What are your earliest recollections of racing? And what was the attraction of starting in racecourse management which took you to Warwick, Aintree, Haydock and Chester before ten years in charge at Newmarket?
Point-to-pointing meant literally every Saturday from January through to May was dedicated to the sport in East Anglia. Dad was chairman of East Anglia point-to-point racing and the commentator as well, while mum ran the local point-to-point at Horseheath. We also had a couple of point-to-pointers.
Beyond that I used to be glued to racing on TV and Cheltenham was sacrosanct. The door was locked while mum and Dad watched the Festival and when you came home from school you were told to keep very quiet.
I loved visiting Newmarket and when driving in past Swynford Paddocks I used to get tingles down my spine. Mum and Dad knew Nick Lees, who was in charge of the two Newmarket courses, and he used to let me shadow him during the school holidays.
I also spent time with David Minton in his Newmarket bloodstock office. The raceday event always gave me a buzz, being involved with such a diverse range of people who were all so enthusiastic and passionate about their work.
From the age of 16 you spent 12 years point-to-pointing and rode over 50 winners, in the process breaking two collarbones, a wrist and suffering three concussions. What has that experience taught you in relation to your present job as Chief Executive of the Injured Jockeys Fund?
My injuries were minor and I was lucky to be riding good horses. But at the time East Anglian racing had desperately bad injuries. William Sporborg and Paul Taiano suffered spinal injuries and even more devastating for me in 1989 was the death at 19 of Sarah Shepherd, my best friend at the time, at Marks Tey point-to-point. Also, my godfather’s son Bob Wales was killed at Fakenham in 1982.
Not once did it cross my mind to stop riding or even think about the risks involved. I know that sounds bizarre because it was a desperate, torrid, period for the whole region. Looking back it resonates even more because when you’re riding you just think it’ll never happen to you. I am much more aware now what a dangerous game it is and the impact it has on family and friends.
What exactly does your role involve, heading up the IJF with its rehab centres at Oaksey House in Lambourn, Jack Berry House in Malton and the £6m Peter O’Sullevan House, which is opening in Newmarket this month?
The role has changed enormously since I took over in 2010. When Jeremy Richardson, my predecessor, retired there were 17 people employed by the IJF. Now there are 45. My principal job is to oversee the management of the three centres, the delivery of our welfare service and to provide strategic vision and direction for the team. We have grown and hopefully matured so now it is all about consolidation and it’s very important that we are delivering for our beneficiaries.
I used to visit Jack Berry House every week when it was being built in 2015. Now it is run by such a well-established team, it requires only a monthly visit. I have been going to Oaksey House every three weeks because of personnel changes.
My office is in Newmarket so Peter O’Sullevan House doesn’t involve the travelling. I try to do beneficiary visits as well as racecourse visits. The centres have changed the way the charity delivers and are fantastic for the reach and profile of the IJF.
What do these three ultra-modern facilities provide for professional and amateur riders?
We call them rehab centres. But they are so much more than that; they are individual centres for the charity as a whole. Jockeys, or former jockeys, needing any support of any kind, can feel at home and very welcome when they visit. It is their charity and very unique, not like coming into a Nuffield Hospital or community centre. They have a fantastic identity and wonderful teams working in them with very good resources at hand.
Both Oaksey House and Jack Berry House have respite stay available. But Peter O’Sullevan House doesn’t because in theory the racing population of Newmarket is much more condensed and the British Racing School, in whose grounds we are based, can provide accommodation.
Our aim is to boost jockeys both physically and mentally so they are more robust as athletes and leave us in a better and happier place.
With the three IJF ‘Houses’ situated in racing centres, how do you cover the rest of the country and its 60 far flung racecourses?
We have eight almoners, who in turn have a fantastic support network of visitors who are their eyes and ears. We also have a wonderful group of trustees and vice-patrons, from Hazel Peplinski at Perth to Lucy Charnock, an almoner in the south-east, so we have the whole nation covered one way or another.
How have the Newmarket jockeys and racing fraternity coped up to now without Peter O’Sullevan House?
When we opened Jack Berry House people kept asking if we thought there would be any demand in the north. We are full and constantly juggling resources to accommodate everyone. There is a latent demand with jockeys carrying injuries and former jockeys still struggling through with chronic problems, as well as their dependants. I hope once we provide them with the resources of Peter O’Sullevan House they will welcome us with open arms.
Of course, a number of the jockeys in the area are using private physios and strength and conditioning coaches and I am not expecting them all to leave those relationships, but I hope over time they will use us as appropriate.
Peter O’Sullevan House could not be better placed to serve the town and its surrounding districts, heavily populated with the racing fraternity. The local community can use the facilities, but only after jockeys and amateur riders.
