Glorious Goodwood is etched into the Dictionary of The Turf - the definitive guide to thoroughbred horse racing and breeding - and the celebrated late July early August meeting is a default highspot in the flat racing calendar. Neville Johnson went to the West Sussex course days before this year's big meeting to talk to Seamus Buckley, the man whose job it has been for more than twenty years to see that it is one of the best in world horseracing
The Goodwood Racecourse is five miles north of Chichester and its South Downs setting is nothing short of breathtaking. There's been racing here since 1802 when the Duke of Richmond fashioned the course on the Downs above the family home so that riders from the Sussex Militia could compete. It was later to stage racing's first flag start, and has forever been notable for its 'free' grassy grandstand, The Trundle, the site of an Iron Age fort, which gives uninterrupted views of the whole course.
In modern racing, above all, Goodwood is in the elite of flat racecourses, hosting two of the country's thirty-one Group One races, the Sussex Stakes and the Nassau Stakes, at its five-day summer festival. On this non-race day in high summer, devoid of horses and racegoers, it still looks an absolute picture and you could tell course preparations were gathering pace.
The man in charge of all things racing at Goodwood is Seamus Buckley, officially Grounds Manager and Clerk of the Course. This is his twenty-first season at the course and it's been a dry one to say the least. He tells me that just 8mm of rainfall had been recorded over the preceding five weeks.
"This year has been especially difficult with a late, cold spring and very dry spring and summer so far. Nature hasn't helped our grass to grow. It's the driest year in my time here," he says.
It's always been a prime responsibility for Seamus to see that the course is in nothing short of excellent condition with, as he puts it, "a surface that's fair to everyone". This year, however, there's an added pressure on him and his grounds team.
At the beginning of the year, Goodwood Racecourse announced a 10-year partnership with the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. This is the single biggest sponsorship deal ever done for the benefit of British racing and the 2015 Glorious Goodwood meeting - now styled the Qatar Festival - is the starting point.
Qatar is initially investing over £4.5 million in prize money for the four-day meeting and there is a commitment to increase this year-on-year.
The Qatar Festival is going to be one of the most significant and valuable meetings in world racing. I get an idea of just how significant when I arrive at the course to discover that literally everyone there is in a meeting with Qatar representatives to run through fine details of the forthcoming festival.
Seamus is a man that gives time and attention to everything. He comes straight from this meeting and we are soon engaged in a relaxed chat about how the course is being made ready for the off in, now, just a matter of days. He tells me that "hand on heart" he knows what he's looking for, and that's what every racehorse should be racing on. It's so obvious that he does and, with thirteen Epsom Derbys under his belt, a combination of instinct, experience and knowledge exudes.
His whole life has been influenced by horses: how to look after them and how to get the best out of them. He was actually born on a stud farm in County Kildare. A spell of show jumping and three-day eventing preceded a move to England as an apprentice National Hunt jockey, a career cut short by serious injury. He was determined to stay in racing and took the course management route, starting at Catterick Bridge in Yorkshire, before moving to Epsom and switching to the Flat. Only a handful of former jockeys have made careers as Clerks or Grounds Managers. Seamus is one of them.
He is 100 percent self-taught, studying for and achieving the Diploma in Turf Management at Brinsbury College, Chichester when he first came to Goodwood.
Watering has been the overriding factor this season. He and his team had already been working very hard for weeks to get and keep moisture in the ground, and it was set to continue.
"First requirement, always, is to get the grass growing. We are fortunate at Goodwood because we can put on a fair bit of water and it will soon drain away from the surface," he says. "The key to keeping Downland courses like this in top racing condition is to keep moisture in the ground and the grass growing. If you can achieve this, you're halfway there. You have to avoid it getting bone dry at all costs."
"For flat racing, the surface wants to be moist enough to let the horses 'get their toes into it', and with a good covering of grass." There speaks a Clerk of the Course, who is both groundsman and horseman.
The course at Goodwood, used only for flat racing, is 700 feet above the sea and there's always a drying breeze. Even in normal rainfall conditions, being on the chalk of the South Downs, it dries very quickly. Its quite severe undulations and series of sharp turns make it testing for horse and jockey. It's far from easy to irrigate effectively too.
When Seamus first came to Goodwood, pop-up sprinklers were used for watering but, in his words, "they did as much good in the car parks as they did on the course."
