Focus on Fakenham Racecourse linchpin

AS far back as David Hunter can remember, horses and ponies have been part of his life.Whether riding a pony as a boy in the West Country, attending the elite Cadre Noir centre in France during his army years, working to improve horses' welfare at a Norfolk-based charity or managing the British Paralympic eventing team in the Beijing Olympics last summer - horsemanship has been the focus of his career.

AS far back as David Hunter can remember, horses and ponies have been part of his life.

Whether riding a pony as a boy in the West Country, attending the elite Cadre Noir centre in France during his army years, working to improve horses' welfare at a Norfolk-based charity or managing the British Paralympic eventing team in the Beijing Olympics last summer - horsemanship has been the focus of his career.

But his best-known role at present is his job as chief executive and clerk of the course at Fakenham, which is where we met ahead of a big day in the racecourse's history: its long-awaited first New Year's Day meeting (subject to inspections).

“My interest in horses goes back to my earliest childhood memories,” he says. “I was born and brought up in Somerset: my parents met on the hunting field there. My mother was very keen on horses and encouraged us all to sit on ponies from day one, and I sat on a donkey before I could probably walk. I competed as a youngster in Pony Club.”

But there was a hitch that temporarily derailed his budding career in equestrianism.

“I was allergic to ponies! They made my eyes stream, so I stopped riding ponies when I was 10. Besides, you had to do less maintenance with a bicycle.

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“Then my mother died when I was 10 from cancer and she was always the driving force.”

It was not until David joined the army as an 18-year-old that he rediscovered his flair for horsemanship, and since then it has never left him.

For the best part of two decades he has been at the heart of equestrian life in Norfolk, first through running the International League for the Protection of Horses (now called World Horse Welfare) at Snetterton and for the last 11 years at Fakenham Racecourse.

The course has been busily gearing up for today, when its inaugural New Year's Day race meeting will form the latest in a number of innovations that David has overseen.

“Some of the things I'm most proud of are that we have achieved, from conception to construction and now seven years onwards, the Prince of Wales grandstand, which provides really good facilities on race days,” he says.

“That building was built on time and within budget and the loans have all been repaid on time: it's a debt-free building.

“We have done it without going overboard. We only have three corporate boxes, so one hasn't gone down the line of corporate hospitality. The most important customer is still the man coming through the turnstiles wanting a good day's entertainment.

“I'm always extremely pleased that we have managed to increase the number of race meetings, from six when I started to nine or 10 between the same period of October to May.

“That is our optimum number. We wouldn't want to go beyond 10. People get blasé - they would say: 'We won't go this time as we could go next time.'

“I think the essence of what we, that is me and my small but dedicated and hard-working and fun-loving team, have achieved and continue to achieve is to have improved facilities and the infrastructure of the racecourse; to strive to bring it up to the standards expected of a modern sporting venue but without losing the essence of what a day's racing at Fakenham is about.”

Which is to say, an enjoyable day out at a small, informal track where you can expect to see a good day's racing at an affordable price.

The course's appeal is not its grandeur or status as a place to be seen but as a simple rural track on which you never lose sight of the horses while they are racing.

“We are proud of where we sit in the racing infrastructure,” he says. “In order to have the top national hunt fixtures - Cheltenham and Aintree, etc - you have to have a strong base as well. We provide that grassroots function.

“We work closely with the British Horseracing Authority to put on races that will be appealing across the whole programme and that are of suitable prize money and are going to be competitive,” he says.

“We have a reputation of putting on races with quite an impressive amount of prize money. Our most valuable races of the year are two that are £15,000, and many are £10,000.

“We also have good ground. We are blessed with excellent natural ground for the horses to run on and a dedicated team of groundsmen who put the work in and labour to repair the ground.

“We are also the only racecourse in the country that offers free entry for all our races.

“Any trainer can enter a horse for no fee, which means in effect that the owner can enter for free.”

David came to Norfolk after he left the army. He was in the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards for 10 years.

“I joined that regiment as a young subaltern,” he says. He left as a commissioned officer.

Horsemanship played a large part in his army career, but only after he had got over that childhood allergy.

“When I went to Sandhurst at 18, fairly soon I wandered down to the saddle club and got on a horse. I hadn't ridden anything for eight years. I got on and very quickly realised that my allergy had disappeared, which was great,” he recalls.

While in the army he “played polo at a deliciously low standard - although I can ride a horse, my hand/ball co-ordination wasn't that good,” - but, while he is selfdeprecating about his talents there, it is a measure of his equestrian abilities that he was selected for the Cadre Noir.

“My pinnacle, I suppose, was being posted to France for the year, to Saumur, in the Loire valley. I did a riding course at the Ecole National d'Equitation, the Cadre Noir. They are to France what the Spanish Riding School are to Austria,” he says.

“I was very fortunate that one cavalry officer a year was posted to this school, and I was the lucky man that year. We had five hours instruction a day, and it was fun and very hard work.”

In 1990 he married Adriana, “a highly clever and disciplined individual”, who translates French books into English - they have three children, Hannah, Max and Celia, and live at Great Fransham, near Dereham.

In 1992 he left the army and joined what was then the ILPH. “I spent five years at Snetterton running the rehabilitation centre. I was using my riding skills every day, sitting on arsey horses that were kicking!” he remembers.

While he is well established now at Fakenham after more than a decade in the post, he has combined it with another job since 2002.

This summer saw him in Hong Kong, where the Para-Equestrian Dressage team was competing at the Beijing Olympics. His role is that of performance manager, and under his guidance the team's successes include nine medals from the last Paralympics and 13 from last year's world championships.

The job involves co-ordinating all the training, coaching and logistics required to get the Para-Equestrian Dressage riders, horses and support staff to national and international competitions.

David works alongside farriers, doctors, trainers, together with the British Paralympic Association and British Dressage, to make sure the team of eight riders is as well placed as possible for success.

In the past, he has said: “I treat the riders the same as I would an able-bodied athlete.

“At the end of the day, they are top-class sportsmen and women and have responsibilities whether they have disabilities or not.

“The only difference is that I understand and appreciate their requirements, so I am able to make the necessary adaptations if needed.

“For example, I may need to plan in more time for travel, extra space at a venue or check out accessibility.”

Now, he says, “it's full steam ahead to 2012,” but more immediately he was putting his considerable energy into ensuring that today's race meeting goes off in style.

And the course will continue to progress, although he admits that the state of the economy makes it hard to make confident predictions just now.

“We have further plans to continue improving things, although they may be taking a pause at the moment with the current economic climate.

It's not a time for major projects requiring funding and capital investment,” he says.

“When I started, I felt that standing still, doing nothing, was not an option.”