You could say Seamus Buckley owes a lot to racing. Equally, you could say racing owes much to him.
He is part of the fixtures and fittings at Goodwood – one of those people you’d notice more if he was not there than you do when he is.
Buckley has one of the most important jobs going – making sure the racecourse surface is just right, not only for the Qatar Goodwood Festival - which starts on Tuesday afternoon - but for all 19 of Goodwood’s meetings throughout the season. It’s a role he carries out with pride, professionalism and diligence.
Two years ago he seemed a little embarrassed by some of the attention bestowed upon him to mark the end of his 20th Glorious Goodwood as clerk of the course. But this year marks an even more impressive anniversary – he is celebrating half a century in racing.
A childhood in Ireland spent around show-jumping, ponies and three-day eventing led to a call when Seamus was just 14 to go and join older brother Pat, who was based at Middleham in North Yorkshire as a jockey riding for Captain Neville Crump at the base now run by Mark Johnston.
“I was asked to go and be his apprentice jockey and as horses were all I knew, that’s what I did,” he said.
By then Pat had already won the 1963 Grand National on Ayala, but Seamus’ career in the saddle was cut short aged 20 when he suffered a horrific fall at Doncaster. He fractured his skull in five places and was unconscious for 23 days.
That closed one chapter but opened another. “I needed to look for another job in racing and I was keen to work outside, and I managed to land a job at Catterick Bridge racecourse,” he said.
He worked there for around five years, mowing the surface and learning about fertilisation – a grass-roots grounding that has served him well ever since.
After that, Seamus stepped up the grounds and racing ladder, becoming, at the age of 26, grounds manager at Wolverhampton racecourse.
It was a role he enjoyed and it paved the way another five years later for a move to the prestigious Epsom racecourse, home of the Derby, as estate manager.
“I was in charge of the racecourse plus 300 acres of training grounds. It was, and still is of course, the Derby course and for me the greatest thrill of my job has been having responsibility for racing surfaces that the greatest horses can race on.”
Seamus was at Epsom for Lester Piggott’s last Derby win, when he rode Teenoso to victory in 1983 – and for the following year’s renewal of
the most famous flat race of all, which he rates as one of the best races he has seen, as Secreto beat El Gran Senor.
A decade later, Goodwood came calling and Seamus switched from one top racecourse to another, becoming clerk of the course as Rod Fabricius – by then boss at Goodwood – tempted him to Sussex. He’s never regretted it. In the meantime he took a degree in course management at Brinsbury College, Pulborough, to make sure he felt fully qualified for the job.
“I wanted to move up the pecking order so coming to Goodwood was perfect for me,” he said. “You have to have challenges in life or else it’s no good getting out of bed.”
Some 22 years on, Buckley puts as much into looking after the hallowed Goodwood turf as he did on his first day.
Backed by a hard-working groundstaff and supported by racecourse bosses who know what an asset he is, he maintains the surface and everything that goes with it in a way that seems effortless, although of course it’s not.
In all his years in racing, Seamus has seen so many changes. “One is the racehorse itself – it is not as robust or strong as it once was,” he observed.
“They are often trained on artificial surfaces and that changes the type of surface you need to prepare for them to race on.
“I hate the word ‘firm’ being in the official going. You want it to be easier than that.
“There is now so much money in racing and that brings pressure to get things right. There have been huge advances in how you can manage a racing surface, in methods and so on. And in another ten years, it will all have changed again, I’m sure.
“You have to move on but it’s nice to have been involved for so long. I’m lucky to have had dealings with so many great people – officials, owners, trainers and jockeys – and so many great horses.
“Trainers are always phoning me to ask about the ground. I am always honest with them. What I tell them won’t always be what they hope to hear, but it will always be the accurate picture at the time.
“The grounds team, headed up by Sean Martin, work tirelessly and nothing ever seems to be too much to ask of them –it’s a great pleasure to work with them.”
For now Seamus is still enjoying the challenges that racing brings each season – and we are sure only he will know when it’s time for him to hang up his trusted going stick.
As for this year’s festival, Seamus is working as hard as ever to juggle all the other variables to ensure the week starts on perfect ground.
And somehow, whatever the lovely British elements throw at him between now and 2pm on Tuesday, July 26, you just know he’ll master it.
Interview by STEVE BONE
The above article is one of many in our exclusive Glorious magazine - grab your free copy in Chichester or at the raccourse this week
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