An Interview with George McGrath - Chief Executive of NARS
George McGrath may not have been the most committed jockey, prioritising socialising and partying but was always proactive and forward thinking to improve the conditions for the workforce within racing. After being a jockey on the Flat and over jumps, he worked for more than a decade as a head of travelling before heading into an office job. It wasn’t any old office job but the head of NARS – the National Association of Racing Staff, racing’s only union.
In 2011, George won the former NASS Special Merit Awards at the Godolphin Stud and Staff Awards whilst he was head of travelling to the former trainer Willie Musson and was also a runner up in the Dedication to Racing Award. He has subsequently joined the judging panel, giving back to the award scheme in which he was highly successful.
George grew up in Ireland, originally in County Meath but moved to Tipperary at the age of twelve, then over to England at the age of seventeen to better his career in racing. He has a fiancée, Lauren, a daughter Keira (the Munch) and Dirty Bertie the border terrier from Barnsley! They live in Newmarket.
Oh, and when I asked George his age, he answered, ‘Older than I look. NARS will send a £50 high street voucher to the best guess within a week of this interview going live’. Answers on a postcard or emails to NARS please!
Did you have a horsey childhood?
I remember watching my dad, a twice Champion jockey ride a treble at the now defunct Phoenix Park racecourse, but I never had a pony or anything like that.
How did you get into racing?
Dad told me not to follow his route, but I started by cycling twelve miles there and back to work for a trainer with twelve horses, just mucking out at first and progressed to throwing a leg over one. He gave up on me and it finished by him calling me nothing more than a handy man. I sent him a copy of the front page of the Sporting Life when I rode my first winner.
Which trainers have you worked for and in which roles?
I started with Ian Balding in 1984, partied hard and went out with girls, all great fun, but not conducive to a career. I got fat, I weighed a whole eight and a half stone; but as an apprentice that’s not competitive – Pat Eddery could ride at that weight. I therefore went National Hunt racing and was a conditional for Gordon Richards. It was so cold up there that frost was on the inside of the windows but great fun and I was on the same trajectory: enjoying myself but going nowhere fast. I then worked for Willie Musson for the last twelve years as travelling head man before starting this job.
What was your favourite racehorse?
Marrajaa, a total beast, the only horse that I ever got off because he was unrideable. Willie Musson bought him from France, a machine but with bits missing, like his brain. We gelded him and he became my best friend and won a lot of races for us. I miss him to this day.
What were your favourite racecourses?
York. They just do everything so well and as it’s in Yorkshire, what else could you ask for? The people make it, the location helps, the way they treat staff tops it off. Chester is also nice, but Willie wouldn’t enter one in case it got drawn wide. Hamilton is the best Scottish track.
Did you ever travel internationally for racing and if so, where?
Well, Ireland from England, but as I came from Ireland, does that count? I also travelled to France, Belgium and Australia.
Which was your favourite canteen?!
York and Ascot both do well. They should only be representative of what ought to be available at every racecourse. Both are independently owned racecourses: the Jockey Club, (which hosts four Classics, 1,000 & 2,000 Guineas and Oaks), and ARC, (which hosts one Classic and the Ledger) but barely make the top ten in the NARS Racecourse Ratings of the best courses as compiled by staff since 2017 (see our website).
What were your best days in racing?
Riding my first winner at Warwick, Pitt Club, and my dad being present at my first ride at Newbury, which was for the Queen.
What were the best aspects about working in racing?
Getting out of bed and looking forward to the day. It’s different all the time. You have different opportunities to experience every day. I used to bounce out of bed on a work morning and crawl out of it on an easy day. We underestimate the variety our roles give us. Then there is the chance to travel the country, if not the world, and get paid for it. University students call it a gap year and it costs them a fortune.
And the worst?!
Not many look forward to mucking out, the winters are really tough, the summers too hot in a back protector, and danger is never far away. Career progression has come a long way, as have courses to help staff move through different aspects of the industry. However, we still have a way to go to achieve the work/life balance that will address staff shortages and retention.
How has working in racing changed?
Since I came to racing in 1984, we have seriously moved on. I started with about £30 a week and lodgings, but I worked from 6am to 7pm with little or no break. As an apprentice, I had to crush the oats for that evening’s feed, it took all of our lunchtime break, and we were covered in dust and sweat. We were paid £10 for travelling to the races, regardless of how long we were there. We had no overtime, no recognition and respect was a word that didn’t really apply to stable staff. We were seen as staff, not the professionals we actually were.
Now we have minimum standards (the MOA), still too low for what we do but a million miles from where we were; a 40 hour working week (overtime sheets are available on our website and the NTFs), time off for Sunday racing off rota and Saturday evening meetings, a wage comparable with other sporting industries (just look at how little you get in other sectors of employment). Best turned outs at all racecourses, a free meal at all Jockey Club racecourses and all ARC course, twelve independents, along with the £10 subsistent payment, tax free. In fact, conditions at racecourses have improved so much that they are unrecognisable from just a few years ago.
How and why did you get into an office role?
I became involved when I was twenty-four; I knew the jockey dream was over, I was neither good enough nor dedicated enough. I stood for election in 2008, I was beaten by Jim Cornelius, but I was elected as President shortly afterwards. That became a five-year unpaid role and the best thing that happened to me. I learned the legislation around trade unions, employment laws and the industry knowledge.
I then stood for election again and won. As for why? Because I have always been interested in people, their minds and welfare, the racing staff’s issues, the fact they were not addressed or really taken seriously. I actually decided to do something about it in 1980s when I realised that I wasn’t a jockey but I had no opportunity to upskill in the industry. I knew I had a lot to offer (and say) but no opportunity to act.
