Where and when did the world of horseracing come into your life?
My father Gay Sheppard was clerk of the course at Newton Abbot, Exeter and Taunton. We used to spend all our holidays treading in at those courses from a young age and I remember it well. We always had horses and have been involved with them.
Have you owned horses yourself?
I have had horses over the years and currently own a very small piece of a chaser with Charlie Longsdon, called Strongbows Legend, who won at Hereford last December.
I’m in a syndicate with about ten others and it is great fun. Years ago I had a nice point-to-pointer/hunter chaser, Silver Kelpie, who won once with me on board. Bill Wightman trained him for me and I finished fourth on him in a chase at Cheltenham.
What prompted you to set up the European Breeders’ Fund in 1983?
In 1982 the Levy Board announced that it was going to cut back its contributions to all maiden races. Obviously, stallion owners were desperately worried about who was going to buy the yearlings their stallions had produced for the sales.
Where and with whom did the concept of the EBF start?
Bob McCreery and Peter Willett were the major movers who put together the scheme. At the time I was working for the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and I took on the responsibility with Bob and Peter of putting the EBF together and getting the English and Irish breeders and stallion owners involved in the initial stages.
Then the French came on board and in 1983 the whole thing took off, coincidentally at the same time as the Breeders’ Cup started. The Germans and Italians joined the EBF two or three years later.
We had a lot of help at the time from Vincent O’Brien, who made a strong point to the Americans that they would find it very difficult to buy American horses if the Breeders’ Cup did not somehow conjoin with the EBF so that the horses they bought in the States could run in EBF races.
The most important thing about the EBF is that there are a mass of races confined to eligible horses.
Everybody is benefiting as the money filters through the system to owners, trainers, the courses, jockeys and stable staff
Were the early days tough, trying to sell the idea to the racing and breeding industry?
The initial response from the English and Irish side was very positive from day one. But we did have a slight hiccup in as much as we approached the Jockey Club with the idea of confining races to the progeny of EBF stallions only to find that John Hislop had taken legal advice and been told that it was ‘ultra vires’, or outside the powers of the Jockey Club.
So the Jockey Club had to stand back a bit and could not sanction it. But we went to the racecourses and the RCA said ‘yes’, they would allow it to happen. The Jockey Club had been put in a difficult position by John Hislop taking legal advice over where they stood.
The Racecourse Association were the first people to be positive about it because they could see money coming in, which they obviously wanted, and that swayed them. So we went forward with the plan and the Jockey Club followed after that initial hiccup.
Was it beyond your wildest dreams to think that you would end up distributing more than €100 million from funds generated by the organisation?
It is a hell of a figure and quite a nice one to have behind us at a time when I am moving aside. Though originally I hadn’t given actual numbers any thought.
Is it possible to say to what extent those EBF-supported races have benefited the racing industry?
The whole industry has benefited because the value of EBF maiden races are more than ordinary maiden races. Therefore, everybody is benefiting as the money filters through the system to owners, trainers, the courses, jockeys and stable staff.
There are new schemes about and they may have an impact, but don’t forget we have just completed our 29th year and we are still strong, still sustained and still going forward.
What has been the biggest challenge in your time as Chief Executive of the EBF?
First of all there was the knitting together of the EBF and the Breeders’ Cup, which made a lot of sense. Getting them on board and being joined at the hip with an organisation of the calibre of the Breeders’ Cup was very satisfying.
Our [cross registration] agreement came to an end in 2010 but we had worked really well together for a long time.
I was sad when our joint effort ended after some 20 years and I tried to persuade them to sign up. I am not sure how Breeders’ Cup is going to progress from where it is now; they are meeting various problems with drugs and finance.
They were keen to take a different track and wanted many more horses worldwide made eligible for the Breeders’ Cup. That’s all very well, but there are very few horses in percentage terms that are ever going to run at the Breeders’ Cup. They are tilting at windmills.
Another challenge has been to maintain the support and trust of the working parts of the EBF, and that has not always been forthcoming from one particular quarter, which shall remain nameless.
Having been responsible for a substantial input into the sport you so clearly love, what makes racing so attractive in your eyes?
The thoroughbred horse, which is absolutely top of the pops as far as I am concerned. Very close to that are the people I have met and worked with over many years who devote so much of their time to the thoroughbred.
If you’re a stockbroker you can go to work, beat the hell out of the market, go home and forget all about it. The people in racing are remarkable; they eat, drink and sleep the thoroughbred, particularly the breeders.
All so enthusiastic; they keep the whole sport going and I admire them enormously.
