Meet the woman in charge of keeping Doncaster St Leger Festival on course after turbulent few years for racecourse
Its role in the industrial revolution, its contribution to the creation of the nation’s railway network, and, not forgetting, the “pre-eminent” place it occupies in the world of horse racing.
The third and fourth day of the renowned St Leger Festival were cancelled as a mark of respect. But the Leger, one of Britain’s five classic races and a race which Her Majesty won with her filly Dunfermline in 1977, went ahead when racing returned three days after her passing, with a nod to the contribution she had made to the sport.
“We tried to find a way to do it with respect for her as she was probably the sport’s biggest ambassador," reflects Rachel Harwood, the racecourse’s executive director. “For people involved in the sport that had either worked for her or with her over many years in particular, we wanted to get the tone right.”
Harwood is now gearing up for this year’s St Leger Festival, one of the highlights of the flat racing season. Her breath is bated as the September start date draws closer after what has been a turbulent few years for the prestigious event.
“We spend a lot of time benchmarking where we're at against 2019 because so many things have happened over the past few years that have meant we haven’t delivered a St Leger in a traditional manner. This year, touch wood, we will get it all away.”
Having left her previous job as director of Durham Cricket, Harwood took up post at the racecourse just days after the country entered its first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was eerie. When I arrived here, the hotel was closed (the racecourse has a Hilton on site), the racecourse was effectively closed and there were just three members of the team here to keep the building safe and deal with incoming ticket issues. I think we all thought it would be a few weeks thing but it rolled on.”
Sport returned behind closed doors in June that year. There was optimism the Leger could go ahead with crowds that September after the event was chosen as a pilot project bringing spectators back to live sporting events. But fans were banned from the track following a Government U-turn on the first day of racing because of spiralling coronavirus rates.
In 2021, the festival went ahead in accordance with government guidelines at the time, including increased cleaning and sanitising stations- and it was recommended that people wore facemasks indoors and in crowded areas.
Last year was set to see a return to ‘normality’, but Her Majesty sadly passed away after the first two race days.
This year, the festival is due to get underway on September 14, starting with Ladies Day. Day two, dubbed ‘Donny’s Day’ to celebrate the city, is set to attract some of the most prestigious racing of the week with the Betfred Doncaster Cup, the oldest race currently run under the rules of horse racing.
Last year’s festival was also due to celebrate Doncaster after the area was chosen to be one of eight new cities created as part of Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
“The racecourse has always been an anchor tenant of Doncaster and one of things Doncaster is globally famous for,” Harwood says. “It’s a world recognised racecourse at the heart of the city and I think city status can only drive more people to come to Doncaster and want to work here, live here and come and enjoy the racecourse.”
Day three is the Betfred St Leger Festival's flagship day, home to the world's oldest classic and final of the season, the Betfred St Leger Stakes. The showpiece race attracts leading stables across the country and boasts a glittering roll of honour with some of the most acclaimed horses in history.
Then, for the first time, the festival finishes on a Sunday with the St Leger community fun day, featuring the Leger Legends charity race for ex-professional jockeys, as well as family entertainment.
“St Leger has been going for over 240 years,” Harwood says. “It’s probably, along with trains and Romans, what Doncaster is most famous for. This year is (jockey) Frankie Dettori’s final season - he’s won it six times before so this could be a seventh triumph.
“After the last few years, I hope that people come and have a fabulous time. I hope that no senior members of the royal family are indisposed and that there are no world-challenging events. I hope that the team finally gets to deliver on all the things they work really hard on all year and see that come to fruition rather than everything changing at the eleventh hour.”
It’s true that when Harwood joined, she was looking for a new challenge, following eight years with Durham Cricket and previous work running a football stadium, hotel and leisure park in Oxfordshire.
However, the challenge was, perhaps, more than she bargained for and Harwood, who lives in Wetherby, says it is testament to “the amazing team” that she and the racecourse have navigated a turbulent few years. Still, she wouldn’t change things.
“I like that it’s not a nine to five job - something happens everyday that you could consider a surprise, from the sublime to the ridiculous and it’s just good fun.”
With races running at Doncaster 37 times a year, and conferences, exhibitions and events also hosted at the venue, her work is never done. October sees the The Futurity Trophy - “that tends to deliver the horses that go on to win the classics the following year so it’s a really interesting raceday”, she says - then after the November handicap, the last big race of the flat season at Doncaster, it’s straight into December’s Christmas parties and festive racedays.
For now though, the focus is on the Leger.
“I feel I’ve touched a lot of wood [these past few years],” Harwood reflects. “We have a briefing meeting two weeks in advance of the Leger and every time I’ve done a set of scenarios of ‘what happens if’…This year I hope I won’t be doing any - but I think until the last guest has left and the last member of staff has left on the Sunday, I will remain marginally nervous.”
The Betfred St Leger Festival runs at Doncaster racecourse from September 14 to 17.