An Interview with Ben Hastie - Head of Groundstaff at Cheltenham Racecoourse.
Head Groundsman at Cheltenham Racecourse is Ben Hastie’s dream job. Originally from Banbury in Oxfordshire, he might have detoured somewhat from his first job working on a golf course as a school-leaver, but racing has become Ben’s livelihood and home. He even lives in a bungalow on the edge of the racecourse estate, overlooking the back straight! Ben, 37, has a son Ellis who is 11, as well as an ex-racehorse called Ebony, a companion pony called Star and a Jack Russell called Rosie.
Did you ride as a child?
I started riding at about 16.
Do you ride now?
Yes, I ride when I have time, although I never seem to have much of it at the moment.
When did you start at Cheltenham Racecourse and what was your initial role?
I started in 2006 as a member of the Ground staff team.
How did you progress to Head Groundsman?
Basically, I worked my way up. I was Assistant Head for a few years before I became Head of Ground staff.
How many staff do you have in your team?
I have a team of 12 on an all-year-round basis which goes up to around 100 on race days.
In a nutshell, what does your job entail?
Looking after the best Racecourse in the world.
Describe your typical race day:
I will meet with Simon Claisse (clerk of the course) at 5.45am where we will check the going on the track in order to update the BHA admin website so that all the Trainers, Owners and Jockeys know what the going will be. I will then meet with my team at 7am and get them setup to do all the last jobs before racing. Breakfast is at 9am; I will then walk the track again with Simon and the days’ stewards just to make sure the course is ready for racing. I get changed into my shirt and tie, have one last check around the track, make sure everyone in my team is radio checked and then wait for racing to start.
During racing I follow the field in a vehicle so as to attend any incidents on the track. After each race I will follow the winner into the winner’s enclosure and have a debrief with Simon where we will discuss race times, the going and make sure Jockeys and Trainers are happy. After racing it can be a case of moving rails and/or irrigating until the early hours or home to watch the replay of the day’s action with a nice glass of wine. I tend to notice lots of things about the track etc on the TV replays, so it is very beneficial.
Ben with Laurina, March 2019
What weather conditions do you favour in the run-up to a meeting?
Cool with light showers ideally. We aim to go out on Good, Good to Soft generally so natural rainfall can be very helpful at times but too much of it can have the opposite effect.
What weather conditions do you dread?!
I think probably snow would be the worst. We can help protect against most other conditions such as frost with frost sheets, but snow is pretty hard to protect against.
Is there any particular year and meeting that still haunts you regarding the weather?
2013 was pretty gruelling. We had to cover both courses to protect from frost and then re-cover after racing. We had to make sure no loose horses could get caught up in the sheets, so the New Course was completely railed off while we were racing on the Old Course.
What weather app do you use?
We use yr.no which seems to be one of the most accurate for here, we also use John Kettley.What is your favourite meeting at Cheltenham?
The Festival without a doubt.
What is your favourite racecourse, other than Cheltenham?
I love Stratford, particularly the Summer evening meetings and also Epsom as it’s such a unique track.
What is your favourite racehorse?
In the past, my favourite was Valiramix, who was trained by Martin Pipe in the early 2000s. He never got to show how good he was.
Currently my favourite is Yorkhill, I love him to bits.
What is your favourite Cheltenham Gold Cup Winner from your time at the racecourse?
Long Run in 2011, I absolutely loved him, such a good-looking horse and it was great to see an amateur in Sam Waley-Cohen winning the Gold Cup.
Overall, what do you think racing does well?
I think the fact that the Racing Industry all stick together like one big, united team. If people in racing are struggling with anything the industry rallies round to help. There are lots of charities that do so much good for the sport.
Where do you think racing could improve?
I think maybe trying to change some race days, we have to move forward in a way to get more people interested in our great sport. Different ways of racing maybe, time trials etc or even team events. I like the way the Shergar Cup works on the Flat, more of those type of race days may well introduce youngsters into the sport which would set us up well for the future.
What is your ideal day off?
It would start with a lie-in maybe till 6.30am then take my dog for a walk. Next, I would head off to one of the all-weather flat tracks to see my girlfriend Racheal Kneller. She is a Flat jockey, who will hopefully ride a winner; celebrate with a bottle of Champagne, go for a meal in a country pub somewhere in front of a log fire and finally head home to watch a film.
Where is your favourite holiday destination?
Tough one. My mum’s brother lives in Victoria, Canada, which is one of the most amazing places on earth. I love the heat though and have always wanted to go to Thailand. I went to the Greek Islands last year and that’s also one of my favourite places.