There are many unsung heroes working behind the scenes in racing yards but none more so than the hostel manager. Charlotte ‘Char’ Clarke has looked after the hostel and its residents at Andrew Balding’s Park House Stables for five and a half years. For the past eighteen months, she has diversified further by working as Racing Syndicate Manager. Char, 36, originally trained as a chef and still uses these skills when cooking for the staff living in the hostel. No task or errand is too much for Char, who is one of the many people who surreptitiously keep this successful Flat yard running smoothly.
Growing up in the New Forest on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border meant that Char had a pony-mad childhood, learning to ride at the local riding school. She has always been a horse owner and regularly competes her own coloured sports horse in dressage. Fate dealt its hand and Char found herself working in racing, often tucking the younger staff members under her wing. She is bubbly, fun with a sense of humour and is as big a part of Balding’s team as those working alongside the racehorses.
Char lives in Kingsclere with her chihuahuas, one long-haired and one short-haired, Missy and Betty.
Did you have a horsey childhood?
My immediate family was not horsey at all but I grew up in the beautiful countryside on the edge of the New Forest with horses and the free roaming New Forest ponies all around me. My grandparents took me to the local riding school around the age of five and that was it; I was bitten by the bug. The riding school owner is a great lady who let children come and help for the day as well as have their riding lesson, so from a young age my weekends were spent at the stables. When I go home at Christmas, I always see my old riding school owner/instructor in our local pub. She taught me how to ride and, in my later years, drink. According to her I have only successfully mastered one as yet!
My family then bought me my first pony when I was eleven; I think in the hope of keeping me out of trouble and away from boys. I wouldn’t say it particularly worked but the equine passion has continued throughout my life and I have never been without a horse of my own since that day. My first pony was a 14.2hh liver chestnut mare called Brandy Snaps. When I look back, I now realise she was a complete saint and schoolmaster. I have continued to own horses since then, but unfortunately my parents do not fund them anymore! I have always ended up buying rather “quirky” horses. In my younger days, I assumed it was because they were of the cheaper variety. However, I seem to have spent more money as the years have gone by. As I get older this theme continues, so possibly I just don’t have as great an eye for horses as I thought I had!
Do you ride now?
I currently own a coloured sports horse called Sam, which I have owned for just over a year. He can be quite an opinionated chap with a very cheeky side, and I have to say has a terrific buck in him when he wants! I keep him at a wonderful livery yard just a few miles from Kingsclere and ride him most days. My passion is dressage, so I am currently trying to teach Sam to dance and he is proving to have some decent ability, but his work ethic could sometimes do with some improvement! I currently compete him at Novice level and he has won or been placed every time out so far. The plan is to take him out at Elementary level this year whilst starting Medium work at home.
How did you get into racing?
I have always been horsey from a young age and when I was fourteen, old enough to get a job to help pay towards my pony, I started as kitchen porter in the pub next door to our family home. The owners of that pub were also very horsey. Aart Noordijk, the landlord is quite a prominent figure in the horse world. Anyway, they had only just taken on the pub and his wife Jeni was the chef and she taught me how to cook! They are both now lifelong friends. I left school at sixteen and studied a National Diploma in horse management at Sparsholt college. I continued to work part time in the pub until I finished my studies at eighteen and still did not really know what to pursue in the equine industry, so ended up working full time as a chef/pub manager for Jeni and Aart.
I continued my career managing and cheffing at various pubs into my late twenties where, in 2012, I stumbled upon the world of working in the private house sector for VIP families. The family I went to work for in Marlborough are very country and horsey as well as being into horse racing. In 2014, I took their son to a pony racing day at Kingsclere and met Anna Lisa Balding. We got chatting about what I do, etc and as I left, she said if you ever want a job do get in touch!
In the summer of 2015, I found myself in exactly that position so, remembering her words, I dropped her an email asking if she required any help and she asked me if I would consider running the hostel at Park House and whether I could cook! I moved to Kingsclere in November 2015 and took on the role of hostel manager. Although I was from an equine background, I did not have a great knowledge of racing and, at the time, I was not entirely sure I would need one but, like all things, the more you get involved the more you learn!
