Park Life ...

Dawn Boswellin Equestrian

Ask any member of the horse racing public to name some of their heroes and you'll hear names like Aiden O'Brien, Martin Pipe, Paul Nicholls, Tony McCoy, Frankie Dettori roll easily off the tongue, but I'll wager that the name of Maurice Crooks will not be amongst them.

MauriceCrooks.jpgBut it is Maurice, and his many colleagues, who are the unsung heroes of the racing world, whose behind the scenes work is vital to the likes of you and me enjoying a day's racing.

Lancastrian Maurice, originally from Ashton-in Makerfield, is Head Groundsman and Estates Manager at Haydock Park Racecourse, one of the leading racetracks in the North West of England. It is his remit not only to ensure that the course is fit for racing on race days, but also the weighty responsibility for the safety and upkeep of every outdoor space at Haydock Park. This is no mean challenge for, at 250 acres, Haydock is one of the largest racecourses in the country.

Being the modest man he is, Maurice is the first to point out that the amount of work required to do the job is not down to him alone. "I have a great bunch of lads working alongside me. Each one knows what is expected of him and they just get on with it."

Maurice's "cast" of lads comprises thirteen staff of which one is a mechanic, one a painter, two are gardeners and nine are groundsmen but, under Maurice's refreshingly no-nonsense approach to his work, labels don't exist and if, for example, a problem crops up, then, in true Lancastrian style, "we all just muck in and get on with it".

After speaking to several of his staff it is soon clear that they have genuine affection and respect for their boss, which is hardly surprising when you discover that Maurice has most probably done their job at some point in the 37 years (yes, 37) he has worked at the racecourse.

He began his career in 1971 as a fence builder, an unusual career choice for a seventeen year old in, what was then, very much a mining and heavily industrialised part of the world. But, as he explains "I'd always loved horses. I used to come down here when I was just fourteen when Haydock had its own railway station. I'd play on 'The Heath' and watch the horses. I even had a few lessons. I feel very lucky that I was taken on at Haydock.

After learning how to build fences, I became a tractor driver -every boy's dream - and then helped out with every conceivable job there was, doing, I suppose, what was a good, old-fashioned, time-served, apprenticeship". He progressed through the ranks to become Assistant Head Groundsman in 1980, assuming his current mantle of Head Groundsman in 1995.

Haydock2.jpgThe sheer enormity of scale to keep on top of the job is a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge. For Maurice and his team there is the immediacy of the usual daily tasks to be dealt with. On the non-race day I visited, there was an air of calm, but brisk, efficiency being played out against a background whirr of mowing machines and the steady hum of the roadsweeper, slowly but surely cleaning its way round every snails inch of the parade ring.

Someone had just left Maurice's on-site 'office' - more a garage (or, as they call them round these parts, an 'outhouse') with an oily, concrete floor, functional old, melomine desk and the current eagerly awaited trade magazines that, after a quick flick through, leave me personally, about as cold as the heavily stained mug of tea on the corner.

It transpires his visitor was Mike Kilblain, one of John Deere's representatives who liaises with Maurice over the five tractors that have recently been purchased.

There is no need to interview Maurice formally as the nature of his job is unfolding in front of me. Before we get a chance to talk further his landline telephone is going. "That was reception letting me know that a delivery of sand has just arrived". This is swiftly followed by his mobile ringing. "A belt has broken on one of the mowers that, unusually, they are struggling with". After some toing and froing of technical questions, it seems Maurice has come up with the solution and the caller, one of his lads, goes away happy, leaving Maurice a few minutes peace and quiet.

These are the bread and butter, often technical, problems of the job which, whilst may be vast in quantity and frustrating at times, Maurice clearly loves and thrives on.

At the other, management, end of his job, the downside is that he is on call 24/7. Naturally, he can be seen as public enemy number one if the racecourse loses a meeting due to it being unfit, as that is a lot of lost revenue and bad PR in today's cost conscious, corporate world. But, despite all his experience, even Maurice hasn't yet found a way of being able to control the weather. Even though, like other racecourses, Haydock pays a fee to a meteorologist to try to predict the weather, and we all know how accurate those forecasts can be!

