Head of Groundstaff and Estates at Cheltenham Racecourse, it’s fair to say it’s a pretty big week for Ben Hastie.
The eyes of the sporting world turn to Prestbury Park between Tuesday and Friday, with racing connections and punters dreaming of attaining Festival glory by claiming a winner or two. None, though, have a better view of the course than Ben – whose property stands on the edge of the estate.
Calling Cheltenham Racecourse your back garden isn’t exactly a bad claim to fame, particularly in an era where sport continues its behind-closed-doors procedures. But nevertheless, the excitement for the four biggest days in racing at Gloucestershire’s main attraction will not halt for die-hard supporters both in Britain and Ireland.
A religion and way of life for many, the Festival also has the unique ability to bring in new followers for its quartet feature. Perhaps unfamiliar to terms including ‘the going’ et al, there’s no better man to get a view on the condition of the hallowed turf than Mr Hastie with action now only three days away.
Ben spoke to Cheltenham.co.uk about what the Cheltenham Festival means to him, his work and the race he is most looking forward to.
How’s Yorkhill settling in? How did you come about having him when he retired from racing?
We haven’t got him yet. He’s on box rest and is having a small operation on his tendon, and then he’ll hopefully be down here in the next three weeks. The reason we ended up with him is that I know his owner, Dave, and we’d always said jokingly that when he retired, there was a place for him here. Dave then rang me to ask if I was being serious and if we’d like to have him. We’d discussed it for between 6-12 months, and just think it’s an ideal place for him being a two-time Festival winner. He’ll be recovering when he gets here and we’ll keep everyone informed on his progress.
How different will this year’s Festival be without a crowd?
It’s completely different, obviously. It’s unreal how the lack of crowd and atmosphere can affect the racing. With the Festival going from 250,000 across the four days to around 500 per day, it’s strange for everyone involved – ground staff, jockeys and trainers. But what happens out on the course doesn’t change and the racing will still be competitive as ever. The crowd do make a huge difference, though, both at the course and in the town, so it has a knock-on affect on everything.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the fact that I get to look after the greatest racecourse in the world. I look forward to going to work everyday and I live on site, so I can see the course outside my window. It’s not really a job – it’s more a way of life. I’ve been here for 15-16 years now and I don’t ever get bored. It would feel strange if I wasn’t here and it feels engrained in me now. I get to work with some great people, see the world’s best National Hunt horses and be part of a great racing community.
On a race day, where do you watch the races from?
On a raceday, I’ll be part of a following convoy and I’ll deal with any incidents out on the track, whether that’s with horses or jockeys. This just keeps the show going out on the track while my boss Simon Claisse manages the admin and weighing room side of things. I’ll speak to riders and ask what they think the going is for feedback, and I follow the winner into the enclosure for every race. I’ll also meet up with Simon and we’ll have a debrief from each race to look at the times and whether these agree with what we said the going is.
What’s your favourite Cheltenham Festival memory and why?
Yorkhill’s two-Festival wins. I loved him since he first started racing and when he won the Marsh it was just insane, and I’d put both his wins in the same bracket as Vautour as well. They were both class on their day, but I’ve seen some great horses – Inglis Drever, Big Buck’s, Kauto Star, so you remember those horses and where you were.
Talk us through your routine on a race day, I don’t suppose you get a lie-in?
I’m up at about 4:30-45am – I don’t spend to sleep too much before any race day, especially during the Festival. I’ll have some weird dreams about things going wrong, which probably helps me wake up and check that it was just a dream! I’ll meet Simon first thing, check the going which we normally know the day before, but we’ll just be sure that it hasn’t changed and publish on the site by about 6:00am. This just allows trainers and owners to know with plenty of time and if it has changed, they can decide whether they need to make changes. We coordinate with stewards, make sure to get some breakfast and have a flick through the Racing Post. Ahead of racing, we make sure the course has everything out that needs to be, and then I join the convoy when racing starts and deal with any incidents accordingly. Checking the ground is the vital thing, and on Festival week we can be dealing with everything until quite late in the evening.
What race are you most looking forward to this year?
A lot of people don’t seem to follow my enthusiasm for it, but one of my favourite races is the bumper. That goes for any race day, not just the Festival, because I like the fact that form goes out of the window a little bit and some horses always improve for the first run into the second. The bumper is fascinating from a breeding and pedigree side of things and following horses in their career as a result of these races is always interesting. My favourite bumper winner is Fayonagh who Jamie Codd rode – that performance was just class. I also love the Arkle. For horses to go that quick and be that good is a testament to the two-mile novices. The Champion Hurdle is my favourite of the big races – I think it’s a speed thing. They’re so slick and fast and that’s the championship race I love.
If you had a free £10 bet, where would your money be heading?
Back to the bumper, I’d back Kilcruit. I think he’s probably got the best chance. If I was betting with my heart, I’d have to say Al Boum Photo. A lot of horses have won the Gold Cup twice, but I think it’s an incredible feat to go and win three like Best Mate did. Obviously, Willie Mullins didn’t have a Gold Cup winner until Al Boum Photo, so if he could win a third in a row that’d be amazing. We also had some schoolers last week and Ben Pauling brought in Le Brueil, who won the four-miler a couple of seasons ago. The lads were blown away by how he jumped so if he runs, I’d have £5 on him and £5 on Kilcruit.
The going is currently good to soft, soft in places at Cheltenham, what’s your prediction come the big day?
We’re not really sure. We’ve got a bit of rain to come before the Festival, but I don’t think it will be too far off where we’re currently at.
Describe what the Cheltenham Festival means to you?
As a National Hunt fan and the horses, I think the Festival is one of the weeks of the year that is indescribable. Every race day has the same importance, but it’s the build up worldwide that isn’t repeated anywhere else. The adrenaline gets you through the lack of sleep and it feels like Christmas Day every day. It’s obviously different this year, but nobody can change that so we have to just do what we can. It’s going to be as good as ever, but we’re just going to miss the famous roar.