As Sir Eric Parker gives a guided tour of his Crimbourne Stud, he radiates a sense of contentment. He can have few regrets that a long and productive life has ushered him to this tranquil location in Sussex.
An area of woodland surrounds the property, the oldest part of which dates to the 1450s, and which was derelict when he acquired it in 1989. It’s a picturesque corner of England you’ll see depicted on postcards, the kind of place where time’s passage – so remorseless when Parker was Chief Executive of the property and investment giant, Trafalgar House – has no relevance at all. Much of what he says comes with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.
For all that, Parker, 81, cannot fully embrace what the setting demands. His mind remains too inquisitive for him to take to the reclining garden chair and let a gentle breeze cool him on one of those summer days to die for.
Nobody is more aware of that than Parker’s youngest son, Charlie, who is very involved with the stud. Charlie, 50, lives in Lambourn, where he and his wife Mary-Anne own Windsor House Stables. He is here for one of the frequent discussions that punctuate their working relationship. The feeling is that Charlie strains at one end of a leash held at the other by a man who finds horses too fascinating to let go.
He has, however, let go of something else. After two decades on the Racehorse Owners Association Council, Parker stepped down to heartfelt applause at the association’s recent annual general meeting. The occasion left its mark.
“Everyone was far too nice,” he reflects. “I must admit it got to me in the end. I had a lump in my throat.”
In their quest for representation, racehorse owners will do well to find Parker’s like again. He retired, aged 60, from running one of Britain’s most dynamic property and investment companies in 1993, whereupon he adopted the owners’ cause with unflinching relish. He took a fair bit of flak over those 20 years, three of them as the association’s President.
Given their diverse views on any number of issues, representing owners’ interests can be a challenge. Those with a business-like approach are intent on rattling sabres over poor prize-money, while those involved for recreational purposes are more concerned with the quality of free racecourse food when watching their horses run.
It takes dedication and devotion to marry such dichotomies, and Parker has both in spades. He has been cast in various caricatures over time, least flatteringly as a member of a wealthy brat-pack with occasionally militant inclinations, but he never shied from the task.
Although these are relatively benign times on the political front, Parker has sailed some stormy waters in the ROA boat. He has been obliged to head off some self-defeating arguments proposed by ROA Council members while simultaneously keeping the peace. “There have certainly been some frustrating times,” he acknowledges.
Parker joined the ROA Council during an acrimonious period in its relationship with just about every other racing faction. It requires tact to advance arguments for greater reward when your membership is a virtual who’s who of the country’s affluent, and in this, owners don’t always help themselves.
Hearing Parker reflect on those 20 years is like taking a trip back in time, a memory-lane experience to an era when bookmakers could sit back and be entertained by the infighting among the sport’s many factions.
It was the equivalent of Salvador Dali’s two-headed monster turning on itself, and there were years when Parker felt alone and isolated in championing the cause. He bore the burden stoically.
“I represented owners on the [then] British Horseracing Board during Peter Savill’s time,” Parker reflects. “Racecourses and the Jockey Club were then in a very strong position and I was often on my own. I know very well how David Cameron must be feeling.
“I pressed hard for minimum [prize-money] values, a better deal for owners, and nobody supported me. Others around the table should have supported me if they could have followed a logical argument. After being in business, when decisions are made rapidly and the structures are sound, I was amazed to find out how racing was run.”
When they found out they could sell media rights they got £7-8 million a year, and they kept it all
Parker has encountered some formidable opponents along the way – although there are no hard feelings despite the underhand nature of racing politics for most of his involvement. He crossed swords with John Brown when the former head of William Hill was the bookmakers’ representative on the Levy Board.
“John was a very tough and forceful character, both intellectually and vocally,” Parker says. “We still see each other occasionally, and obviously, Peter Savill, who I also see from time to time, was something else. He was very clever. At that time racing was full of people who had strong views. The stories about those days could go on forever.”
So near and yet so far
It was during Savill’s chairmanship of the BHB, and with Parker’s ROA backing, that racing came close to making the much-sought quantum leap in prize-money in 2002. British racing would be funded through selling database rights, rather than by the levy, and the plan cleared numerous legal hurdles put up by bookmakers until it fell at the last in the European Court. The project travelled so far down the road that plans to abolish the Levy Board had already been drawn up. That ruling remains one of Parker’s greatest laments.
“We lost in the European Court even though our lawyers were very confident we would win,” he recalls. “They were almost blasé about it, but I’d made a bet with a certain person [he won’t say who] that we wouldn’t get the money everyone thought we would. We never got there.”
Not long after, racecourses started flexing their muscles over another valuable income source. “When they found out they could sell media rights they got £7-8 million a year, and they kept it all,” Parker says.
“Owners did challenge the racecourses’ right to sell them but it wasn’t a proper, logical challenge. Racing lost out badly and I take part of the responsibility. The Office of Fair Trading inquiry wasn’t helpful either when it gave racecourses the right to run their own fixtures and do more or less what they liked.”
The question of media rights – in particular how the money was allocated – has been the most divisive issue of recent times. The issue prompted trainers to boycott targeted races and led to a prolonged row between owners and racecourses. This was largely resolved when most tracks made commitments to prize-money levels that reflected a share of media rights income.