"You absolutely must have consistency with course irrigation. You can't have a horse travelling at 35-40mph suddenly hitting a piece of ground that hasn't been watered because it's been missed by a pop-up sprinkler."
"Some courses are able to use pop-ups very successfully but, because of the ups and downs, here they could never be totally successful."
It didn't take long for Seamus to recognise the weakness and be instrumental in getting a changeover made in the means of irrigation delivery.
Borehole irrigation at Goodwood House, the 400-year old focal point of the vast 12,500 acre Goodwood estate, feeds the racecourse's own irrigation system. Water is pumped electronically to the Trundle Hill high spot, then gravity fed by pump to a ring main all around the course.
An Upton Irrigator, which connects to the main at points around the course, is what delivers the goods for Seamus and his head groundsman Sean Martin, who's been his right-hand-man at Goodwood for nearly sixteen years.
"The boom sprayer is probably the best piece of equipment we've bought in my time here. It's certainly a godsend this year," says Seamus.
The Australian-made irrigator drops 10mm of water as it travels at a furlong an hour around the course.
Lately, it's been in daily use from 8.00 in the morning until 7.00 each evening. That's a mile and a quarter a day of watering. It's a skilled, if somewhat tedious, job and Sam Cook is the Goodwood team operator.
Seamus emphasises its importance to the course work. "The irrigator means you're guaranteed water rail to rail the whole way round. There's hardly any wastage."
The course is kept cut to four inches by Votex rotary mowers, front-mounted to four John Deere tractors. In decent autumn and winter conditions, it gets cut back to two inches and, in Seamus' words, "gets a good scratching by chain harrow to get rid of all the rubbish". He uses a seed mix, made exclusively for Goodwood by Fargrow of Littlehampton, that comprises perennial ryegrass, red fescue, smooth-stalked meadow grass and highland brown-top bent. The suppliers provide all course needs, including fertilisers and sprays, as well as the seed, and are near neighbours just a phone call away.
For Seamus, there will always be four basic essentials: decent cutting, feeding and watering, plus regular aeration. "Do these well and you won't go far wrong," he says.
He is a great advocate of spiking and will do it any time of year, especially right after racing. "At the Qatar Festival meeting, there will be 500 or so runners and that's a lot of compaction," he says. "You're down into solid chalk after just four inches, so the vibration of verti-draining isn't a good idea. A Sisis spiker with 6-7 inch tines does work very well though, letting in ample, beneficial airflow."
After a race meeting, the grass gets a bit of a trimming, and divots put back, filled and re-seeded. Forking and divot repair are carried out each evening after racing by the Goodwood team, aided, if required, by manpower from Sterling Services. There are seven full-timers in the Goodwood course care team but, for big meetings like the upcoming Qatar Festival, quite a number of 'casuals' will be engaged.
Indispensible to Seamus is the TurfTrax Going Stick, the official means of declaring going. This and his own wooden walking stick are his dual means of assessing the state of the course. "The two get on well together," he says, "but the TurfTrax is marvellously accurate and I swear by it."
"Readings of around 7.5 with the Going Stick are the ideal and mean good ground. Anything above 8.0 and you're moving into firm territory. Anything below 7.0 and it's on the soft side. We always aim for good ground 7.5."
"Owners and trainers are asking more and more for an easier surface, rather than a firm one. Twenty to thirty years ago, you could get away with firmish going, but not now. Horses these days do a lot of training on non-turf artificial surfaces like sand or polytrack gallops. A course with going on the easier side helps replicate what horses are used to, so that's what we try and do here at Goodwood."
Seamus reckons the annual April application of granular spring fertiliser lasts about ten weeks and he gives the course a summer follow-up in early July. This was clearly beginning to kick-in and the grass looked really verdant and flourishing, but because there was no sign of meaningful rain in the forecasts, watering was going to have to be non-stop and the key task above all others.
Seamus admits he likes the motivating pressure of approaching meetings, the new Qatar Festival especially. He knows having it right in his own mind is the key to doing the perfect job.
"Whatever you do, get it right. There are no action replays, no dress rehearsals, but the day I stop liking the job and its pressures is the day I stop."
He reckoned, confidently, that Goodwood was heading for perfection in a matter of days. Attracting the best racehorses there is essential for the business - and, of course, its backers, notably now Qatar.
There's no 'I' in 'team', Seamus emphasises over and over again. It's a very good one at Goodwood, and the horses and punters keep on coming.