You are a keen supporter of the Racing Forum, an organisation of owners, trainers and breeders which advocates that betting shops should pay £1 per race per shop per annum, raising £85 million a year for racing. Has this idea fallen on deaf ears?
I certainly hope not. I don’t know why it invariably happens but a simple solution like this nearly always seems to be knocked out of court. It is probably a matter of the bookmakers again succeeding in dividing and ruling.
Let’s face it, it is a very simple idea and I’m surprised it hasn’t got further. Matthew Hancock, the MP for Newmarket, has been a great help in early day motions in parliament and now Anne McIntosh, the MP for Thirsk and Malton, has taken up the cudgels.
Every party in racing seems to have its own agenda and that makes it extremely difficult to secure agreement across the board on almost any matter, which is a great shame.
Is the Breeders’ Cup beginning to lose some of its allure to British challengers as a result of our own Champions’ Day, plus America’s reliance on drugs and dirt surfaces?
I was quoted last year saying that people in the States seem to think that the Breeders’ Cup is the only gig in town. They realise now that other things are happening such as Hong Kong, Japan and Champions’ Day.
It is a challenge for the Americans to keep it going and the matter of drugs and dirt surfaces is always going to rear its ugly head. It’s never going to be wholly satisfactory but then we must remember that the Breeders’ Cup is an American show.
If we want to compete we can compete. Complain like hell about things if we feel that way inclined, but always remember it is their show.
Why don’t Americans come over and challenge us here?
Very few do. But some are longing to… I was speaking to Kenny McPeek at Santa Anita and he was saying how he is always looking for the right horses to bring to England and Europe.
What does British racing have that America does not?
Variety and strong support, from both the public and the media. All American tracks are left-handed, pretty flat and their programmes are made up mostly of claiming races, whereas ours go left-handed, right-handed, up hill and down dale.
I love taking American visitors to the Rowley Mile and showing them a mile and a quarter straight, which might not be perfect for spectator sport, but they look on aghast! On the other hand, you can go to Chester and watch the horses all the way round.
The training in America is done on the back stretch, while we have such varied training centres in Newmarket, Lambourn, Malton and Middleham. We also have the most wonderful variety of stud farms.
The daily publicity we get from every paper is quite staggering; the American public does not receive anything like the same amount of coverage in their papers.
Do you have an outstanding memory of America’s great racing show?
I have two. When Miesque won the Mile for the second time at Churchill Downs in 1988 I remember the commentator getting extremely excited and saying: “Here comes Miesque on the outside, blowing a hole in the wind.”
I thought it was the most wonderful expression and you knew exactly what he meant as Freddy Head came belting through on that fantastic filly.
The other is the very first Breeders’ Cup Classic at Hollywood Park in 1984 which threw up an unforgettable finish between Wild Again, Slew o’ Gold and Gate Dancer, who finished second but was demoted to third. It was rough, tough, on dirt and really got me going.
That was the first of all 29 Breeders’ Cups I’ve been to. I’m 29 from 29, as they say in the States.
Are you a fan of the other ‘self-help’ schemes that have been introduced?
Some of these schemes attempt to usurp some of the EBF funds, trying to get enmeshed with the EBF. The EBF funds are available only pan-European and to eligible horses. They are not to be used for any particular domestic-only scheme.
That is my one reservation about all these schemes; I don’t have a word to say against any of them really, but they shouldn’t be attempting to use any EBF money.
Racing’s myriad bodies are riddled with personality disputes, internal wrangling and poor co-operation. What’s the answer?
Deflate egos and knock heads together, which is rather boring, I’m afraid. People are at loggerheads and there must be a way forward. Perhaps we should have a ‘Racing Tzar’, who could override some of the small thinking.
We do need a strong man at the top and I am hoping Paul Bittar might be heading in the right direction.
The British broodmare figure has dropped by around 500 mares this year. Is it a concern and what should be done?
I don’t think anything should be done, just let supply and demand rule the day. People are inclined to forget that in this game it cannot be shorter than a four-year cycle, so how do you plan so far in advance?
You buy a nomination for your mare in 2012, to be covered in 2013, a foal in 2014, a yearling in 2015 and a two-year-old that might see a racecourse in 2016. On the jumping front extend that by another four years.
Perhaps if there are fewer horses to sell, people are going to pay more for them. I don’t think there is any reason to panic and I don’t think it will get to the stage where it affects the race programme dramatically.
What does retirement hold for you?
More time to go racing and to keep up with all the many friends I have made over the years.