Jock of all days and master too

Jock Bennett, assistant trainer to Mark Johnston, at the handler's Park Farm base in Middleham

Jock Bennett, assistant trainer to Mark Johnston, at the handler's Park Farm base in Middleham

Published in Sport

A HORSE falls on a rider and an ambulance is called. Two hundred miles away at Newmarket, a plane carrying the chief is grounded because it won't start. Jump leads are required.

There's a million pound raceday at Lingfield and an open day means some 5,000 people are swarming all over Middleham.

Just another average morning at Mark Johnston's yard.

Nothing can surprise his long-time assistant Jock Bennett. In 41 years of racing, 17 of which have been at Kingsley House and eight as Johnston's right-hand man, the Scot has seen and heard it all.

Loquacious, the only time he has ever been speechless was when he was named the sport's employee of the year at the prestigious Godolphin Stud & Stable Staff Awards last year. It was a highlight of a career which has never been dull.

Working with Johnston, who regularly hits the 200 winner mark during a season and is one of racing's most opinionated spokesmen, never could be.

"Every day can be something different," he said. "When I left school at 15 I had no academic qualifications whatsoever. All I wanted to do was work outdoors and work in something that was interesting. I had never ridden a horse before and it certainly was the best thing I ever did coming into racing.

"There is a different challenge, no matter and I have been doing it over 40 years now. Every day I get a different challenge somewhere along the line. It's no mundane job."

Particularly when more than 230 horses are in your care.

Johnston's yard is like no other in the country. It's highly regimented, run to a successful system that depends on a large team of staff working to objectives. Yards are split into sections, colour coded charts instantly tell those looking at them what every horses in the yard is doing the next day - whether that is walking, cantering or just going round a horsewalker.

Critics have called it a factory. But Bennett, who looks after everyone below Johnston, believes it is a masterful system - one that can cater for a yard that can have as many as 40 runners on a weekend, and 25 on a Saturday alone.

He explained: "When I first started with Mark, it was more like 100 horses. We have progressed as we have built. The new yard at Park Farm can incorporate another 140 horses. Gradually we have built the yard each year. I think at one point last year we had 250.

"It keeps everyone busy. We have got a big workforce.

"We have very good managers here but that is done right from the top - right from Mark's direction, through myself and the rest of the staff.

"We have systems in place that we always think, no matter how big we can get, will cope. One of those is the managerial system. We have a yard manager - at the moment we have six, in charge of six parts of the yard - and underneath them will be a team of ten to 15 people.

"He's like a mini-trainer within the system. He is solely responsible for everything that goes on in his yard. Mark gives them quite a lot of responsibility, although at the end of the day the buck stops with him.

"If you walk round each yard, you will see at the end the manager's targets are up. They have figures for how many winners are expected and how much prize money they would like. There is a chart following the progress as it goes out through the year.

"It's a very good system.

"They may call it a factory but it certainly doesn't feel like working in one. We have to run it like clockwork and, being well staffed, that's one of the reasons we can do it."

Those looking at Bennett's position with envious eyes should focus their attention somewhere else. He may have enjoyed more than four decades in the game but professes to be enjoying his job more than ever.

And he doesn't plan to be putting himself out to pasture anytime soon.

"I am resigned to the fact that, if anyone is waiting, it's dead man's shoes here I am afraid," he said. "I am not going unless I am pushed. I can't see myself doing anything else and I won't.

"Even if I am lucky enough to get to retirement I would obviously like to think that I'd have some sort of role here even in that - just helping along somewhere or handing over something that I have learned over the years.

"I would hope that I would always be part of this operation."

Where would Johnston be without him?

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