Plumpton Racecourse - Hats off to Mark - both of them

Neville Johnsonin Equestrian

Like all sports, racing is facing up to big changes thanks to Coronavirus. One of National Hunt's best-loved courses is preparing for an extra change. Its long serving Head Groundsman and, in recent times, its Clerk of the Course too is retiring at the end of the year. Neville Johnson visited the course to talk to Mark Cornford to get his thoughts on how 'the turf' has changed for him.

In mid-July there was a post-lockdown tranquility at this lovely Sussex course, which first held a race meeting back in 1884. Tranquil yes, but because of what's held sport - all of us, in fact - up, there was also an air of pent up expectation for the first new season 'off' just a few weeks away.

National Hunt's 20/21 season officially started on 1st July, but Plumpton's first meeting, billed as Family Race Day, is scheduled for Sunday September 20th. Mark and his team, now unfurloughed, were setting about getting the course in tip-top shape for racing.

He takes time out to talk about 'the turf' and what is a special final year for him.

Pitchcare: This is your 40th year here. To many you are Mr. Plumpton. Was it always your plan to retire this year, or have the effects on racing of the Covid pandemic affected your thinking?

Mark Cornford: My older brother Tony, who had also worked on the groundstaff here, died last year and it got me thinking about my own future. I made the decision then that it was the right time to sign off. Covid has been, still is, a massive shackle on racing, but no, my mind had been made up before it took hold.

About a year ago I wrote to the course owners expressing my thoughts and suggesting that plans be made for a take-over of my dual responsibilities. My principal aim was to ensure a smooth transition.

Quite soon all of this will be yours... retiring Mark Cornford with the man taking over his dual role, Marcus Waters

Who's taking over? Will they be doing both jobs?

Marcus Waters, who has experience as a groundsman at Brighton racecourse and, more recently, on the grounds team at Premiership Brighton's Amex Stadium. He is more than qualified to take over course care reins.

He was only able to shadow me for two meetings prior to lockdown and, since that time, has been part of a small team gaining good hands on knowledge of the course and the art of fence refurbishing. Unfortunately, his formal training has been on hold but, as a trainee Clerk, he is welcome at other courses to see different set ups and methods of handling a raceday, which is an excellent grounding. Already a fully qualified Head Groundsman, Marcus is well on the way to reaching the standard expected by the British Horseracing Association (BHA) which governs all racing in this country.

This isn't just a job. You have to be interested in everything you do. Marcus loves racing and was a Pony Club member here as a youngster. He's tailor made for both of them.

I think my aim of achieving continuity is neatly in place.

When are you actually hanging up your 'hats'?

I will continue as Clerk and Head Groundsman up to December 31st. I've already agreed, because Marcus' training has been delayed somewhat, that I would be available to help out at meetings beyond that date, if necessary.

I live practically next door to the course in Plumpton Green, so I'm here in minutes.

Landing areas are kept neatly mown to thicken growth / The final jump in the straight is getting some birch filling ahead of September's first meeting

Meanwhile, how will you deal with behind closed doors racing and all the restrictions associated with the Pandemic?

Nothing has happened on the course at all since our meeting in the spring just prior to the Cheltenham Festival. In all, we lost seven fixtures last season. It's been unreal for long periods, and many of the Plumpton team - myself included - have been furloughed.

It does now begin to feel more like a racecourse again as the new National Hunt season gets moving. There is certainly a buzz around here thank goodness.

The lurking anxiety is will the racegoers return? Will they have turned to other things?

We have yet to race since the lockdown and putting restrictions into practice is completely new to us.

We're used to face masks and sanitisers because we've had to use them anyway, but the button has yet to be pushed for handling distancing on race days as far as jockeys, race teams and officials is concerned. Plumpton is a delightfully intimate course, but it is small and space restriction would be difficult. We have materials and contractors ear-marked for measures, but our first meeting is still some weeks away and things may well have changed by then.

