What is your background, how did you start in racing and what jobs did you have before taking over at Chester?
I left the Royal Marines in 1990 and started working as Operations Manager at Aintree under the late John Parrett. Then I ran Huntingdon for about a year.
When John Parrett sadly died, Charlie Barnett moved from Haydock to Aintree and I followed him to Haydock.
I was there for eight years before coming to Chester and have been here for 13 years. So I’ve been in racing quite a long while!
As a former Royal Marine, do you find your military organisational skills have proved useful in the running and success of Chester and Bangor racecourses?
I went into the Royal Marines straight from school and learnt some very useful skills. I loved the life, which taught you to be very disciplined.
When I came out of the Marines my principal interests were horseracing and business, and I was lucky to work with John Parrett, who was a tremendous person to learn from.
I wouldn’t describe myself as being of a military background, particularly when you compare yourself with someone who has spent a lifetime in the forces.
But the organisational skills you have instilled into you would be helpful in running any business.
Has it been your aim to keep both courses moving with the times without losing any of their character and tradition? How have you achieved this?
Very much so. Chester, particularly, has a young, vibrant audience. We are very lucky because we rarely put on a raceday when we don’t have 20,000 people here. Being diverse and innovative is important; people come back every year wanting to see what’s new and what’s different.
Obviously our history is a big selling point; Chester is the oldest racecourse in the country. But while racegoers appreciate the character of the place, they don’t want to live in the dark ages.
We try to be market leaders in what we’re doing in terms of customer facilities. Whether it is our full-time restaurant or gastropub, which are open all year round. They are busy every day of the year.
We also have our own 90-room hotel, which operates at 97% occupancy. That together with our own catering business, the two restaurants and our own betting mean we are flat out all year.
Does the popularity of Chester’s May meeting, with 60,000 people over the three days, provide you with problems concerning crowd comfort due to the tight layout of the course and facilities?
The May meeting is our highest profile meeting but the busiest days are in July, when we get 35,000 on the Saturday. That presents problems, particularly when we have 20,000 on the Friday night.
It is a big test of the team getting the place looking immaculate by the next morning.
Crowd movement can be a big problem and we have always tried to create areas where people don’t have to go far.
They have everything within a few steps of each other; food, drink, betting facilities and a big screen, of which there are 12 on the course.
We are a profitable course and most years we invest some £2 million in refurbishment and replacing facilities.
Last year you trialled a mobile business platform, which enabled racegoers to purchase tickets, drinks and place bets on their smartphones. What is your aim with this new technology?
This year we will be the first racecourse to lay on Wi-Fi properly and reliably for our customers. O2, who will provide it, have just installed a system at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium.
We have gone into partnership in this project with Betfair, who are the most innovative company in racing.
Last summer we had a bar where people could order and pay for their drinks with their smartphones. It was a cashless area and that is something we are looking at expanding.
It is a limited market and won’t suit everybody – some people like to come racing with a wad of cash, some like to come to an area where they can use their technology.
As I say, we have a young audience who are looking for the next gimmick, so to speak.
How far do you plan to expand your new technology and is Chester set to become the world’s first cashless racecourse?
The initial aim is that every person on the racecourse will be able to sign up onto our Wi-Fi. They’ll be able to have a bet, but as far as ordering and paying for drinks there will be specially zoned areas.
At the moment in the Roof Club you can have a tablet to order drinks and have a bet with chesterBET. It all goes on your bill and, win or lose, you can settle up on your tablet.
We have invested a quarter of a million pounds in the Wi-Fi system, which should be fully operational for the May meeting and will also be available at Bangor, which will be the only small course with full Wi-Fi.
Next we aim to offer a full racecard free on your smartphone, backed by Timeform. I don’t think anywhere, never mind racecourses, will ever be cashless because there will always be people who would rather spend cash.
You mention chesterBET, which has replaced the Tote at Chester and Bangor. How successful has it been?
We went out on a limb to introduce chesterBET and it has been fantastic. We were able to do it because we are a smaller site and have a captive audience. Much has been talked about chesterBET giving a worse return than the Tote, but if you look closely it’s about 50% better, 50% worse.
The good thing about chesterBET is that you know what your return will be when you have a bet, whereas with the Tote you don’t know your return until the race is run.
We do take our cut and have seen a much better return than when we were using the Tote. There has been an increase in turnover mainly due to the convenience and ease of having a bet with chesterBET.
The key is that all the money we make from betting is reinvested back into racing.
What do you say to critics who claim the dividends are much lower than the Tote and that punters are getting poor value?
