AS Assistant Manager at Downpatrick, I took great pride when we were named Racecourse of the Year at the recent Irish Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards, sponsored by Godolphin.
Having made great strides in terms of complimentary meals, snacks and facilities available to stable staff, it was especially satisfying to see those efforts recognised by our peers.
I grew up on a small farm just outside Dromore, Co Down. Although fortunate to have been surrounded by horses at a young age, I had no real interest in riding - I think I heard too many stories of nasty falls. My family produced hunters and trained a small number of horses for point-to-points.
My father was field master and point-to-point secretary for our local hunt - the Iveagh Foxhounds. As I got older and more able to help, I became very involved with Dad in the organising of the local point-to-point.
As I moved through secondary school into my teens, I was definitely bitten by the horsey bug! I enjoyed school but at any given opportunity I was away. Wherever the lorry was going, I was in it - racing, hunting, galloping, sales. My brother holds a restricted trainer’s licence and, with it being a small operation, family help was always well received. I would have ridden out before school and at the weekends. I was very lucky to have had lots of opportunities to ride work.
Typically, we would have worked horses in pairs at Skryne Gallops, with Ross Geraghty usually riding the other horse. Ross is a wealth of information and taught me an awful lot at that time. When I was 16, I applied for a qualified rider’s licence. I had a handful of rides in bumpers without any success but it was a super experience.
From an early age, I always knew that I wanted to work in the industry. In fact my work experience from school was spent at Downpatrick Racecourse. When asked what I wanted to do when I left school, the answer was always the same; “to work at a sales company or a racecourse.”
I feel very lucky that I have now done both! There are some great equine further education options available now but I felt the best path for me was to study Marketing and Events Management in Dublin Business School and to try gain as much equine experience as I could during the long summer breaks.
After first year in university, I spent four months working for Coolmore in Kentucky, looking after mares and foals. There was a great community on the farm and always plenty happening. On a relatively short trip, I made so many friends. Looking back, that would definitely be my advice to anyone, travel!
After second year, the next stop was Andrew and Madeleine Lloyd Webber’s Watership Down Stud in Berkshire. Before this, I had no experience of yearling prep. After a few months, with lots of hand-walking yearlings, we packed up and headed to Newmarket for October Book 1.
The Watership Downs consignment offered 12 yearlings that year, achieving a total of over 4.5 million guineas with the stable star, a colt by Dubawi out of Crystal Music selling for 1.6 million guineas. It was fantastic to be a small cog in such an operation.
Having spent a week with Richard Lyttle at Downpatrick Racecourse on work experience while still at school, I was anxious to return. As my final year in university was drawing to a close, I got back in touch with Richard to see if there might be any work available at the track. It is very busy at Downpatrick during the summer season and an extra pair of hands were very welcome, so my timing was perfect.
While I was at college, I had worked at Leopardstown on race days and Tattersalls on sale days in both Fairyhouse and Newmarket. I continued to do that when possible while working for Downpatrick. I then moved to Newmarket to join the Tattersalls team on a full-time basis, as a bloodstock assistant. Tattersalls is such an iconic firm, there is always a buzz on sales days.
Newmarket is unique, the town’s history is unparalleled. I had a great time there but it was never going to be home for me. I returned to Northern Ireland a year later and, shortly after, my partner Steven and I got married. We now have two young children, Oliver (three) and Pippa (two).
In 2016, I returned to Downpatrick Racecourse. Richard Lyttle is a fantastic man to work for, his enthusiasm is contagious and we get on very well. We are a small team so that gives great variation within my job, which is something I love.
Ticketing/hospitality/marketing/raceday staffing/general operations and non-race day events are all part of my day-to-day jobs but you could see me driving a tractor or setting up a room for a function and anything in between. We all just do whatever needs done. Over the years we have enjoyed support staff who joined us for work experience and ended up being well placed within the industry.
We were all thrilled to receive the Irish Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards last month. As it came from our industry peers, it made it all the more special. At the award ceremony, it was obvious how wonderful the standard of stable staff is in Ireland. On race days, these lads and lasses will no doubt have done a day’s work before beginning their journey to Downpatrick (a long trip for many).
At Downpatrick we are delighted to provide complimentary meals, snacks and soft drinks for all stable staff. We don’t use a voucher system and instead encourage stable staff to return for more throughout the day, should they wish to do so.
The model that we operate works well for us and is both efficient and very cost effective. The reoccurring comment from industry is how much they appreciate being greeted by a friendly face who is happy to prepare something fresh for them.
I think the future at Downpatrick is very bright. My memories of coming to Downpatrick Racecourse as a child are unrecognisable to what we have now and are constantly improving.
Our team of ground staff headed by Fintan Ward do a fantastic job and trainers have confidence that everything possible will have been done to ensure the best possible racing surface for every meeting.
We have a wonderful chairman in Peter Stewart, along with a knowledgeable and helpful board of directors, who constantly encourage us to achieve. We are also very fortunate to have a number of fantastic sponsors who support us throughout and share our passion to succeed.
Ruth Morrison was in conversation with John O’Riordan.