Our expectation and thinking is flexible to say the least. We'll do what we have to do to make it a good day's racing here come what may. Our fingers are crossed that there will be at least some lifting of current restrictions. Who knows, we may even be able to welcome some racegoers?

Aside from the unprecedented situation in racing this year, how has the sport changed during your career, especially at National Hunt courses?

Safety is what sticks out. I suppose it has had to be, not least because, bit by bit, racing - as all sport - has come under bigger and bigger public gaze. It used to be just television and the betting world, but now it's constant Internet viewing and everyone these days has a smart phone camera. Nothing escapes attention. We're in the public domain. Everyone's watching you.

Racing - especially National Hunt - has its dangers. These have always been accepted, but the industry, and we who look after the courses, are doing so much more to keep it as safe as it can be.

In the old days the beater was the way to flatten the course after a meeting. Mark has kept one in the weighing room and shows how it was done

When I first came into racing there were concrete posts and aluminium rails. Plastic rails were around, but they shattered on impact and could still present menace to horse and jockey. Nowadays, non-shatter, foldable plastic rails and wings are the order of the day and, with the addition of padded fence guardrails and extra padding added to hurdles, great strides have been made with equine welfare.

Turfcare has moved on tremendously, too. Post-race repair used to mean wielding a beater, a heavy-handed way of trying to level the surface after a racing. Certainly it was when I started here. It was hard work just thumping the ground level and it was by no means totally successful.

You might also do a bit of filling, broadcasting sand by shovel - very crude. Not like the more precise methods today using a bucket and trowel to deliver a balanced mix of rootzone and grass seed to repair divots.

In the old days here at Plumpton, we relied on a team of locals to help with repair work and the like. They enjoyed race days and got real pleasure from a couple of days helping the full-time team to fork the course making good hoof damage. They were wonderful. Gradually, reliance on local help dwindled, as much as anything because we couldn't guarantee sufficient numbers and the time the job took got longer and longer. What once was getting done in a couple of days was taking a week or more.

Like most courses, we've come to rely on a company called Sterling Services for an experienced workforce for post event repairs. They know what they're doing and what's expected of them. An experienced workforce of a guaranteed number is such a benefit, much as I loved the old days and the fun we had. Generally, we can expect the course to be back in shape in a day. It means we can have more time spent on preparing the course, fences and hurdles for our next meeting.

Training courses for ground staff is another worthy advance. These have meant improved course repair methods and better racing surfaces. Also groundsmen getting recognition within the industry and not just classed as agricultural workers, as we were when I started.

The Plumpton Grandstand from before Mark's time there ... and the current version

In general, back in the day, Clerks of the Course would principally have either a military or agricultural background. Things have changed substantially during my forty years, with Clerks these days having to be highly tuned in to what groundsmen are doing and the effects on going. Everything is so much more professional all round.

Yet to happen is a workplace pension for ground staff. The Government NEST scheme is available now but, in my opinion, racing should have done it years ago for its lower paid workers. We'll see.

How have things changed at Plumpton in your time here?

Enormously. The majority of the stands and associated buildings were timber structures when I first came here. These have all been replaced and Plumpton, though a small course, offers racegoers a very comfortable, modern environment on race days and, of course, it's a much-used venue for business and social gatherings.

I think the best thing about Plumpton, for all the modernisation, is it's kept its intimate, family feel. It's one of the very few courses that lets you see the whole of the circuit wherever you choose to watch the racing.

When I first started here in 1980 there were no offices, no management. There was just the grounds staff and a foreman, who was termed the Racecourse Manager. There were just five of us. There was a Clerk of the Course and we would get to see him, on average, once a week, until a race meeting was imminent.

The crowds will surely be back this season

Investment was measured during my early years and the buildings' paintwork and signage all started to look tired as we entered the mid-90s. The current directors, Peter Savill and Adrian Pratt, have invested heavily in the infrastructure since they took over ownership in 1998, including substantial drainage works.

