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Monday, 21 January, 2019

Highly praised Garratt passes on baton after transforming Cartmel

Course chief executive who has run his last race speaks to David Carr

Jonathan Garratt (right), dapper as ever on another busy day at Cartmel, with bookmaker Ron Wadey
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It's amazing what you can achieve with a slick handover, as the British 4x100m relay squad showed by surprising the Americans at the World Athletics Championships.

What the gold medal quartet made look effortless is actually mighty tricky, as a series of dropped Team GB batons in years gone by illustrates.

So this is a key time for Cartmel, where Jonathan Garratt has run a mighty race as chief executive and is preparing to hand over to an as yet unidentified successor after the track's final meeting of the year on Monday.

Now, there are those who would imagine any old fool could run Britain's most scenic racecourse, nestled snugly on Lord Cavendish's Holker estate in the south Lake District.

Book the funfair, stock up on sticky toffee pudding and watch the punters – and money – roll in.

Don't you believe it. Nothing can be taken for granted in the leisure market in the age of austerity. Being a nostalgic throwback didn't help Woolworths, did it?

And even the smallest track needs an astute politician at the helm to navigate the choppy waters of TV deals, fixture wrangles and media rights payments.

Time was when Cartmel raced only over the Whitsun and August bank holidays, and Garratt, reflecting on his seven years in charge, says: "Probably the biggest impact I've had is expanding the fixture list to nine, and we have those fixtures secured for the next three years at the very least.

"That's a big step forward from when I arrived, when we had five fixtures we knew we could run and another two we had to lease or scrap for – we were never really sure whether we'd have them or not."

A bird's eye view of the busy Bank Holiday Monday crowd at Cartmel

Garratt, 48, is also fiercely proud of the improvements that have been made to the racing programme – Monday's card has three Class 2s and £91,000 in prize-money overall, whereas there was only one race above Class 4 ten years ago and no winner earned more than £7,156.

"It was fairly clear we needed to improve the quality of the racing, because so much of our business now relies on the external markets as opposed to those on the racecourse," adds Garratt.

"Having a product that people want to bet on in the shops is really vital, and so is having a product people want to watch at home on Racing UK. I was very keen we shouldn't be continually propping up the table having the lowest-class racing anywhere in the country.

"If you look at the average class of all our races we're now about 14th of all jump courses, whereas we used to be right at the bottom."

Attracting better horses

Investment in prize-money – every one of the season's 63 races is now sponsored – and in the track has been key to attracting runners from champion trainers past and present.

"A number of years ago, people wouldn't have identified Cartmel as a track where you'd take your better horses," Garratt admits.

"But we widened the roadside straight, which gives us the flexibility of more hurdle positions and to push horses on either side of the track, spreading the wear.

"And there has been an investment in equipment, with pop-up sprinklers, a huge amount of drainage."

Those efforts were rewarded when Cartmel's dedicated team, led by head groundsman Gary Sharp, were voted groundstaff of the year for 2016, yet Garratt has been determined not to seek professional kudos at the expense of Cartmel's idyllic charm.

Rolling hills: racing takes place against a stunning backdrop

This is the sort of place where the first racegoers can arrive before 7am and the last ones leave at 11pm – which is one of the reasons they don't race on successive days.

And Garratt says: "Lord Cavendish is very fond of saying, 'What do we have to do not to spoil this place?' Things have to move forward but you have to do it in such a way that you're not actually changing the nature of the venue.

"The public expect better-quality facilities, better marquees, better loos and better roads. They expect to be able to book in advance, pay by credit at the entry point and scan their tickets. But you have to move things forward without changing the feel."

The man who once ran the Sun Punters Club, before taking charge at Worcester and Fontwell, then serving as commercial manager at Scottish Racing, has a shrewd idea of what will sell, and the public have voted with their feet – and their tents – for concerts after racing.

"We've started offering camping as well," Garratt says. "So when we stage music events, there's much more of a festival feel. We quite like the idea of being the Glastonbury of racing!"

Next year will bring a £130,000 raceday on July 1, but the baton will be in another hand by then, with Garratt tempted away by the "exciting challenge" of running Kelso.

Jonathan Garratt (left) is to succeed the retiring Richard Landale (right) as general manager at Kelso

But his role representing small independent courses on the board of Racecourse Media Group means he'll still have the Lakes on his mind.

"I don't think Cartmel will be off my radar," he says. "I hope there will still be an opportunity for me to help."

'He's going to be a hard act to follow'

There can be no higher praise for Jonathan Garratt from the locals than that 'he's become one of our own'.

Those are the words of Jimmy Moffatt, who was born and brought up in Cartmel and succeeded his father Dudley as trainer at Pit Farm Racing Stables in the village in 2003.

"He's very intelligent, very personable and has some very innovative ideas," Moffatt said of the departing chief executive.

Jimmy Moffatt: had high praise for Garratt

"He's caught the essence of what Cartmel is about in every sense, it's a unique track that caters for everyone, from racing professionals to families on a day out, and he encourages all sides.

"Sometimes courses get stuck in a bit of a time warp but we're all in the entertainment business, Jonathan grasps that. The crowds are there to be entertained and he makes sure they are, at many different levels. The racing programme is completely different now and he'll be a huge asset to Kelso."

Looking to the future, Moffatt added: "He's going to be a hard act to follow but Holker Estates will get the right man; they've been looking for some time and I'm sure the new man will be thoroughly supported by everyone.

"I'm sad to see Jonathan go but I realise that everything changes. They've still got a great backbone to the team and the whole thing is bigger than one man."

Monday's Cartmel card and betting

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It was fairly clear to me that we needed to improve the quality of the racing

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