and lots of fun. It has adapted and evolved over the years and needs to continue to do so; for example I think the two and a half mile races are a good idea to keep more horses running that don’t quite stay three miles. We need to get new younger people learning the jobs, attract more horses and look at new ways to fund it. The atmosphere at a Point- to- Point is fantastic, it’s second to none and long may it continue… I am looking forward to seeing everyone at Garthorpe on Saturday.” He adds.


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