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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

An Interview with Racing Secretary Joline Saunders

Joline Saunders, Racing Secretary and PA to trainer Richard Philips, used to have a ‘proper job’.

‘Although I earned well at Vodafone at their then head office in Adderbury,’ says Joline. ‘I hated my job there and was so keen to get a job within the sport I loved as a racing secretary.’

It was just how to go about finding Joline’s dream job… As well as writing letters, Joline went to the races as a spectator a lot, until fate took a turn in her favour. ‘I wrote to quite a few trainers to no avail, as I had no experience in the racing industry. I also used all my holiday days to go racing to meet people and make connections. Thankfully this paid off when, at a Stratford meeting, Gordy Clarkson, Richard Phillip’s then Assistant Trainer, approached me and my friend and asked why we were always at the races. I told him my mission and as it happened, Richard was looking for a racing secretary. Gordy organised for me to meet up with Richard the next day at Worcester races and the rest is history!’

Joline started working for Richard on the August Bank Holiday in 2001. It was a busy day, in which a new syndicate was visiting the yard to meet their new horse. ‘I made lifelong friends that day,’ she reflects with a smile. That first day set the precedence for Joline’s new life – busy days working with lots of lovely people. A life that Joline loves, surrounded by racing people, horses and dogs.

Joline explains, ‘My beloved spaniel, Beanie, died a couple of years ago and I’m not ready for another one yet. I absolutely love dogs – they are incredible animals. There are lots of dogs in my life though, so enjoy fussing over them without the commitment.’ She really is passionate about her job and the yard wouldn’t be the same, let alone run as smoothly, without her.

Joline is a qualified massage therapist, although she doesn’t practice anymore. She is also a clinical hypnotherapist and does practice this at a clinic in Moreton-in-the-Marsh, specialising in helping people with quitting smoking and managing anxiety issues.

Joline grew up in a village called Cookley, near Kidderminster in Worcestershire and, since starting her present job twenty-one years ago, she moved to Adlestrop. ‘I don’t have a long commute to my office at the yard…about a three-minute walk,’ she chuckles.

Did you have a horsey childhood? I always loved horses and had my first riding lessons age four. I was completely obsessed – everything was about horses. My first ever job was on Saturdays at the local riding school where I got paid £7 a day to muck out, groom, tack up etc. I’d have done it for free though. I loved watching show jumping and had posters of the great grey Milton, Ryan’s Son and Anglezarke on my wall. I vividly remember the locally trained West Tip, ridden by Richard Dunwoody, winning the Grand National and from then on, I was entranced by racing. Richard Dunwoody and Gee Armytage were my heroes.

As a family we’d often go to Worcester and Ludlow races, which was always very exciting me for me and my sister.

Do you ride out now? Although I enjoyed bloodhounding and rode daily in the past, once I started working in racing, my riding days fizzled out. I’ve only ridden out a couple of times in my time here and consider myself retired from it now!

Please describe your role at Richard Phillips Racing: I have a varied and flexible role here. I do all the admin related to the horses, including entries and declarations as well as much of the admin related to staff.

I do the accounts, social media posts, update the website, send newsletters, in fact anything involving a computer as Richard is not a fan of technology!

I look after our visitors, hold onto horses for our physio, help on the yard when needed and enjoy mucking out from time to time.

We have a racing club, The Adlestrop Club which has regular social events to raise money for charities – therefore I always have an event or two to organise on my ‘to do’ list as well.

What is your favourite part of the job? I love the fact it’s so varied – no two days are the same.

Why is Richard Phillips a great boss?! I would say he is a great boss because he is very supportive and flexible. He loves nothing more than seeing people improve and encourages people to be the best they can be.

He would never ask anyone to do anything he is not prepared to do himself (apart from use a computer!).

So many of our previous staff have stayed in touch and many say he was the best boss they had.

He has a lot of drive and enthusiasm - if he was a racehorse, he would definitely not need to wear blinkers – maybe a hood from time to time and a tongue tie might come in useful, ha ha. He’s also very entertaining – even when he doesn’t realise it!

What are the best aspects of working in racing? For me, I live in a stunning village, I walk to work and I’m surrounded by beautiful racehorses all day, every day.

I love how racing brings such a variety of people together from all parts of society with a common interest.

And the worst? The stable staff shortages are a real worry.

