The Qatar Goodwood festival is one of the most prestigious dates in the racing calendar, and this year, for one Irishman in particular, it carries even more relevance than usual.
This August’s edition of the late-summer showpiece, better known as ‘Glorious Goodwood’, is set to be the final one for Seamus Buckley, in his current role as clerk of the course.
Buckley has called racing his job for more than 50 years now and, for almost half that time, he has been responsible for the racing surface at the scenic Sussex venue.
Later this year, the Kildare native will hang up the going-stick, and bring to an end another chapter in his extraordinary racing career.
‘‘It was a decision I decided to make some time ago,’’ Buckley said. ‘‘You can’t go on forever. I loved the job, and still do, but I need a little bit of me-time. I think you have to think about yourself a little bit. And I’ll just take life a little bit easier,’’ he added, the years spent across the pond evident in his accent.
Buckley won’t venture too far, though, with the 64-year-old set to remain at the track in an advisory role. And advice is one thing he has in abundance, given how long he has been involved in the game. Hailing from Kildare, Buckley showed his potential as a horseman from a very young age, with his interest in showjumping and hunting. At the age of 14, he made the decision that working with horses was going to be more than just a hobby. It was going to be his way of life.
“I packed my bags and headed to England, to North Yorkshire, to Captain Neville Crump, who trained three Grand National winners. I served my apprenticeship there with him. I rode successfully until I had a bad accident at the age of 20, when I fractured my skull in five places. That was the end of that. I was unconscious for 23 days. It was touch and go for a while,’’ he said.
That horrific fall suffered at Doncaster, brought to an end a promising career in the saddle. However, despite suffering a near-death experience, Buckley overcame those horrendous injuries, and was determined to get his career back on track- even if it meant taking a change in direction.
“I picked myself up and started all over again. I wanted to stay within the racing industry. And I got involved in racecourse management. I went to Catterick first and served my time there — learning how to manage the racecourse, the turf, and all of that. That was in 1972. And I eventually got to Epsom. I was Estate Manager there. I was in charge of the training grounds as well — which were made up of about two to three hundred acres of gallops,’’ he said.
Although involved at the track for 14 renewals of the Derby, Buckley was hungry for more. Following a telephone call, from a friend in racing administration, he was asked to take up the role as clerk of the course at Goodwood in 1995. He didn’t need to be persuaded and, having accepted the offer, he has been there ever since.
The job brought with it a lot of responsibility. For instance, the type of horse that runs at the festival in August will likely be determined by the quality of the ground available. It means that the lead-in to Goodwood’s feature meeting is a stressful one.
‘‘If I haven’t got the racing surface in good nick, then I may as well forget about everything else. It’s the thing that draws the best horses. You’re fertilising it, you’re spiking it, and you’re watering it to keep moisture in the ground. We’re based on chalk and it drains extremely quickly. So, you have to keep moisture in the ground at all times,’’ he said.
Despite the pressure that comes with the role, Buckley has relished every minute of his 23 seasons involved. When you take a look at the landscape he gets to work on every day, it is easy to understand why.
‘‘It has magnificent views —both out across the sea, to the south of the racecourse and back across the valley, looking north. On a nice day, it really is the most beautiful place. It has been a great experience. It has been a privilege really, to be part of such a wonderful set-up. I’m a lucky sod,’’ he laughs.
Sunday, October 15 — the final fixture at Goodwood in 2017 — will bring the curtain down on Buckley’s reign as clerk of the course. Having been responsible for the racing surface at one of Britain’s most-iconic tracks for more than two decades, there have undoubtedly been many highlights. Two in particular stand out and both, unsurprisingly, came at the five-day summer extravaganza.
“Frankel had a race with Canford Cliffs, in the Sussex Stakes, it was the ‘Duel on the Downs’. I have never seen people get so excited. They even clapped the two horses going to the start. Double Trigger winning his third Goodwood Cup was a marvellous day.
“The crowd came down off the stands, clapping him all the way off the course, into the winners’ enclosure. It would raise hairs on the back of your neck.”
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