One of the most familiar sights at Canterbury racetracks on raceday is the red-coated figure of Clarrie Williams, clerk of the course. In formal riding garb and sitting straight in the saddle, with riding crop in hand aboard a neatly groomed horse, Clarrie always maintains a dignified approach to the job he loves.
And after twenty-three years as clerk of the course for the three Addington clubs, Clarrie has no thoughts of giving it all up. Although he was a reluctant starter and was pushed into the job by his father, the late Maitland Williams, today, almost a quarter of a century after that first day on the job, Clarrie remains enthusiastic about the work, and he is now clerk of the course for 18 Canterbury trotting and galloping clubs.
A member of a large family - one of eight children - Clarrie's interest in horses was probably inevitable as it stemmed from a strong family involvement in horses of all shapes and sizes. Clarrie's parents ran a dairy farm at Belfast during the Depression, but horses were always an important part of the Williams family life. "Mum's father raced horses at Lancaster Park," Clarrie said. But Maitland Williams also raced horses, both thoroughbreds and standardbreds, as well as breaking in ponies. So it is not surprising to learn that Clarrie's love of horses is the main reason he has stayed in the job for so long.
"I like seeing good horses," Clarrie said simply. Although he has seen many great champions come and go over the years at Addington including Cardigan Bay, Lordship and, in more recent times, Robalan, Noodlum, Lord Module, No Response, Scotch Tar, Hands Down, Armalightand the current stars Our Mana and Derby, to name only a few, Clarrie has no particular favourites. "You see good horses, and you never forget them." he explained.
Clarrie spends 73 days of the year working at one meeting or another and several years ago he decided to relinquish a permanent job at the CFM freezing works at Belfast to accommodate this busy schedule of clerk activities. In recent years, on the days that he has not been working at racemeetings, Clarrie has been kept busy shoeing show jumpers and ponies around the North and Central Canterbury area. He steers clear of trotters because they are too complicated. Clarrie said that there is enough shoeing work in the areato work seven days a week "if you were silly enough", but his raceday commitments restrict his farrier work to something less than that.
All the Clubs racing at Addington now use two course clerks, but when Clarrie first began working there, back in May 1961, the clubs used only one, and it was not until the NZ Metropolitan Club held the 38th Inter-Dominion series in 1979 that another clerk was taken on to help. After the 1979 Inter-Dominion, the New Zealand Metropolitan club used two clerks for NZ Cup Day and Show Day, but Clarrie did all the other meetings alone up until Dave Ferriman was taken on to help out on a permanent basis three years ago.
It is their job to assemble the horses in the parade ring and follow them up to the birdcage, and then lead them out onto the track. "They are in our care till the start," Clarrie said. After the race the winner is escorted back to the birdcage to salute the judge and then the remaining horses are escorted back to the stable area. During the running of the race the clerk of the course is responsible for catching any riderless/driverless runaway horses. They must also attend any accident and keep the remaining runners clear of any accident if possible. But this does not always prove as easy as it sounds, and this was clearly emphasised at the recent Ashburton meeting when Ginger Milne fell soon after the start in the Rokeby Handicap. Unfortunately the fallen horse could not get up and had not been cleared from the track by the time the horses entered the back straight again. Clarrie warned the drivers to keep clear in a loud voice, which some course patrons claimed was heard right across the track and into the stand area. Most drivers followed his advice, but five took the inside route and in so doing gained a considerable advantage on the rest of the field. Three of the horses who were given the inside run subsequently finished first, second and third. Clarrie said that a member of the crash team restrained the fallen horse as the other horses were passing, in case it managed to get up. But, with horses running on both sides of the accident, it could have developed into an extremely dangerous situation. "We are just there to help, but I might as well not have been there when a few of the clever ones just ignored me," Clarrie said. "It was a silly thing to do and I didn't expect them to do it," he said.
Although Clarrie has many newsclippings describing various dramatic recoveries of riderless/driverless horses on raceday, he is reluctant to talk about that side of his work, mostly claiming that "it is mostly luck, and a good horse. You have got to have a horse you can trust." The first horse Clarrie used at Addington was a tall, fleet showjumper named Lofty, who could clear jumps of six feet four inches, a talent which helped earn him a place in the Canterbury Show Jumping Team and six South Island Champion Hunter awards. Named for his height, Lofty, who was also known as Alb by the Williams family, was 16.2 hands tall, which is not surprising considering his sire was one quarter draught horse and his dam was a thoroughbred.
Clarrie likes to keep two horses to use at racemeetings. This way, if one gets hurt or goes lame, he always has a horse capable of doing the job and, by keeping two horses available, the workload for each horse is reduced. Over the years, Clarrie has used several different horses on raceday, but they have all been geldings. "It's not that I have anything against mares," he said, "but there are too many colts and stallions these days."
