Bobby Zen

Royal Ascot is a week for stepping up, but there’s a lot of stepping down going on in British racing. A power vacuum is heading the industry’s way as leaders depart – voluntarily, or with a shove from within.

Some are making delayed withdrawals (look out for a hell of a joint-leaving do this winter). The situations vacant columns however already feature the following appointments.

British Horseracing Authority – Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
Jockey Club – CEO
Great British Racing – CEO
Racehorse Owners’ Association – CEO

Joe Saumarez Smith, Julie Harrington (both BHA), Nevin Truesdale (Jockey Club), Rod Street (GBR) and Charlie Liverton (ROA) are all gone or going. It’s boom time for head-hunters as the carousel of executive jobs picks up and drops off administrators.

Movement is normal, but the scale of the exodus in racing begs questions. Royal Ascot almost runs itself, along a gilded rail. But who runs racing now, and how, and to what end? Where should the replacements come from, and with what skills? Simply, what does racing want from its bosses?

There is a clue in the advert for Saumarez Smith’s role. The next BHA chair “will need to be able to think commercially,” which Saumarez Smith, who has been unwell, already did (who could not, in such a job).

Here we observe the conundrum and contradiction for sport’s governing bodies. They are 1. Deal chasers, money makers, finance hunters, balance sheet jockeys, and 2. Regulators, custodians, grass-roots gardeners and image projectors.

Trust me when I say those two briefs are often incompatible. Execs are judged by their balance sheets. They’re incentivised to prioritise income over institutional coherence. And many have bonuses built into how many sponsorship and revenue tie-ups they can amass.

At the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) three years ago, executives shared a £2.1m bonus pot in part for conceiving The Hundred, a new competition that rode a coach and horses through the rest of the sport and is now being sold to private equity.

The messiah has not been born who can lead tribes who refuse to be led

In racing, execs are similarly expected to “drive revenue” while also dealing with internecine strife, a flawed business model that produces low prize-money, animal welfare, the whip, a lack of diversity, affordability checks and so on. They also have a glorious sport at their disposal – as Royal Ascot will demonstrate – but it comes as no surprise that many buckle under the weight.

If racing needs friends in high places, there is comforting news with the probable next Prime Minister’s wife’s love for the sport. According to the Daily Telegraph, Lady Victoria’s “passions are said to be horse racing, music and food.”

What a comfort to racing it would be if the dinner table conversation at No 10 suddenly stretched to the Levy, Premier Racing and rescuing the Cheltenham Festival and Derby from falling attendances. For now, we’ll need to accept that saving the NHS will concern Keir Starmer more.

A familiar tussle is whether racing’s leaders should hail from without or within. To chase big money you need business nous but an eye for the deal won’t necessarily be accompanied by an understanding of what audiences want, how to communicate or how to update tradition.

So, what is the modern racing leader? Commercial warrior, throwback patrician, accomplished diplomat, Westminster smoothie, media sharpshooter? All of the above, the head-hunters cry! Appoint a hot shot from the City with sketchy knowledge of the sport and you can expect a thousand-yard stare when it comes to racing politics. Hire a recruit with 19th century roots in the sport from within the racing bubble and you may not acquire the sharpest moderniser.

Good luck to whoever fills all the vacancies listed above. Each will grapple with the 60-year reality that the revenue racing generates – betting turnover – goes straight to an external bookmaking industry, with only crumbs coming back. This sets it apart from the countries making inroads into British racing’s dominance.

Racing is an archipelago of ‘stakeholders’: owners, breeders, racecourses, bookmakers, trainers, etc. Until they all accept they share a task to generate a form of entertainment and preserve their audience the turf war will continue. Great leadership in racing is vital. Critical, in fact. But the messiah has not been born who can lead tribes who refuse to be led.

Those leaving high office between now and the end of the year all made their mark in the face of relentless pressure, some of it uncontrollable (societal change, for instance). The next wave of recruitment is comfortably the most important the sport has had to make.

It sounds old-fashioned, but the first hope for leaders in any sport is that they have integrity, passion, knowledge, experience, an open mind, the courage to make decisions and a willingness to explain and communicate. If that sounds like Superman or woman, the pay is good, and the job satisfaction could be immense.

 

 

The post All Change: Can British Racing Pull Itself Together to be Led? appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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