Architect of a glorious revolution

As Goodwood approaches, Greg Wood talks to one of the Turf's innovators
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The Independent Online
Glorious, they call it, but even that sells it short. Some prefer the postcard prettiness of Cartmel, others the imposing backdrop at Cheltenham. On a bright afternoon in July, however, there cannot be a more magnificent stage for horse racing than Goodwood, and when its major meeting opens next Tuesday, the crowds stretched out on its downland hillside will surely be the most fortunate collection of punters on the planet.

Of course, no one would dream of building Goodwood now, with its looping path around the top of the downs and a home straight which flirts with the side of the hill like a mountain road. But in the early 19th century, they had more imagination. From the paddock you can look out beyond Chichester cathedral four miles away towards the sea. Walk around to the course itself and the Vale of Sussex is stretched away below, while all around the canopies, the panamas and the picnics produce the garden-party atmosphere.

In these competitive times, though, even Goodwood's unique surroundings are not enough to guarantee success. Less than 20 years ago, there were serious doubts about its future viability as a racecourse. Since then, however, Goodwood has marketed itself so effectively that its recent history has been of consistent success. It is a renaissance for which one man deserves particular credit.

In recent years, Edward Gillespie, first at Cheltenham and now at United Racecourses, has been seen as the definitive go-ahead, innovating track administrator. Yet well before Gillespie rose to prominence, Rod Fabricius was doing similar things at Goodwood, and it is Fabricius who could fairly claim to be the first clerk of the course to realise than tracks can no longer just open the gates and expect punters to arrive.

Fabricius has been in charge at Goodwood since October 1982, and so is now approaching his 13th July meeting. In that time, two new grandstands have been constructed, while his spectator-friendly approach is typified by the paddockside headphones, now a long-established fixture, which provide a free commentary on the parading horses.

"We are totally pre-occupied with customer service and making sure that racegoers feel part of the sport," Fabricius says. "The headphone service in the paddock, for example, is a marvellous way to allow newcomers to the sport to become involved and educated. It's all part of our willingness to challenge some of the established precedents which have shackled racecourse managers for many years."

Evening racing is another product of the Fabricius years, with five Friday nights forming part of next year's 20-day programme, and the track was also the first to stage "enterprise" meetings, without Levy Board support. Programme changes have included switching the Stewards' Cup from the first day of the July meeting to the last, while a cut in the distance of the Goodwood Cup to two miles had a dramatic result last year. What had become probably the weakest Group race of the season attracted 15 runners, including 10 previous Pattern winners.

At first, the changes were not universally welcomed. Goodwood's core supporters are archly traditional, and Fabricius has performed a delicate balancing act. "Our membership is conservative," he says, "and we need to recognise their expectations. Although we try to be innovative and find ways to improve the product, we are always aspiring to be a centre of excellence."

Like any innovator, Fabricius is always looking for the next idea. "We will be 200 years old in six years' time, and we want to make that a special landmark. I'd like to improve the view in the parade ring by moving the weighing room and creating a sunken amphitheatre, and of course we have ambitions to get another Group One race to go with the Sussex Stakes."

If the view from Goodwood's grandstand is exhilarating, the vision in the mind of its clerk of the course seems to be just as impressive.