Andrew, Anna Lisa and the whole team were great at explaining anything I asked and really took the time to include me, so suddenly the world of racing became the norm and a way of life. I still have so much to learn. Only last week I had to ask Andrew to explain something about handicaps to me, but the job has evolved into so much more than I ever considered and that variety as well as learning new skills is what keeps it fun and interesting. I realised I had gone full circle when I gave Sparsholt college students a talk and tour of the yard and two of my old lecturers accompanied the equine students.
When I attended college, strangely, working within the racing industry was never really included. I am pleased to say that it seems things are changing. When I give a talk or tour to students, it is certainly something I encourage, making sure I explain to them how it is a properly governed industry with pay rates, holiday, pension and working hours entitlement, as well as support and further education, being all mandatory within the industry.
Please describe your role as hostel manager:
My main role as hostel manager is to look after up to eighteen teenagers/young adults, who make up our younger staff members, mostly straight from The Racing School, as well as the apprentices and amateur jockeys.
Is your hostel-management approach Miss Trunchball or Miss Honey?!
So… I did ask them all this question to help me with the answer and, as much as I thought they may say I am more Miss Trunchball, it came out that they know my bark is worse than my bite and they’ve come to realise I am quite soft over the majority of things! I am known to be quite straight talking. Given I look after many teenagers, I’m sure you can imagine this does have to come into play at times. When I first took on the role, I remember a couple of lads suggesting that Anna Lisa may have acquired me from the military!!!
Please describe your daily routine:
My daily routine is never really the same other than cooking and generally trying to keep the hostel tidy! Depending on what is going on at Park House for the week, I could be checking accommodation, getting somewhere ready for a new member of staff, dealing with outside contractors or with hostel/housing and staff issues with Anna Lisa. In addition, the job includes showing people around and taking them to watch horses on the gallops, helping with owners, dealing with my racing syndicate, emails/working on my computer or doing the hostel or apprentice accounts. Alternatively, I just could be nipping to the supermarket as well as dealing with all the things in between that crop up on a daily basis. If Anna Lisa is away at a big race meeting, my job then takes on another turn by incorporating some of her daily jobs, such as staff temperature taking during this pandemic, the kids’ ponies and, at times, a school run.
Do you do anything outside of the hostels?
I actually do lots outside of the hostel, especially pre-pandemic and during the season when we have a lot of owners, visitors, charity days and film crews visiting. In 2020, I was given the opportunity to get more involved in the racing side by taking on and running the Park House Partnership racing syndicate which involves ten horses in training at Kingsclere for the 2020/21 seasons. This has been so much fun and pushed me out of my comfort zone as I have had to learn so much, including having to up my computer skills considerably, learning to make videos, writing race previews, being the point of contact for syndicate members as well as personalising and updating the Racing Manager website that we use.
In the beginning, I used to also help Anna Lisa and the Balding children with their ponies but, as the children have grown up, they need much less help these days and all three of them are pretty self-sufficient. However, I will still always help when required and love seeing how amazing all three of the kids are with their riding skills, certainly much bolder and braver than I will ever be!
What are the positives of hostel living?
Personally, I think the biggest positive of coming to work at Kingsclere and living in the hostel as a young member of staff is the support they receive from the whole team. The hostel is usually their first move away from home after attending the Racing School and they learn independence in a safe environment with their safeguarding and welfare as a top priority. We support them by trying to teach life skills alongside work skills and often have various people give talks including nutritionists, accountants, vets and Racing Welfare. I am always on hand to help them with anything they need whether it be banking, booking driving tests, teaching them to cook and generally making the transition to becoming an adult and learning to be independent and stand on their own two feet.
Kingsclere is a beautiful and very safe place to live, and we offer lots of outside work activities to them as we have a gym, tennis court, football pitch, cricket pitch and equine swimming pool all on site, that in the summer months doubles up as our own pool as well. Pre-Covid, we also tried to organise outside activities like bowling, the Jump Factory, escape rooms or a trip to the local ice rink – this one is my least favourite and I can usually be found at the bar rather than on the ice! During the covid pandemic, we have all become rather competitive with board games, jigsaws, murder mystery and quizzes. The hostel provides all inhabitants with individual bedrooms, meals cooked five days a week and the full use of the kitchen if they want to learn to cook for themselves when I am not around. They also have access to a dining room, lounge, Wi-Fi throughout, Sky TV and equicizers as well as an onsite riding coach for those wanting to improve their ridden skills.
And the negatives?!