Many of Clarrie's clerk of the course horses have become firm favourites with raceday crowds, and one gelding in particular, an unsound galloper named Dotterell, was especially popular. "People still ask about him. If there was a smash, he would take off on his own (to the crash site). He loved the job. He has a way of his own which is hard to explain, but he used to dance and show off in front of the crowd, and they loved him. We got him when he was three; we paid £16 for him at the Kirwee pony sale," Clarrie said.
However, he was not the only one of Clarrie's horses with an independent streak. Hogan, who was about sixth in the line of Williams' raceday horses, also had a mind of his own, and Clarrie recalls one day at the Methven trots when Hogan put on a show that sent Methven horseman Mac Miller into fits of laughter. Clarrie said that he saddled up Hogan, climbed aboard and was all set to ride off when the gelding just sat down, literally. "I must have had his girth strap a bit tight or something," Clarrie said, "but anyway he just decided he wasn't going to move." He remained in the saddle and the waiting game between the horse and the rider began. Eventually, Clarrie's patience won out and Hogan, tiring of the game, got up and moved off, still with Clarrie aboard, but not before Mac Miller happened to pass by the stable. Taking in the humorous sight of horse sitting crouched like a dog with a rider perched in the saddle, Mac "just about burst his sides laughing," Clarrie said.
Although Clarrie has had the pleasure of leading one of his own thoroughbreds back to the winner's circle, the way the rules stand at present, he will not get the chance to own and train a standardbred winner, because of his clerk of the course duties. "I can own, train and race a thoroughbred, but I can only own a standardbred mare if I sell her foals," Clarrie explained. Of all the thoroughbreds he has raced, he considers High Test, who ran second in the Brabazon Handicap at Riccarton earlier this year, to be the best. "But we had more fun with Country King," he said. Clarrie particularly enjoyed the success he achieved with Country King because "he was mad when we got him and people said we were wasting out time". But where others had failed, Clarrie succeeded in quietening Country King and he won two races with him in a row, at the 1978Grand National meeting ar Riccarton. However, he considers that Country King was unlucky not to have achieved his hat trick of wins at the meeting. He explained that one clerk of the course had to remain at the start at Riccarton in case a horse escapes from the starting gates. Clarrie was riding Governor General that day and he decided to attend the start himself, a decision he later regretted. When Clarrie arrived at the start with Governor General, Country King, who was in the starting gate, began gawking around looking at his mate. Bill Skelton, who was riding Country King, yelled out to Clarrie, telling him ti "get that horse out of it," however Clarrie had no choice but to remain close by and Country King was subsequently slow out of the gates and finished fifth.
Although the clerk of the course is supposed to try anf catch a horse who has escaped from the starting gates, the task is far from easy in that the galloper always has a head start, a considerable advantage in a short chase. Some trainers have asked him not to chase their horses if they should escape from the starting gates, because they feel chasing only makes the horse run harder and further. Clarrie is happy to oblige such requests, but he points out that at least two horses they have caught have gone on to win the race.
One escapee they did not catch, at Riccarton one year, got well and truly off the beaten track and ended up at the Yaldhurst Hotel, still with saddle, bridle and saddlecloth in place. There have been other instances where horses have ended up in odd places while remaining on the racecourse. Clarrie recalled one night at Addington when a horse had tried to duck out of the top gate on the track, heading for the stable area, and ended up under the water cart. "He knew where he was going, but we didn't."
All told, over 23 years at Addington, Clarrie has missed only four race days to date - three days off with a broken collarbone and one day off with a knee injury - and he has faced every type of weather imagineable. From hail and snow at Addingtonto a quagmire at the Ashburton gallops in 1977 when "Nobody believed they would hold a racemeeting. But they did and there was next to nobody there," he said. The conditions were so bad Clarrie had to catch two horses after the running of one race because they were "blinded with mud."
Most clubs now run ten races, two more thn when Clarrie first began working as clerk of the course. This often means a long day for the clerk - between five and five and a half hours in the saddle - and his horse. But Clarrie said that once the horses become familiar with the work they seem to enjoy it.
At the moment, he has three horses available to use for his work - all thoroughbreds. They are High Honour, Melody Morn and Mr Aybee. The former top galloper, Mr Aybee, is the most well known of the trio and Clarrie said the gelding is "an ideal horse for the job and lovely to ride." High Honour, who is still racing, is also ideally suited to the job, particularly at the night trots which often unsettle thoroughbreds for a while because of the unfamiliar surroundings of carts and lights. However, because High Honour is in racing trim, he tends to get "a bit full of himself" and is not beyond letting fly with his back heels at any unwary racehorses he feels might be getting too close. but they are only half hearted grizzles and Clarrie ensures there is no chance of connection.
Although his clerk of the course horses need only light exercise to keep them fit for the job, his racehorses (High Honour and High Test) are given a combination of road and beach work. Spencer Park beach is only six and a half miles from Clarrie's home at Clarkville and he is one of the many local trainers who work their horses on the beach. "It is beaut up there," Clarrie said, "somedays you feel like you could stay there all day."
Credit: Shelley Caldwell writing in NZ Trot Calendar 11Oct83