I aim to give every member of racing staff an opportunity to upskill at no cost to them, a benefit to racing as a whole and to make this racing environment a better place for racing staff, racehorses, owners and trainers.
My aim is for a better wage packet and paid overtime, respect, recognition and an industry in which we can be proud to work.
Describe your role at NARS:
My job is that of Chief Executive. I am responsible for running the Executive committee, which is the governing body, five regional committees, the Racecourse inspectors’ program and NEP, the NARS Educational Program. I also have an NJC, National joint Council, which determines wages and conditions, a member of the Horsemans’ Group representing racing staff and a trustee of RIABS. I also sit on several committees and steering groups representing racing staff.
How has NARS changed over the years?
I wanted to give the racing staff a better profile as well as bettering their terms and conditions.
One thing that always bothered me was the label, stable staff. It conjures up the image of a young person working with horses for pocket money, certainly not a profession. That’s what the SLA (the Stable Lads’ Association, the original name for NARS) stood for. That couldn’t be further than the truth. You can teach anyone how to drive an HGV, become a teaching assistant, or a vet assistant in a short space of time. While I recognise those talents, you can’t teach somebody to do our job in a few weeks or months, it takes years and tons of skill, constantly honed. The name became NASS, so still stable staff. I didn’t recognise the workforce as stable staff, but rather racing staff so that’s how it became NARS. We are a professional workforce and the name should reflect that.
How does NARS portray diversity and equality?
One of the best things about working with horses is they don’t judge you on colour, race, religion or anything. Just talk to them through your hands and mind, it’s an open conversation that requires nothing but your own acceptance.
In terms of how NARS portrays the industry, we never excluded any background, but I now recognise that that’s not good enough. So, last year I organised a committee to represent those from minority backgrounds. They are called Article 21.
Equality is another issue, but one we have long understood. Women in racing are the backbone, the future and the leaders of our sport. We have a female CE of the BHA, a female Chairperson and Dawn Goodfellow is the CE of Racing Welfare. We also have a progressive 70/30 split of females coming into the workforce. Girl power is here and it’s welcome. NARS has more female members on its committees and Executive than any other racing organisation I know (except Racing Welfare, which has a heavily weighted female workforce).
What other initiatives have you been involved with?
In my job I have been fortunate to be able promote a lot of initiatives for staff. These include the regional staff development program, sports days, local quizzes, regional committee meetings for staff in Middleham, Malton, Lambourn, Epsom and Newmarket as well as the South-West. I’m also involved with executive committees and the Regional Racecourse Inspectors. In addition, I am on eight boards or committees representing racing staff at every level.
In your opinion, how did the stable staff crisis begin?
I believe it stared in the 1980s when agencies were allowed to bring staff from Asia to work in the UK. Whatever their qualifications, the chances were that they would earn more in the UK than at home even in rider/groom jobs. Employers took this opportunity rather than address the shortcomings of the job, by employing staff who didn’t and couldn’t complain because they were on five-year visas.
Then the government changed the immigration criteria to one based on academic qualifications. As a grooms’ job did not meet that threshold level, Asian staff were therefore no longer able to fulfil those roles in the UK or solve the staff shortage. In effect, they didn’t meet that bar. We also have certain requirements that limit our opportunity to employ. We need people to be ready and willing to work outdoors, in all weathers, and for thirteen out of fourteen mornings a week. As if that’s not enough, we then ask them to weigh no more than ten stone (Flat) and maybe twelve stone (National Hunt). Now we are playing catch up with every other industry but with all of the other challenges we face. As an industry, we really need to focus on what a career in racing offers, the opportunities to travel and the fact it can be hugely enjoyable and rewarding.
Is there a brighter future for racing now from a staffing point of view?
Until the work/life balance is properly addressed, no!
The industry can’t continue to complain about a lack of suitable staff at its disposal whilst doing little or nothing to change things.
A simple solution would be for all employers to rotate evening stables duties. We don’t need a full workforce to return every evening, as evidenced by every single Saturday which is also the busiest days’ racing. If we can do it then, why not every day? Tradition, it’s all for tradition’s sake, and it’s pointless and detrimental to the future of our sport.
If working practices change, and NARS has and will continue to campaign for it, then racing will become an incredibly attractive industry in which to work in.
How has lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic altered the work of NARS?
When the first lockdown was announced, the three other staff diligently worked from home but I went into the office every single day for twelve weeks. We needed to be able to answer the phones; at times all four lines were ringing at once. I also needed to be able to continue following up on current issues and cases. Of course, the information we needed to get out to the staff changed almost daily, if not hourly at times. We logged more calls, emails and social media posts and queries in those three months than in any other three-month period of our history. Furlough and dismissals were the most common queries. When I look back at those twelve weeks, I liken it to crossing a frozen lake: I’m on the other side now but I wonder how I made it across without the ice breaking and me crashing through to my demise. It makes me shudder.
Describe your role in the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards:
NARS actually had a special merit award but the format changed and it was dropped. However, it was decided that NARS should be on the judging panel. It is such a special opportunity for the staff and the only one of its kind. It should be noted that the trainers have nothing like it and the jockeys have to pay for their own tables and hotel rooms at the Lester’s. It is one area where racing staff definitely come top of the pile in how we are recognised and rewarded
What’s your favourite meal?
An Indian or good steak
What’s your favourite drink?
Water is God’s own drink, anyone who has tasted it will tell you that, but I like a cold glass of white wine at the end of the day.
Where’s your favourite holiday destination?
Cuba, but not Havana, down south where it’s totally unspoilt, it’s like going back in time.
What’s your favourite music?
Neil Diamond and Ed Sheeran.
I love reading absolutely anything and I’m known to enjoy a round of golf!