Centenary of service is no great hurdle at the races

Ground staff Ian Foster, Neal Kidd and Ian Ward
Ground staff Ian Foster, Neal Kidd and Ian Ward
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A hardy and dedicated team of gentlemen who work in all weathers to keep one of the region’s most historic sporting venues in prime condition is celebrating reaching an impressive milestone.

Together, Ian Ward, Neal Kidd and Ian Foster have given a combined total of 100 years’ service to helping to make Wetherby Racecourse one of the country’s leading jumping tracks.

Neal Kidd, one of three ground staff at Wetherby Racecourse

Neal Kidd, one of three ground staff at Wetherby Racecourse

Head groundsman Ian Ward and his two close colleagues started working at the racecourse in their formative years. While the venue has been modernised over the decades, the team have always ensured that the course remains in the best condition ahead of races, many of which are televised live on television.

With the start of the new horse racing season beginning at Wetherby soon, on Wednesday October 16, Jonjo Sanderson, the venue’s chief executive has paid tribute to the ground staff team’s century of service.

Mr Sanderson said: “For a racecourse of our size and stature, to have three lads that look after the fences and the hurdles, and the amount of work that they get through in a 12-month period, it really is something else.

“The fact that they have been doing it for so long is a big achievement. They obviously love what they do and they put their hearts and souls into it.”

Ian Ward, 54, is the longest-serving member of staff at the racecourse with 40 years’ service. Born in Boston, Lincolnshire, he moved to Wetherby at the age of five when his father took a job as a prison officer on the outskirts of the West Yorkshire town.

His earliest memories of the racecourse are visits with his father and sharing banter with jockeys down at the start. At the time, the likes of double British Champion Jockey and one of the greatest jump jockeys of all time, Jonjo O’Neil, as well as fellow champion Ron Barry raced at Wetherby.

Ian also saw some great horses such as Tingle Creek, a popular National Hunt racehorse in the 70s, Wayward Lad, an English Thoroughbred that prospered in the 80s, and the ‘Cheltenham Five’. Trained by Michael Dickinson near Harewood, each of the five ran at Wetherby before a momentous run at Cheltenham in 1983, where they were the first five finishers.

Aged 11, Ian started helping out the then head groundsman Cyril Frost on his small-holding behind the racecourse.

Within a couple of years he was working on race days, climbing steps to the numbers board to chalk up the winning horses and lengths and five years in, he became a full-time member of the ground staff. It was in 1983 that he succeeded the late Mr Frost as head groundsman.

“I’ve always enjoyed my time at Wetherby Racecourse and could never imagine doing anything else,” Ian said.

“The lads never see a race day in action because we’re always busy with our duties. We don’t often find out who won until much later in the day, so having a bet is out of the question.”

And the best part of their jobs?

“There’s nothing better than at the end of a race day when the crowds have gone. We all sit down to have a pint before we start several hours of clearing away and locking down.”

Neal, 48, of Clifford, and Ian Foster, 47, of Boston Spa, have both spent 30 years as groundsmen. Both Ian, who is known as ‘Young Ian’ to avoid confusion with Mr Ward, and his colleague Neal started working at the racecourse in their teens.

All three men agreed that the weather makes their roles both the best and the worst jobs in the world.

“It’s difficult to be outside when the wind and rain are battering the course but perfect when cutting the grass on a dry sunny day,” Mr Ward said.