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Keeping them racing all year round: Newbury's new Clerk of the Course has a weather eye on the turf

Keith Ottesen by one of Newbury's new jumpsKeith Ottesen by one of Newbury's new jumpsNewbury Racecourse's meeting on Wednesday (January 16) will be the first overseen by their new Clark of the Course, Keith Ottesen.

 

Since August he has been shadowing Newbury's long-serving Clerk of the Course, Richard Osgood who retired at the end of 2018.  Richard Osgood had worked at Newbury Racecourse for forty years.  So, as Ottesen says, 'those are big shoes to fill'.

 

Keith Ottesen & Richard Osgood during a summer meetingKeith Ottesen & Richard Osgood during a summer meetingAs we walk down the last furlongs of the flat mile, Ottesen explains what coming to the job at Newbury means to him: "Frankel raced on this turf - and Enable.  And over there Denman ran.  It's thrilling and a great privilege to be here."

 

Ottesen's surname comes from his Norwegian father.  He was born in Liverpool and horses have been his passion since childhood.

 

Having studied agriculture and business at London University's Wye College, he had wide experience in the racing industry.  He worked for four years at Newmarket for  Michael Bell - worked for the English national Stud - and worked in Normandy for Criquette Head.

 

He was, as he told me, "Mad for flat racing and bloodstock", and was dead set on working in America.  He got his work visa and spent nearly two years as one of Christophe Clement's assistant trainers - riding out and taking horses all over the States: "America's a great place to learn about horses - they're so innovative."

 

He also learnt that being a trainer might not be for him: "Their commitment is immense.  It's like having kids - it's a 24/7 thing.  Every single waking hour is about horses, staff and owners - like having a yard full of kids!"

 

He is, it is very apparent, more than a little in awe of trainers - he calls them the 'back bone' of racing: "The industry needs every single level of trainers - from the small yards up."

 

So with what he modestly describes as a 'decent background as a horseman and a love of racing', he decided to try being Clerk of the Course - which is 'part administration and part organisation'.

 

In 2003 he joined Northern Racing, got his Clerk of the Course accreditation and worked happily for seven years at Uttoxeter.  (In 2012 Northern Racing merged with Arena Leisure to form Arena Racing Company - ARC.)

 

Then in 2010 he moved to Chepstow.   As Clerk of the Course there, Cheptsow became his base while he doubled as Clerk at Ffos Las and for a time at Hereford  and Worcester racecourses: "Because of this range of experience, I've ended up here.  I'm very fortunate - these are highly sought after jobs."

 

He lists the improvements made at Newbury - noting especially those in the pre-parade ring and stabling: "I'm lucky to be here - benefitting from a lot of people's hard work."

 

Testing the going Testing the going In some ways the Clerk of the Course is like a farmer - he is growing and tending a very special crop of grass.  It has to be fit not just to race over, but to be as a fair and safe a surface as possible for horses and jockeys.

 

Even though the flat season is a good three months away, they are already working on Newbury's flat course - getting some air down into the ground.

 

This jumps season the state of the ground is causing problems for trainers all round the country: "This season is slightly different to others. 'Good to firm' ground in January is just not usual - and relates back to the dry summer and the more recent lack of rain."  A lack that seems to be continuing.

 

The whole of the Newbury Racecourse estate covers some 300 acres.  The flat and jumps course are about 63 acres - which is about the same area as 30 full sized football pitches.  That is an awful lot of grass - even if you cannot play football on it!

 

The Clerk has eight full-time ground staff.  Before race days they bring in extra casual labour.  On race days there will be forty more staff - fence attenders and treaders.  And there will be three doctors and three vets on duty: "Everybody knows their jobs - and fingers crossed it's all OK."

 

Like all racecourses, Newbury is licensed by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA): "We work closely with the BHA - particularly their course inspectorate who have very proactive and knowledgeable people."

 

Ottesen is a sports fanatic - and, apart from racing, is especially keen on cycling.  Between jobs and before he joined Newbury in August, he spent two months cycling in France - six weeks in the Alps above Annecy, taking in four category one climbs - and then following the Tour de France.

 

Cycling up hill is one thing, but seeing how the professional cyclists speed down hills reminded him of the bravery of jockeys - for whom he has enormous admiration: "As much as we love the sport and know its dangers, the safety and welfare of horses and jockeys is paramount.  We strive continually to make sure it's fair for all participants."

 

'Farming' the grass and maintaining the course  - rails and fences and paddocks and stables - is a full time responsibility: "Then every few weeks we put on a show - and it's all about the horses and the jockeys - they don't come to see the Clerk of the Course!"

...and with the iconic Newbury Racecourse stands in the background...and with the iconic Newbury Racecourse stands in the background

 

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