Racing was represented in these negotiations by the Horsemen’s Group, a relatively new body whose creation Parker welcomes, despite reservations over the allocated shareholding.
“In the beginning I felt owners should get more than a 20% stake because they basically pay all the bills,” he says with a smile.
“But the Horsemen’s Group’s formation was a step forward because in the early days we couldn’t get owners, breeders, jockeys and trainers in particular to agree on anything. I was dubious at first, but I was persuaded. I think [ROA President] Rachel Hood has done a great job there.”
Hood’s presidency will have run its course within 12 months and this causes Parker some concern. “Beyond Rachel, I think it will be hard to get businessmen and women who are interested on to the ROA Council,” he says. “We are a bit lacking there, and I think it’s an important point, because we need people with the ability to look at the bigger scene.”
So much of Parker’s time has been spent on the prize-money cause, which he says is foremost on the owners’ agenda. He admits there has been no real progress despite numerous takes on redrafting racing’s funding mechanism. In that respect, his curiosity is more than a little aroused by BHA Chairman Steve Harman’s view that racing has been punching below its weight, financially and in other ways.
He was due to discuss the concept with Harman soon after this interview, yet while he welcomes Harman’s assertion and is non-committal on the prospect of it succeeding, the look in his eye after two decades in the bear pit suggests he will believe it when he sees it.
Besides, there is too much happening around Parker for him to dwell too long on racing politics. Like all breeders at this time of year, he contemplates his crop of sales-bound yearlings with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
“Sometimes I wonder why I went into breeding horses when I retired from Trafalgar House,” he says wistfully. “Perhaps I should have found something else to do; something that would have made me money, rather than cost me.”
Again, since Parker is smiling in his mild lament, you know the payoff is coming. “But then, I just love the whole business. Going racing as an owner remains the most fun, but sales time certainly has its own fascinations.”
Success breeds success
Crimbourne Stud has certainly made a sales impact in the 20 years it has been going. In 2012 the nursery sold a Galileo filly out of Havana Gold’s dam, Jessica’s Dream, for 400,000 guineas. This time it will offer a Dubawi yearling at Deauville in August, the only daughter of her acclaimed sire in the catalogue, and a filly of whom much is anticipated – especially as her dam, Coyote, gave birth to a full-sister in April.
As the filly walks before us, three weeks before Crimbourne’s annual yearling parade before 100 guests, Parker and his son joust pleasantly over the smaller details. They even have contrasting views on the quality of the sparkling wine Parker makes at Crimbourne from the 400 vines he maintains.
Although everything to do with the horses is discussed from top to bottom, Parker snr invariably has the final word. “I have a job keeping up with the younger ones these days but I still feel very responsible for the stud.”
He feels some responsibility for the fate of the Tote, on whose board he sat as the BHB’s nominated representative for some of the lengthy sale process. And that despite the fact he was outnumbered at board meetings by government appointees who, by their utterances at various times, gave him a pretty clear steer on how it would end.
Indeed, the whole sorry episode makes an accurate reflection of government involvement in racing from the early 1960s, when off-course bookmaking was legalised and the levy subsequently introduced.
“First we were promised that a Racing Trust would get 100% of the Tote for free,” he reflects, not smiling this time. “We had actually drawn up plans to set up that trust when we then heard racing would have to pay for 50% of the Tote because politicians were worried about the European angle.
“Well, I fought and fought on the Tote board, but there wasn’t too much I could do, surrounded by government appointees. The Tote had so much potential to save racing but we were defeated.” The Tote was eventually sold to bookmaker Betfred in 2011.
“Two years ago I protested about it to Michael Howard,” Parker continues. “I told him how appalled I was and he said by way of reply that the government needed the money! There were so many broken promises along the way.”
In reality, although there was precious little Parker could have salvaged, he still feels he should have done more. Yet that is the measure of the man, one so anxious not to abscond responsibility that he errs the other way in assuming too much of it.
This quality has sustained him throughout his 20 years with the ROA. He has been a constant and indefatigable fighter for what he sees as the betterment of owners in general, but above all, for racing as a whole in particular.
Needless to say, even though he has now stood down from the ROA Council, he still feels a sense of responsibility towards it. It has too long been a part of his life for him to shed the skin overnight.
“As I said at the AGM, I shall be sitting in the audience next year with at least 20 questions for the Council to answer – and they won’t be easy ones,” he says.
Ah, those questions from the floor. Nothing better illustrates the contrasting, often conflicting, range of opinions expressed by racehorse owners during the question-and-answer session that brings every AGM to a close. Yet what some members feel is a prickly aperitif to the imminent lunch is dismissed by Parker with a flick of the wrist.
“Very few people ask proper questions any more,” he says. “There is nothing in-depth about them. If you haven’t managed to achieve what you set out to do, someone at the AGM should question you about it. That’s what it is for.”
Rachel Hood is duly forewarned, but the inherent message in Parker’s words is one he would never dream of saying about himself. Such sentiments can only come from the mouth of one who truly cares, who has represented ROA members for two decades without remuneration because of his love of the sport, and who is unhesitatingly scornful of Council members who believe their work should be financially rewarded.
But then, Sir Eric Parker has always been one of life’s givers.