Meet the Clerks of the Course

29 December 2022 Written by Michael Sharkie

They are the talented horsemen and women who keep the horses and riders safe on race day, but the clerks of the course are full of praise their special equine companions who do the job with them.

A field is loaded into the barriers, and just seconds before the start, a runner becomes unsettled. Jockeys call out to the starter while trying to calm their mounts. The gates rock, the field settles, and the race begins.

A horse missteps and unseats its jockey. It is now loose, running on and gathering speed behind the field with all the energy and power of its opponents but with none of the control.

Moments like these draw a collective gasp from onlookers who wince and hope simultaneously that the dislodged rider is unharmed and that the horse can be quickly caught; it is in that moment that Bob Challis and his colleagues spring into action. Challis is a clerk of the course, and race days don’t happen without people like him.

A clerk of the course is a safety net for horses and jockeys whether they are on the way to the start of a race, during a race or pulling up after a race as they return to the mounting yard. As talented as our jockeys are in the saddle, sometimes it helps to have an older, calmer horse alongside to help settle an anxious mount, and it is moments like these when the clerk is called upon.

“It’s not always loose horses, you see us riding out with a horse before a race, trainers will organise us to escort certain horses to the gates when they get a little stirred up,” Challis said.

“You’re there to give support and calm, you just want them to get around to the barriers safely and then come home safely. It’s just one of the roles we have on race day.”

Challis knows a thing or two about horses. As a jumps jockey in the 1980s he enjoyed plenty of success in his own right. And as a trainer, Challis won the Galleywood Hurdle at Warrnambool May Carnival with Stand To Gain, an Irish-bred, French-raced import that won the 2011 Sydney Cup before becoming a hurdler under Challis’ care. Stand To Gain has retired happily and at 16 years of age he occupies a paddock alongside a pony at Challis’ property at Bolinda near Romsey.

“Racing can be a tough life but it’s rewarding, especially if you have the right horses. I’ve been lucky to have the right horse a couple of times,” he said.

He landed in his current job as clerk of the course by accident. His partner Liz Irwin was working in the role but had to stop when the couple had a child, so Challis stepped in to fill in during the interim; more than 30 years later he is still going strong.

“You don’t just go and grab any white or grey horse and put them on the track, it takes a special horse to do this job and they are few and far between I can tell you.” - Bob Challis

“Somebody asked me how you become a clerk of the course. Well, I used a quote that an old clerk once told me – if you want the job, just keep your eye on the death notices, it’s about the only way you get a gig,” he joked.

“It keeps me out of the house and away from the stables. Once a horseman, always a horseman I suppose. It’s not an easy job by any means, but it is good when you can help someone out.”

And that ability to help depends entirely on the horse the clerk is working with. Challis knows that finding the right horse is absolutely critical to success in the role.

“You don’t just go and grab any white or grey horse and put them on the track, it takes a special horse to do this job and they are few and far between I can tell you.”

Along with fellow clerk Peter Patterson, Challis also travels the state assessing the horses of the 40-odd clerks currently registered with Racing Victoria as well as potential new horses that could be trained up for the job.

“As a starting point, they have got to like other horses. They must have a bit of speed because you have to be able to take off and catch one if it gets away. Not very many make the grade for what we need them to do. You can try 20 and maybe one of them will make it.”

Traditionally, clerk of the course horses have been grey (white) and clerks wore white jodhpurs with red hunting jackets. Those colours have stayed the same for the clerks, although red safety vests have replaced the old hunting jackets, but the colours of the horses themselves have changed as more importance is placed on suitability for the job.

“You will see Shane Patterson at Flemington, he’s got a brown and white horse, it really stands out. There’s a lot more colour out there now by necessity, because there just weren’t enough white horses that were up to it. I reckon only about fifty per cent of them would be white or grey now,” said Challis.

Challis relies on a 24-year-old son of Our Poetic Prince called Banjo that raced for him as Our Banjo and won just one race, a 2000m maiden at Seymour, and just $19,000 in a 42-start career.

But in his new role, Banjo has proved to be worth his weight in gold many times over.

“He’s a pretty special horse, old Banjo. I’ve been doing this job for over 30 years and I’ve only had two horses. Once you find one, you stick with them."

“Banjo has a sixth sense. He can catch a horse from the barriers in seconds, it’s as if he tunes into the one that’s going to play up before the problem happens. I can feel him react … he anticipates it … he speaks their language.”

Banjo is a cool and calm customer and can be seen happily mooching over the rails on race day at Flemington, mobbed by kids clamouring to pat him on the nose. He’s just as relaxed when he draws alongside an agitated racehorse.

“They have to have that temperament. If they bite or kick, they’re not going to make it. When you pull up alongside a loose horse at speed you’ve got to have an animal with a calm nature, it helps settle that loose horse. They’re herd animals, so they feed off each other, they sense the calm and they will eventually settle enough to be caught,” Challis said.

“When we retrain them, it’s all about slowing down, which is not easy, because they’ve been taught all their racing life to go fast. You’ve got to train the racehorse out of them.

“Being a trainer myself definitely helps. I start by leading horses off them, getting them used to working alongside another horse at an easy pace. It’s a completely new job for them and that’s why that temperament and smarts is so important. You need a horse that understands what you need it to do.”

And in the heat of a moment, that communication between horse and rider happens in a split second, especially when there is a loose horse on the track.

“You have to have your eyes and wits about you. We have radios on us and can communicate with the other clerks as well as the stewards. The stewards are our eyes in the sky, really. They have a raised view and they let us know if something has happened.”

On occasion, Challis has been called into action to protect a fallen rider, directing runners away from an incident where a horse or jockey has been injured. Communication is crucial in such instances when life is on the line.

He is grateful that he hasn’t attended to “a disaster” in his career, as Challis and his colleagues prefer to be inconspicuous but ever-present.

“A good day at work for me is when you don’t see me,” he said. “When something goes wrong, things can get pretty hairy. The best days at work are when you don’t know I’m there.”