You concentrate on nutrition and sports psychology. Is this a big help in dealing with depression and mental health, which seems increasingly prevalent among professional sportsmen and women?
It is much more acceptable nowadays to share your concerns when you are feeling under pressure. The racing circus is so demanding with the early starts, riding out, then all the travelling from meeting to meeting. And always under the pressures of dieting and feeling hungry. It is a desperately demanding lifestyle.
That’s why we try to package up all our support so jockeys can come in for a breather. A little bit of respite and at the same time get themselves mentally stronger and their bodies in better shape. It is the whole package, but in a soft way. Not magic, but we do have the time and resources to help.
Does the IJF, compared with other sports, lead the way in the UK looking after its sportsmen and women?
When the Princess Royal, our Patron, has spoken at various events she has been kind enough to suggest that in many ways we do lead the way. Obviously, other sports have fantastic resources as well, but I think racing can be very proud of the Injured Jockeys Fund. Certainly, I am. I hope jockeys consider themselves very lucky to have us as their charity.
I don’t believe any other country has as comprehensive support for their jockeys as we do. We have spoken recently with the Australian injured jockeys charity and we have very good relations with the Irish Injured Jockeys Fund. We are probably more established than any of them, having been set up in 1964, so there is a lot of history and we have learnt a huge amount.
How important are Christmas card sales to the IJF and what other important fundraising activities do you carry out?
The whole pre-Christmas trading operation is really important. Profits are squeezed as we are not able to make the sums of money we used to make ten or 15 years ago. But In terms of the opportunity to reach out to our support base, whether on the racecourses or online, it is very, very important because we have such loyal supporters who want to contribute and help us.
It raises our profile and increases our visibility and in that respect is absolutely vital. There are a huge number of fundraising events throughout the year, mostly instigated by our supporters and we in turn support them. We have key events like Jim Old’s golf day, which is one of our most successful. As is the Leger Legends day at Doncaster.
Would you like to see any changes to the riding rules in the UK?
I enjoy listening to my two Vice-Patrons, John Francome and AP, who disagree on this subject! They are much better placed to argue about the rules on riding than I am. I know there is a break now for jumps and a new six-day break from the Flat at the end of the turf season in November.
But I firmly believe providing the whole racing workforce with more opportunities for a breather should be given serious consideration. That’s not being workshy; it’s trying to manage the whole sport and giving everyone some longevity.
We have never had more talented female jockeys. Turning back the clock, would you like to have taken up the challenge?
I was never good enough and knew it from the word go. It’s fantastic what the ladies are doing now. In fact, I don’t think you need to differentiate between the ladies and the men, just let them get on with it on the track. That’s what Hayley did at Ascot and so many of them are doing now.
Which trainers have you ridden out for in Newmarket and how much riding do you do in these days?
I did a number of summers with Michael Stoute; he and Coral are good sounding boards for me. Coral has been round Peter O’Sullevan House with her hard hat on and is a good advisor to have. I went from riding a couple of pointers at home to Michael Stoute’s in the summer and David and Dinah Nicholson’s while I was working at Warwick.
A big change from point-to-pointing but I really enjoyed it. The only riding I do now is on my daughter Sally’s eventer.
You have been a director at Cheltenham racecourse and having competed in point-to-points, are you a jumping fan at heart?
Yes. My key interest came from point-to-pointing, hence the jump racing. But now my passion would probably be fairly even because I follow the Flat jockeys just as much as the National Hunt. I have a particular interest in jockeys who switch codes like Dougie Costello, Graham Lee, Jim Crowley, PJ McDonald and Trevor Whelan.
I would be pretty aware of who’s riding when and where and if they’ve had an injury and how they’re doing – obviously with the help of the Oaksey House and Jack Berry House teams.
What do you consider your most memorable achievement during your time at the IJF?
Building and opening Jack Berry House. You don’t get many opportunities to build such a facility and it was a privilege to drive the project forward. To see its success under Jo Russell’s leadership is fantastic. I feel very proud when I travel to Malton and I hope I will be when Peter O’Sullevan House is up and running.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Managing my time because we are covering such a large area and the team has grown so rapidly. Also having to make sure we have the correct management team and structure in place to offer everyone the appropriate support. That, combined with the travelling, can be tough.
Who is your role model, and racing hero?
Charles Barnett, who ran Aintree and Ascot. I was at Aintree for three years with Charles and he had a significant influence on me with his wonderful charisma, style and amazing management of pressure. My racing hero is John Francome, the ultimate National Hunt jockey who set a horse up to a fence like no other.