When the going gets tough…

As Senior Clerk of the Course, Charlie Moore’s role and responsibilities at Uttoxeter Racecourse, are obviously extremely far reaching.

Characteristically, however, he has his own view on all that.  “If it grows, it’s mine,” he smiles, as another full season of racing at the Staffordshire course best known for staging the second-longest steeplechase in the country – the Betfred Midlands Grand National – approaches.

That’s the day when 16,000 racing fans, corporate guests and an ever-growing number of ‘ordinary punters’ will descend on the market town’s picturesque racecourse, when £166,000 in prize money will be up for grabs (£100,000 of which is for the Midlands Grand National), and when the eyes of the entire racing world will turn focus on this quiet corner of Staffordshire.

Where most people might wilt under the pressure, Charlie will take it all in his stride – in exactly the same way the field of 20 horses in the Midlands Grand National will hopefully take the twenty-four 4’6” high hurdles in theirs.

Walking the course with Charlie on a cold, grey afternoon in early February, it’s hard to imagine the sights, sounds and smells that will roll into town along with the runners and riders in March.  As one of the biggest annual events on the Midlands calendar, it will combine all of the glamour and glitz of a grand day out with the atmosphere and action of a top sports event.

But everything on the course itself, around the parade ring – and, of course, “if it grows” – will come under the beady eyes of Charlie.

Nothing illustrates this better than a walk of the course with him.  His knowledge of racing is exactly what you would expect it to be.  His knowledge of this particular patch of land in Uttoxeter, however, is mind-blowing.  An hour in his company and you feel, on the one hand, that you’ve had an in-depth insight into the world of horse racing, and on the other that you’ve merely scratched the surface…in the same way he does about every just about step of the way with his favourite wooden “going stick”.

Divots are pulled back and trodden into place, bare soil is teased back to green life, the going is intermittently tested.  And that’s before he asks if you, too, can smellthe soil.  (The answer, by the way, was “No”).

He winces slightly at the fact that he is now officially the oldest Clerk of the Course in the country; but what that level of seniority brings with it, of course, is unrivalled experience.  Having left the army in 1989, he’s been a Clerk of the Course for 26 years now – 14 of them at Uttoxeter, and 6 as the Senior Clerk of the Course.

His enthusiasm for the role has never changed.  “I still love it, and still get a buzz out of it.  No two days are the same,” he says.  “No two race meets are the same.  And the other thing, or course, is that you’re dealing with Nature.”

So how many times does he walk the course?  “On average, it probably works out about once a day.  And I’m looking, looking, looking…  And not just in preparation for the next meeting.  But also for the line we’ll be racing in two meetings’ time.”

The 24 fences on the four miles and one furlong Midlands Grand National course also come under the “ownership” of Charlie.  Watching 20 runners and riders leaping these is what helps to make the race itself such a spectacle; but what no-one sees is the painstaking effort behind-the-scenes that goes into the actual making, repairing and placing of these impressive birch structures.

“I have an absolutely marvellous team here,” he says.  “They work incredibly hard, and are well trained and rehearsed in everything they need to do.”

The Midlands Grand National comes at the end of The Cheltenham Festival Week – or “Our Olympics” – as Charlie dubs it.  “We’re extremely lucky here, at Uttoxeter.  People can visit, follow, and get very excited by the racing at Cheltenham all week, and then they can come along here on the Saturday to be a part of our event.”

What every one of the visiting trainers, jockeys and punters wants to know, of course, is what the going will be like.  Another of Charlie’s responsibilities, he will use his wooden stick and the computer in his head to help determine this…but then rely entirely on a metal Turf Trax Going Stick before deciding on whether it is to be called “hard”, “good”, “firm”, “soft” or – heaven forbid – “heavy” (which is unsuitable for racing).

The Midlands Grand National has only ever been abandoned on three occasions in the past: for a waterlogged course, high winds, and an outbreak of foot & mouth disease.  But there is every reason to expect the 2015 race to go ahead as planned.

On race day itself, you might spot Charlie, wooden going stick under his arm, binoculars hanging round his neck, radio in one hand and mobile phone in the other – looking like he doesn’t have a care in the world.  But you can be sure that the minute something needs his attention, he and his team will be the quickest to react.

So what’s the appeal of racing at Uttoxeter in general, and the Midlands Grand National in particular? “It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned race goer like me or a complete novice,” says Charlie.  “You’ll simply have a superb day out.”