On Sunday 9th May we were saddened to learn of the death of our former head groundsman Roger Mant. He was 82. He had worked at Fontwell Park for 43 years until his retirement, and even after that he carried on for another ten years as one of the race day fence attendants.
As well as devoting himself to providing the best possible racing surface, he was most renowned for his skill at building the fences and hurdles. The jumps Roger made were always properly built and smartly presented, so much so that he was asked to build practice fences for leading trainers such as Josh Gifford and Ryan Price. You can also see the legacy of his expertise at Ascot, for he taught fence building skills to the man whose company supplies birch for their jump races.
Roger was born and brought up just a few miles away at Eartham, and worked on the estate there when he left school in 1952, gradually becoming capable of turning his hand to most things. He was attracted by an advertisement for a groundsman at Fontwell Park in 1959. The job came with a new house next to the course, and having just got married this would be a big benefit; there was no chance that he and his wife could afford one in Eartham. There were forty applicants, generally more experienced, but the racecourse manager knew the Mants and was keen for Roger to get the job. He did, and for most of his career there he was the head groundsman. That included building and maintaining the fences and hurdles, and looking after all the racecourse buildings and gardens. He came to know every blade of grass on the course and every nook and cranny of the gardens and the buildings.
The only surprise about winning the Neil Wyatt Groundstaff Award for the Best National Hunt Racecourse in 2001 was that Roger and his team had not won it already. These awards were set up to recognise exceptional performance by groundstaff in maintaining good ground for racing.
Roger retired in 2003. He had a race named after him the following year, when an appreciative group of trainers sponsored the South West Trainers Thank Roger Mant Selling Handicap Chase. In 2010 he was one of the VIPs invited to open the new grandstand.
His brother Alan worked at the course for 30 years, and his son Paul had been there for 21 before succeeding him as head groundsman. The boot was on the other foot now, for as Paul said at the time, “Dad comes back and works for me sometimes on race days. The bonus is I can shout at him now – he used to do it to me often enough!”
Since Paul posted news of his father’s death on Facebook he has received over 200 responses from people in the racing world in sympathy and praising Roger. As former Fontwell Park manager Phil Bell said, "Roger retired shortly after I started here, but stayed working with us part-time for many years. It was clear when you spoke to everyone who knew him, including the country’s leading trainers and jockeys, that he was held in the very highest regard.”
Roger was liked by everyone who knew him, and while he was never interested enough in racing to have a bet, he has been described as the second most important person in the history of the course after the track’s creator Alfred Day.
Everyone connected with Fontwell Park, past and present, will want to offer their condolences to his family.