Seamus Buckley is looking forward to his final Glorious Goodwood after more than 20 years as clerk of the course. He retires at the end of the year and spoke to Steve Bone as the festival and his farewell approach.
This will be your last Glorious Goodwood – how does that feel?
It is a strange feeling - a mixed feeling. But I’ve made my mind up. I’ve been in the racing industry for 51 years.
This is my 23rd Glorious Goodwood and I’m 65, so the time has come for someone to come and take over from me and have a little bit of a rest.
Most would say you deserve that...
Well it’s been a little bit of a stressful job. We try to keep the standards up at Goodwood at all times.
You’re up there to be shot down at all times if things don’t go right. It’s one of the most prestigious racecourses in the country. There are no half-measures. You don’t have dress-rehearsals.
For those five days the eyes of the world are upon you. You have the best horses in the world racing here thanks to the sponsorship of Qatar.
We have three Group 1 races now, which is great for Goodwood. And of course we have our great handicaps and our other Group 2 races as well. They’re just as much part of the week.
Do you think the Goodwood Cup could be the race of the week this year?
It could be but I think the Sussex Stakes has great potential. Big Orange (in the Goodwood Cup), will be interesting to watch. But having Aidan O’Brien coming back to try to win the race (with Order of St George) will be great because he won it with Yeats twice.
How do you think you’ll feel at the end of Glorious 2017 - sad or relieved?
Of course I’ll be sad – I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t sad. It’s been my life – it really has been my life. And I’ve put everything I can into it. I’ve tried to make Goodwood better than it was. I don’t know if I’ve improved it. People would say good things and bad things.
But I’ve kept the show on the road, we’ve had some outstanding racing, and I’ve been privileged to be part of that. If you didn’t have the racecourse right, you wouldn’t have those runners.
I’m fortunate to have a team who are dedicated to getting the ground right.
And watering – the irrigation of the course – is such a big topic. At Ascot the other week. Poor old Chris Stickels, who is a mate of mine, was doing his job to the best of his ability and he did do his job and they put on a wonderful show, great racing, yet the Racing Post had to go and condemn his going policy, or certain trainers did.
As clerks of the course, we try to make that racing surface safe. I certainly wouldn’t start off a week of racing on firm ground. You couldn’t afford to do it. You’d have no runners, you’d end up having horses broken down.
How has racing changed since you came to Goodwood 23 years ago?
We’re more under the microscope. Every race we run now is on the television, backwards, sideways, frontways and everything.
You can’t hide anything. But the whole breeding of the racehorse has completely changed.
The days of exercising horses on the roads, hardening up their legs, hardening up their tendons, those days are gone.
Horses will walk up a road, straight into a gallop almost, on to a bit of grass or an all-weather surface - no prep work at all.
They don’t have a warm-up, which amazes me.
Is racing in a healthy state as you retire from the industry?
I think it is. We need to get some more money through the Levy Board. That has to get sorted out. The sport we put on, we need to get paid for it. We need to get some honest money for it.
Ten or 15 years ago I think we were getting £100m for it, now it’s back down.
If we were not fortunate enough to be sponsored by Qatar and others, to keep those races up to Group 1 and Group 2 standards, that pot’s got to come from somewhere.
The Qatar sponsorship must have made a big difference here...
It’s great and I think we will get more international support. It’s great that we get Aidan O’Brien and Ballydoyle’s support. Now there’s talk that Wesley Ward (USA) is going to bring a couple here. But if we get half a dozen from Aidan O’Brien we’ll be quite happy.
I remember Aidan’s very first winner here in the late 1990s. I spoke to Aidan and that was the first time I’d had a conversation with him.
After you retire, will you miss it?
Of course I will. I’m going to help Goodwood. I’ll stay loyal to them because they’ve stayed loyal to me. If they want any help I’ll be first in the queue. I’ll help them out, give them a little bit of advice. I don’t want to tread on my successor Ed Arkell’s toes, which would be very wrong. But he can seek my advice if he needs to. That’s something I’d like to do, along with any other things within the Goodwood boundary I can do. But there’s a time in life when there’s a bit of number-one thing. You’ve got to look after yourself. I’m not going to be lazy. I love my garden. I’ll spend a lot of time in it. And I’ll be able to go out at night, go to the pictures or something, and not worry about going to bed at 9pm!
What will you do with your going stick?
My stick – my wooden stick – is mine, my own personal stick. It’s not going anywhere. I’ll be doing some walking and I’ll have to keep my stick. But then there’s the electronic going stick and I want to see that being used more and giving more accreditation than it gets. You’ve got to use the technology you’ve got.
It’s an electronic piece of equipment, it’s not like a human being with a wooden stick, it can’t tell lies. You download it on to your computer and it will give you the reading.
There are several trainers now - younger trainers - who will say ‘What’s your going stick like?’ And I’ll say ‘well I’m calling it good.’ And he’ll say ‘What would you expect it to say on the stick?’ and I’ll say ‘For good ground you need 7.5’ to 7.8’ - that’s perfect ground here at Goodwood. Once you start going less than 7.5, heading towards 7.0, you’re on the easier side of good; if you start going up to 8.0 or 8-plus you’re on the firmer side. It’s easy!
You have come to know so many trainers – are you someone they can phone for information and rely on?
It’s an ongoing relationship with them. They know me and I know them. I always try to tell the truth if they ring me.
Sir Michael Stoute or Sir Henry Cecil, God rest his soul, and Aidan – it’s been a great privilege to have them ring me, to have one-to-one conversations with them.
What I tell them is what they’re relying on as to whether they’re going to run their horse.
I like to tell the truth. If I didn’t and someone like Sir Michael Stoute came and found the ground was different, what kind of fool would I look?
I might say it’s on the quicker side of good and if you want easier ground, you’d best stay away. Whether it’s the favourite for the Sussex Stakes or the Goodwood Cup, I have to tell the truth.
There was a horse of Aidan’s, Gleneagles, that didn’t run a couple of years ago (in the Sussex Stakes) because we had a rainstorm on the Sunday. John Magnier rang me at home on the Sunday night because they were desperate to run the horse, but I had to tell them what the situation was.
Come the day of the race I said it was drying out but was definitely going to be on the slower side of good, but they wanted good to firm, good, fast flat-racing ground, which we weren’t going to get after 32mm of rain in 36 hours.
No way could I tell them it was definitely going to be good ground. I had to be honest. And we still had a good race won by Solowr.
Read more from all the the key Qatar Goodwood Festival figures in Glorious magazine – out soon
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