Christmas at Market Rasen with Nadia Powell

CHRISTMAS means one thing above all else for Nadia Powell – Boxing Day. Whether as a teenager helping to muck out at her father Steve Gollings’ stables at Scamblesby in the Lincolnshire Wolds, or as Jockey Club Racecourses group racing executive and analyst based in London, or as general manager at Huntingdon racecourse and now Market Rasen, her focus has always been on the big racing day of the festive period.

This year, her second Boxing Day at Market Rasen, things will be slightly different on two counts. For the first time she and raceday presenter Steven Powell will be working together as husband and wife, following their marriage in October, and for the last time the course will operate under the chairmanship of Colin ‘Bud’ Booth, who is handing over to Tommy Cooper after 25 years as a director.

“For all Bud’s friends, including the owners and annual members, as well as for himself, it will be a very emotional day,” Powell says. “He‘s the life and soul of the place, and when anyone talks about Market Rasen, they genuinely say ‘Bud Booth’.

“He’s actually been involved with the racecourse for over 25 years, because he spent four years here as a steward, and we’ve a lot of work to do to make sure we continue what he’s achieved.”

Those aspects apart, though, Boxing Day at Market Rasen remains the same, from the importance of the fixture to the routine behind its staging.

When asked what the day means to the racecourse, Powell sums up in a word, “Everything,” before adding: “It’s the one day in the year when I see hundreds of people that I know, and they’re from all different groups. Many of them might not be regular racing fans but they just want to get out the house into the fresh air and have a good day. They’ll definitely be the loudest crowd we have all season.”

Powell’s Christmas routine was established from a very young age. “Before I started working in racing myself,” she recalls, “I’d get up at six on Christmas Day morning, help to feed the horses, ride out, muck out, then have Christmas lunch with those staff who were working, before afternoon stables. Then it would be up early on Boxing Day to go racing, invariably to Market Rasen.

“Perhaps the best day was when Soudain won the Lincolnshire National in 2012. People round here genuinely love the race and associate our Boxing Day with it, so it was very special.”

By then, Powell was four years into her career with Jockey Club Racecourses, having started as commercial manager at Nottingham in 2008. She moved to head office in 2011 but still represented the group over Christmas at Market Rasen, before succeeding Sophie Able at Huntingdon two years later.

“The big risk there was the potential for flooding,” she says. “I raced on two Boxing Days at Huntingdon, but we had to abandoned the third.

“The work that goes into putting on a Boxing Day fixture is incredible, so to abandon is very sad for the team, because you’re still there, still working, sorting out everything.

“It’s amazing how many times you get asked from the beginning of November, ‘Are you going to race on Boxing Day?’ My only answer is ‘I wish I could tell you.’

“We start looking at weather forecasts from the beginning of December, which is when John Ketley will start giving the group more detailed long-range forecasts. We tend to have a clear picture two weeks out, and if necessary, we’ll cover areas that are at risk, the take-offs and landings. Market Rasen is quick-draining, so frost and snow would be a bigger concern than at, say, Huntingdon.”

The turn of the month also marks the start of all-out Boxing Day preparations for Powell and her 12-strong fulltime team of office and ground staff.

“For the whole of December no-one takes time off and we all work until the end of play on Christmas Eve,” she explains. “That may sound strange but the team wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Everyone except Jack Pryor, the clerk of the course, and me has Christmas Day off. We get here for around 6am, we both walk the track and I check all the facilities. You can never be too sure. I remember Sophie telling me that she turned up at Huntingdon one Christmas day to find the roof on a hospitality box had fallen in.

“My father will come along too, because he’ll have a runner on Boxing Day. Then we’ll go to my parents’ house for lunch and help with afternoon stables. It’s no different now I’m married and, of course it’s never a day off for my parents.

“On Boxing Day the staff start at 6am, although Jack, the head groundsman Steve Bakin and I will probably be here a little earlier to walk the course. It’s an early start for the staff because the gates open at ten and first race is at 12, so we need everyone here in good time for catering, security and staffing briefings. And before you know it, we’ve got eight to ten thousand people through the gates.

“That’s exactly why we don’t want to abandon. We don’t want it for racing, we don’t want it because of the hard work that’s gone on beforehand, and we don’t want it for the people who have the fixture firmly in their diaries every year.

“When you do abandon, it can take two or three years to get that level of crowd back. It affects the size of the crowd by thousands not hundreds, because people lose confidence, although the weather’s the one thing beyond our control.”

With so much riding on a successful festive season, does Powell look forward to Christmas?

“Probably not as much as most people,” she says, “because we’re so focused on Boxing Day. I’ve been aware this was the case since I was a young teenager, when I thought it was a bit odd that we had staff in for lunch on Christmas Day.

“But I wouldn’t change it, and sometimes I actually wonder what ‘normal’ people do on Christmas Day. Now Boxing Day, that’s a different matter.”