At times, it can take its toll on some of them all living and working in the same place. Everyone has bad days, which can mean they have to share that bad day with a number of other people. However, most learn to embrace it and someone’s bad mood can easily be changed when they have seventeen other people rallying around them, trying to cheer them up – my bad mood included!
What’s the funniest thing that’s occurred in the hostel?
There are some I cannot share and certainly about which could not go into print! The hostel is a happy place with plenty of daily laughs. My most memorable one was a few years ago when the fair came to Newbury town and they all wanted to attend. I dropped them in the town and should have been suspicious when they texted me to say they didn’t need picking up and would get taxis back. I walked into the bathroom the next day to be greeted by two goldfish swimming around in the bath. I then decided to explore further to check that there were not any more fish hidden in rooms. All in all, I found another ten goldfish that had been won at the fair and hidden in jars in bedrooms as well as a hamster in its cage (the hamster came from a pet shop, not the fair, as they decided now they had pets they might as well go the whole hog and get a furry one too!) – they are not allowed pets in the hostel!
The result was I ended up having to get a fish tank in the dining room for all the goldfish and the hamster got rehomed.
The other was actually much more recent and it always makes me laugh thinking about it. One of my current young lads got a little bit tipsy on Christmas Day. In the early hours of Boxing Day morning, I received some great videos of the young chap declaring his undying love for me and my cooking. He then went on to also declare his undying love for someone else as well, who was much more his age!
What is the best advice you can give?
Go to the Racing School and learn as much as you can. Then try and pick a workplace that is prepared to help carry on your education and help you achieve your end goal whatever that maybe within the industry.
What is the best aspect to working in racing?
Being part of a team as well as embracing and enjoying the team spirit when you have a big winner. For me, it is also being a part and watching individuals achieve their goals whether that be an apprentice jockey having their first ride or win. I always feel very proud when I watch them ride their claim out and become a professional. Alternatively, it could be a young member of staff being allowed to ride their first piece of work or take a horse racing for the first time – all of these things certainly give me job satisfaction.
And the worst?
The disappointments when things go wrong, be it a horse not running as well as expected or injury to humans or horses. Answering my phone in the middle of the night if there is a problem; I love my sleep! And generally trying to persuade a lot of teenagers to have tidy bedrooms, clean up after themselves and bring cups down from their rooms!
What are the best racing parties you’ve been to?
We are extremely fortunate that we have quite a few in house parties and events at Park House. (Obviously pre-covid!) A big summer party is held for staff and owners in July each year, so that’s always a great fun evening with plenty of dinner and dancing. We have also had a rather bonkers BBQ for staff where we had a dog show for all the Park House pet dogs as well as a dog race and a bake off!
One of my favourite days of the year, which is not actually a party but just one of those lovely days that I look forward to is the Saturday of Royal Ascot. I am lucky that I get to attend a few of the big race day meetings throughout the year, but this is my very favourite as its always a fun day with people who I class much more as friends than colleagues, no work involved and a celebration that we are at the last day of the meeting, which involves a very busy week for us all. We tend to get our work done and then throw on an outfit and hat before whizzing up the road to Ascot which is under an hour away. Some very generous owners always have us up to their box for afternoon tea and champagne, we then all congregate back at the owners’ and trainers’ car park with Andrew and Anna Lisa, owners, jockeys and anyone else we know for more drinks before heading back to our local pub for supper.
What are your hobbies?
Dressage and gardening.
Where is your favourite holiday destination?
That’s quite a hard one as I am very lucky that I manage to go on holiday a few times a year with friends. I go on an annual girls’ holiday with Tessa Hetherington (Kingsclere Racing Manager) Maddy O’Meara (Kingsclere Head girl and International Travelling Person) and Samantha Goldsmith who is Assistant to David Simcock. We manage to get away for a week in the sun or, last year due to covid, a staycation. I also go to Ireland with my eventing friends to the Monart sales held in November each year to buy young event horses. These are always long days, spent in the rain and freezing cold wind, however it is also superb fun and always involves slightly too much gin whilst talking to Irish horse dealers! So, I would say it’s not really the destination that matters but the friends with whom I go, although the heat is always preferable to me as I am a true sun worshipper.
What is your favourite drink?
Gin and Elderflower tonic, tea and diet coke!
What is your favourite meal?
Steak and seafood as well as. I know they’re not really a meal, but I have a big passion for Jelly Baby sweets!