If punters are looking for the very best odds then they can go to the bookmakers in the ring. And I must stress we actively promote the ring, which is not the case with all racecourses.
Don’t forget the bookmakers there will enjoy the benefit of using our Wi-Fi this summer.
You trialled hurdling on the course a couple of years ago. What was the feedback from the industry and will we see jump racing at Chester any time soon?
There was a fairly reserved response from the Flat racing fraternity. They clearly see Chester as a Flat racing track, as we do. But we looked at the possibility of hurdling for a number of reasons.
About 100 years ago a hurdle race was put on at the end of the May meeting card and we have considered doing that. We have also considered having a Boxing Day card and haven’t discounted it.
But this year we launched Winter Wonderland, a big Christmas extravaganza on the racecourse. That precludes a Boxing Day meeting for the moment, though we think a jumping crowd of 20,000 on Boxing Day would be good for the industry.
Chester is quite a wide track, though quite tight. The wide outside is barely touched during Flat racing and, of course, we would not use the inside for hurdling.
It is quite possible; the trial worked and it is a case of finding the right opportunity without putting in jeopardy our Flat racing programme.
We are lucky to have a trainer like Donald McCain on our doorstep; he trialled some horses and liked it.
Has Dr Marwan Koukash, who likes to have a runner in every race at Chester, taken over the mantle of ‘Chester specialist’ from Robert Sangster and Barry Hills, whose runners were so popular on the Roodee?
I don’t think anyone will ever take over the mantle from Robert and Barry. Barry was certainly the master of Chester. His son Charlie has taken over from him and is already doing very well here.
But I must say it’s great to have all the enthusiasm of Marwan Koukash, who is a real character and we do enjoy having him here.
He has put a lot of money into the sport and his aim is to have a runner in every race at Chester, which is fantastic.
The Dee Stakes has lost its Group 3 status this year, despite an additional £15,000 in prize-money taking the purse to £75,000. How disappointing is this, especially as last year’s winner, Magician, went on to win two Group 1s?
It is very disappointing but that’s the way the Pattern Committee works within certain rules. But we do feel there is definitely a market as well as a desire from trainers for two Derby trials at the May meeting and that’s why we have increased the prize-money.
The Vase and the Dee are important races and we hope the Dee Stakes will regain its Group 3 status in the future.
We are not going to give up on it and will keep re-investing in prize-money. We have no race worth less than £10,000.
Chester is a Gold Standard course and signed a prize-money agreement with the Horsemen’s Group at the premier tier level. What does this say about the track’s commitment to owners?
We believe the owners’ experience at Chester is the best in the country. They have a fantastic free lunch; we are very flexible with badges and are happy to pick them up from the airport or station.
Owners are our number one customers. If we don’t have owners we don’t have any horses and don’t have any racing.
We created the owners and trainers’ pavilion specifically for them at a cost of £3 million.
We are currently looking at what more we can do for them, in particular how they can watch any race from any racecourse at any time at the touch of a screen.
What is Chester doing to stop the abuse of the self certificate system for horses drawn high in sprints?
As the rules stand there is nothing we can do about it. It is unfortunate and annoying but self-certification is a strange one because a horse can run very quickly after they have been withdrawn.
We need the authorities to clamp down on it. There is no other way. Horses can win from a high draw in Chester sprints; I think the key is getting the right jockey.
Put Frannie Norton on an outside draw here and he can win if the horse is good enough.
I know it leaves a sour taste. We do have people who declare horses to run, decide to take their badges, their free lunch and then withdraw from the sprint.
We are very mindful of that, but it is up to the BHA to look at the situation and work out how best to deal with it.
The course holds a number of polo meetings throughout the year. How important are these to the business?
It is another arm of our business, a profitable one in its own right and works very well. We have high profile players like Prince William and we have an international match played here in September.
We have put polo in the north on the map. The pitch in the middle of the course is one of the best in the country. I play quite a lot and love it.
What is your favourite sporting day-out outside racing, and what makes it so appealing?
A Manchester United Champions League match. The atmosphere at night at Old Trafford takes some beating.
I am a season ticket holder in the Stretford End – I’ve been going there since I was seven.
On a personal level, would you one day like to manage one of the top British racecourses – say Ascot, Newmarket or Cheltenham?
Newmarket and Cheltenham are run centrally by Jockey Club Racecourses in a particular way so that doesn’t really offer any business opportunity.
Ascot is a different racecourse, very racing orientated obviously.
But Chester is one of the most profitable racecourses in the country and also one of the most diverse.
It’s a business rather than a racecourse and I don’t think there is another racecourse I’d want to run. I think the dream job is here, to be honest.