What have been your best day(s) in racing so far? La Landiere winning at the Cheltenham Festival was very special. We had a hospitality tent that day for our owners and we were so overwhelmed with well-wishers who came to celebrate with us, that they had to take one side of the marquee down as there were too many people.

How did it feel to win at the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards? It felt very surreal. I absolutely was not expecting to win at all. To be honest, I put up a bit of a protest at being entered as I didn’t think there was any point. When Ed Chamberlin called my name out, I couldn’t believe it.

It was a wonderful experience – made even more so because colleague Faisal also reached the final of the awards in the ‘rider/groom’ category and Richard went on to win the Rory MacDonald Community Award.

As it happened during lockdown and the awards were broadcast on Racing TV – it meant that many people who wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to witness the awards, could tune in and watch them live. Consequently, we were immediately inundated with messages, phone calls and good wishes. It was a very special occasion.

Do you have any advice for people wanting to be a racing secretary? It’s a wonderful and varied role. When I first started, there was no such thing as a ‘racing secretary’ course as there is now at the British Racing School. I would advise to start with that course if possible. There is so much to know with regards to the administration and rules of racing.

Maybe see if you can spend a day or two in a racing office with a racing secretary so you can see what’s involved. In my early years here, I was lucky enough to spend a day in Mark Johnston’s office with his senior secretary. It was a very interesting and useful experience.

Do you think social media is positive or negative? From a work perspective, it’s a great way of getting your message out there and showing off what a brilliant team we have who love the horses they work with.

From a personal perspective – I find it a bit of a sinkhole of time and although it’s supposedly meant to help us feel more connected, I find that people are generally more disconnected and constantly staring at their phones.

Do you ever go racing? Yes, I do from occasionally and love going. On the Flat, I love the Goodwood festival – it’s such a gorgeous place to go and there’s a great atmosphere.

Jumping, I enjoy going to the smaller tracks generally but anywhere we have a runner is fine by me!

In your opinion, how has racing’s stable staff crisis occurred? There are many reasons this has happened and it is not just the racing industry that is struggling to recruit staff.

However, I think society has changed and maybe fewer young people have the opportunity to ride ponies anymore to ignite their interest. It’s an expensive hobby and I fear that less and less kids are going to get the opportunity with the current cost of living crisis.

This may be controversial but I think another aspect that doesn’t help is that other equine disciplines do not have always as good working conditions as racing.

People can find themselves working very long hours for much less reward and I think this causes people to be put off from working with horses when they could have a fulfilling and exciting career in the racing industry.

Please describe your part in your yard’s success in the Lycetts Team Champion Award: The entry was a team effort led by myself and our then-assistant Hannah Gregory. We planned what we wanted to portray, then made a list of all the video clips we wanted to get and then went about make them and clipping them together.

The written part of the awards I did take the lead on as it’s easier for me being in front of a computer but everyone had an input on our final entries.

Although it was quite time consuming pulling the entry together, we did find during the year we were coming up with new ideas we could implement to enhance our entry. I feel we are a yard always wanting to improve and create the best workplace for our team.

Having the accolade of the awards certainly helps when recruiting for new staff too.

Please describe the success behind National Racehorse Week: I think something as simple as allowing people behind the scenes of our racing yards, is hugely beneficial to the reputation of racing.

When I meet new people, there is a noticeable change in people’s reactions in recent years when I say I work in racing – particularly when I say jump racing. More and more people ask questions about the welfare of the horses and what happens to them after their racing careers are over.

We need to be willing to open our yard doors and show them behind the scenes of a racehorse’s life and what happens after their racing careers are over. How much love, thought and attention goes in to ensuring they are as happy and healthy as possible at every stage.

Our event last year was brilliant. We had John Inverdale hosting and he interviewed our equine massage therapist, farrier, vet, staff members and Yogi Breisner.

It was fascinating to listen to everyone and our visitors seemed to really enjoy the experience. We had some fantastic feedback.

I think because we see it every day, it’s kind of normal for us and sometimes we can forget how fascinating it is for people. Such events are also a great opportunity also to showcase what great career opportunities there are within our sport and what a fulfilling industry it is to work in.

Favourite meal: Roast dinner.

Favourite drink: Rosé wine or pink champagne.

Favourite holiday destination: Anywhere by the sea.

Favourite music: David Bowie.

Favourite movie: The Blind Side.

Favourite book: The Strike series of crime fiction novels written by JK Rowling, under her pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.

Other interests: I love going to the theatre, eating out and doing training courses!

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