The composition of the soil at Haydock is black and loamy. It holds water. Great if you want to grow carrots but, for horse racing, has meant that the course has almost literally been bogged down by its predisposition for repeatedly, and quickly, turning the going to 'heavy', making any groundsman's job very difficult.

Ironically, it was an attempt to alleviate this situation that has given Maurice and his team one of the biggest challenges over and above the normal problems faced by any racing groundstaff.

MauriceCrooks2.jpgRegular racegoers may know that May 2007 saw the beginning of a four year track redevelopment programme costing a total of £2.5million. The aim was to completely overhaul the track, instead of repeatedly paying out for "patching up weaknesses".

"As as an example," says Maurice "we spent £30k on temporary covers in advance of the Sprint Cup, but still lost the meeting to the weather as the rain got underneath. With climate change and the weather generally getting wetter, we decided long term it would be a good investment to strip the old turf off, introduce sand, rotovate it in, redrain the track as well as returf it."

This would be a big enough project for any grounds team. The relaying of a new course or pitch, whatever the sport, is a major undertaking giving rise to numerous headaches along the way.

However, what makes the task at Haydock stand out as being of particularly seismic proportions, is the fact that Maurice and co have had to carry out the redevelopment without any interruption to the racing fixtures!

They have not had the luxury to close down for a period and work behind closed doors, or even work in the 'off season'. It has not been an option. It has brought immense problems but, if ever there was a right man for the job, Haydock Park have him. Even though Maurice has been stretched, he absorbs the stresses that the new project brings remarkably well and shields his team from much of the strain.

For example, during the first jump season of the redevelopment programme he, somewhat euphemistically, "had a problem". Instead of running hurdle and steeplechase races on separate tracks as normal, he was told that they would have to share the same course.

This was unheard of. For those unfamiliar with the sport, most racecourses have 'fixed' jumps whilst the smaller 'hurdles' have their own track, as do the larger steeplechase fences. Therefore, even if there are hurdle and steeplechase races on the same card/day's racing - which is often the case at Jump meetings - it is of little consequence usually, as the jockeys just use the appropriate course.

As Head Groundsman, it fell to Maurice to make this temporary, but demanding, arrangement work. "Worse case scenario - it gave my staff just thirty minutes between each race to change over fences weighing easily four tonnes". He knew that the only solution lay with portable jumps. There were already some on the market but he felt they were neither robust, nor mobile enough, to do the job he required.

In testimony to Maurice's management and team building skills, the answer came from the groundstaff themselves who came up with the concept for a new type of portable fence.

Basically, their portable fence would not only be stronger but also have unobtrusive axles and wheels to increase manoeuvrability.

A local firm, Wigan Trailers, was commissioned to produce the stronger, basic steel frame, with Haydock's own staff responsible for "second fix" of birch and take-off boards. The result? No racing lost. The best part of a million pounds saved and a quietly satisfied Head Groundsman, understandably proud of his team.

I am treated to a demonstration of just how quickly the changeover can be achieved, when Maurice arranges for one of the lads to drive the tractor alongside a hurdle, move it out of the way and replace it with a larger, steeplechase one - all in a matter of three minutes - impressive.

Maurice Crooks is a man of few words, a trait mistaken by some for brusqueness but, dig beneath the outer shell/topsoil, and you'll find a sensitive man who is at home with animals and nature and vice versa. As well as his easy interplay with horses, it is clear Maurice stirs up loyalty from elsewhere in the animal kingdom - notably in the shape of Annie and Pip, his two devoted black labradors, who follow him everywhere on his daily rounds of the estate (and who enjoy something of a celebrity status themselves amongst the Haydock Park staff).

It is this caring, environmentally aware side of his personality that makes Maurice feel the need to apologise for the current "eyesore" of a view that hangs over his territory. He likes things to be just right, and so takes such things as muddy tyre tracks and contractors' diggers as personal blots on his landscape. However, he acknowledges that it is only temporary and that it will be "one fantastic track" once the redevelopment work has finished.

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