Only this summer we have had secondary banding drainage added in the home straight where water was slow to get away last season, MJ Abbott's being our preferred drainage contractor.

This is where regular topdressing plays a big part in preventing capping of drains to allow downward movement of surface water.

The considerable investment in drainage here has saved meetings that would previously have been lost. The directors deserve huge credit for their continued support and faith in the course. Other recent investments have included upgrading the stable staff hostel and building a barn centre course to protect machinery, as well as providing a dry environment for staff to work on hurdles and fence sections.

The machinery available to ground staff has been steadily upgraded in recent years. Earlier this year, pre-Covid 19, we took delivery of a new Kubota front-loader tractor, which is a real boon.

Staff welfare and training have grown too. We have visited trainers' yards, other racecourses and, last year, the Sussex Equine Hospital, our course vet's state of the art headquarters.

What are the best things that have happened to course upkeep methods and materials in your time?

Quality grass seed and better topdressing materials, unquestionably. Forty years ago there used to be a sand pit just up the road and we'd take a trailer - which we even had to borrow - fill it with sand and simply spread it across the turf.

The advancement of plastic rails was a huge step forward. Apart from the safety aspects, already mentioned, it means we can make alterations to layout speedily and less arduously.

A crisp morning at Plumpton

How do you see the future of National Hunt and especially smaller courses like Plumpton? Will racegoers return in numbers and will there be lasting changes to the way courses present racing and entertain visitors?

It's the funding of racing that's coming into question as this pandemic crisis goes on. The industry is worried about owners leaving the sport. Without owners we don't have horses: without horses there is no racing. That's the worst scenario.

Income from public attendance at meetings is another big concern all the time there's a ban on public gatherings. Also, without a flourishing betting industry there's the consequent downturn in levy income to worry about.

These are all causes for concern right now. It's a vicious circle creating questions for which we would all like solutions.

I'm an optimist and I do think we'll get back to a near normal soon, but there are certainly going to be changes in the way racing is presented and experienced.

Thank goodness no UK courses yet look threatened by closure, and certainly Plumpton is ready for the off in September. We can't wait.

I feel we have a good geographical spread now of all-weather tracks and, personally, whilst I appreciate their place in our sport, I think enough is enough. Turf racing is the very essence of British racing.

One of the biggest challenges is how to crack the younger market. Here at Plumpton we have family days and that certainly does bring in more youngsters and whet their appetite for racing.

Which has given you most satisfaction in recent years - looking after the Plumpton turf or seeing that its meetings run smoothly? Groundsman or Clerk?

After a successful day's racing here and you see everyone going home happy, as Clerk it gives a real sense of satisfaction, pride if you like, in a job well done.

The satisfaction as a groundsman comes before that, on the morning of race day, when you know the course is ready for a good day of racing. You've put everything into getting the best possible surface.

I'm lucky really. I get a double whammy and can be proud at both ends of race day. It's a long day. I get in here about 5.45am on race days, but if things go well there's nothing like it, dawn to dusk.

Will you be a racegoer after you leave your jobs at Plumpton? What about your plans for the future?

I will always come and watch racing here when I can. Racing is always going to be a big part of my life. It has been since my dad first brought me here on a race day back in 1966.

I have no specific plans, maybe a bit of allotment gardening. I just want to enjoy some 'me time' I think it's called, and pay back some of the time I owe my wife for being a racing widow all these years.

Final thoughts?

As a humble village lad I was very lucky to be given the chance to Clerk at Plumpton, having had a state secondary education with just three low grade CSEs to my name. I hope I have managed to repay their faith in me.

My other good fortune was being supported over the years by a loyal local team of men and women, adding plenty of extra pairs of hands when needed. I am pleased to say many of them remain friends to this day.

Over the years, I have always tried to treat people as I would like to be treated and stand by this quote from one of the film greats in the saddle, John Wayne. He said: "it's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.

There are six race meetings to go at Plumpton this year. It's going to be a busy and poignant few months for Mark.

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