WORDS – STEVE CLARKE

Armed with my media pass and on my first assignment for Equine Online I headed off to the Grand National at Riccarton Park on August 12. This was very familiar territory for me having grown up about two minutes’ walk from the racecourse over 50 years ago. Back then Joe Cox’s stables were next door on Racecourse Road, Hibberds next to them and across the road lived Ivor McClure who trained the 1964 Wellington cup winner Gay Filou.

 Back then I harboured an ambition to be a jockey and Ivor would lift me up as a kid, “yip you’re still light enough,” he would say. Being surrounded with stables and racing people certainly peaked my interest but it was more likely following my dad to the TAB on Saturday mornings that really got me going. Some surprise that it was harness racing that hooked me as I tried to make a career in that direction.

 Anyway back to Riccarton I easily recall memories exploring the racecourse, catching tadpoles in the back ponds or running around the track getting fit for rugby. A friend had the job of shooting pigeons that had made homes in the top floor of the big grandstand as the mess on the stand seats was always a problem. This was all aside from the excitement of going to the races and remembering sneaking in aside an adult as kids were not admitted on their own. Too young to bet it was always easy to find someone who would place a bet for you.

So it was a beautiful morning, a warm light nor wester and bright sunshine greeted me as I arrived on course. I headed to the nearest gate that was wide open. Service vehicles going in and out and it was over an hour before the first race. A man in an orange coat scurried over to stop me from walking in and ushered me to a nearby gate where I walked through. I wasn’t challenged as I walked through, maybe the attendant had caught a glimpse of my media pass, I’m not sure.

Not too sure at this stage what my storyline would be as I positioned myself, with a couple of mates, in the stand overlooking the weigh in area and the stairs down into the bowels of the building where jockeys and the like congregate. It’s like looking into a fish tank, a raised view from three sides with three doors opening to the birdcage.

With the first race still over an hour away there was a good smattering of people already in the bar area and like ourselves staking their claim on a spot for the day. A gentleman in one of those orange coats begins to calibrate the scales. He has three 20 kilo weights which are used as door stops when not required for official duties. Our man meticulously places the weights on the scales one at a time recording the result each time 20 kilos, 40 kilos and finally 60 Kilos. From my vantage point I can with a struggle make out the numbers on the scale. Yip the 60 kilos of weight recording exactly 60 kilos on the scale and with the paperwork complete a small calibration sticker is dated and placed on the scales for all to see. The weights are then returned to their door stop position.

 Race caller Mark McNamara makes an appearance with coffee in hand and skips down the stairs. His broadcasting prodigy Matt Cross was sighted trying to devour a rather large sandwich.

Soon after the jockeys start to appear. With the first two races being jumping events the jumps jockeys were on the scales. Appearing as giants amongst the flat riders who drift in and out to check their weights’ I check their carded weights against as they weigh out and it becomes obvious that each jockey weighs out 1kilo above the carded weight. I guess that is their tolerance which makes good sense.

A well attired gentleman arrives in an official mode and starts to check off the riders as they weigh in. He is clearly the Clerk of the scales and I skim my race book to find it is Mr G. Fowler. I have seen him in this position at the racecourse previously and he appears to have a good rapport with the jockeys.

With bets on we head outside, firstly ensuring that out table had drinks a race book and the odd pair of glasses so that no one could mistake our table as being available for occupancy. This tactic worked as we came down after the race to find our table still available.

The jockeys made their way back into weigh in. They must weigh in at the required race book weight before a confirmed result can be declared. If a jockey weighs in light the horse will be disqualified and the jockey could face a fine or suspension. One by one they reach the scales, pass their helmet and whip to the Judicial Steward who seems to enjoy a quick chat with the riders. The steward does not look at the scales which surprises me.

As the day goes on there is always a flurry of activity around the scales, some jockeys operating with two saddles and I particularly notice one of our best Lisa Allpress. She is busy and appears to be having trouble making the weight for her next race. She has just ridden at 60 kilos and now has to discard the appropriate amount of weight to ride the next horse at 54 kilos. The lead weights are being removed and when she would get on the scales then she has to take some more off, still not right as there is another adjustment. The trainer of the horse is waiting patiently for the saddle as yet there still seems to be an issue. Maybe these weights could be colour coded or something as it really appeared to be a mission for her. She hurriedly hands the saddle over to the trainer and disappears below to the jockey’s room.

Later the act goes on again and another jockey sets up close to her sorting her lead out. Almost in each other’s way it is a surprise that they don’t mix each other’s gear but they clearly get it sorted. Just another part of being a jockey.

It was all too apparent that my story would be about the scales and I came away with some questions. Should the Judicial steward be checking correct weight of the riders after the race? Not once did I see him check. A wag with me suggested you could slip the Clerk of the scales some dosh and get away with anything.

Would it be easier to have colour coded weights, it would seem to make more sense and make it easier for the jocks.

Finally, if Matt Cross had spilt his sandwich down his white shirt, did he have a spare before he went on tele?

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