Two weeks after Betfred ended its sponsorship of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, your company Timico stepped in, agreeing a four-year deal. What made you decide to back this famous contest?
Our business installs data networks and manages infrastructure for multi-site organisations such as retailers, pubs, hotels and racecourses. We had worked for Lord March at Goodwood and were already talking to Jockey Club Racecourses.
Ian Renton, who had been involved in the discussions, rang me to say they were looking for a new sponsor for the Gold Cup and did I know anyone who would be interested. I immediately thought it was a fantastic opportunity, one that does not come along very often. The Gold Cup is a blue riband event.
At the time we were looking for greater exposure. We are a business-to-business provider and don’t deal with the public. However we wanted to widen the franchise and extend the brand. I spoke to Lord Daresbury, our Chairman at the time, and explained it was the chance of a lifetime.
We met the Jockey Club team and explained what we wanted out of the deal in terms of an involvement in their technology infrastructure. We agreed quid quo pro to take up the sponsorship and become their partner of choice in terms of IT services.
How has the sponsorship benefited your business to date?
The sponsorship gives us huge exposure and has raised our brand profile. Cheltenham week is the second quietest week in the City of London; a lot of firms go to Cheltenham and there is a lot of corporate entertainment. It gives us a fantastic platform at the right level. One of the biggest customers we’ve signed up is Paddy Power, delivering services in 600 shops. We have also started working with Arena Racing Company.
It’s too early to say what impact the deal has had but I’m hopeful we’ll look back after the initial period and say it’s been a great success. Would we extend our sponsorship? We’re at the beginning of the journey so it’s too early to have that conversation.
In part due to the Authorised Betting Partner policy, racing is desperate to attract more non-bookmaker sponsors. In your view, how can it achieve this?
Every sport has to look at their sponsorship audience and ask what they can do to make the product as attractive as possible. Motor racing, football, rugby – they all do it. Racing has relied for far too long on the bookmaking community for funding. It’s a broken model. Racing must attract a much wider group of corporate sponsors.
For example, what would Bernie Ecclestone or Kerrie Packer have done in this sport? Sell it to the best stable of brands they could – car companies, banks, airlines. Racing needs to hire the best person they can to sell the sponsorship, someone with real commercial nous. It’s a fantastic sport, gets a lot of coverage on TV and is enjoyed by millions globally.
You became involved in jump racing with your late wife Camilla in the early 2000s, enjoying tremendous success with the likes of Racing Demon, Calgary Bay and old warrior Somersby. What was it that got you both hooked on National Hunt racing?
After I floated my business on the London Stock Exchange I bought myself an Aston Martin and decided to buy Camilla a present. I wanted her to have a bit of fun. One of my friends said I should buy a racehorse – he introduced me to Henrietta Knight. Hen went to Ireland and told me she had found a horse.
At that time neither of us knew the first thing about racing. Camilla named it Allimac, her name spelled backwards. He won a few races but started bleeding and was sold to America. But we had a lot of fun. We were hooked from the beginning – how could you not be? I’m very competitive and I like to win and I just thought, ‘This is amazing!’ It’s the closest thing to a legal natural high you can have. When Racing Demon stormed up the hill in the 2005 Neptune Hurdle it was incredibly exciting, even though he got beat. I realised Cheltenham is the place to be.
The sponsorship was the chance of a lifetime. It gives us huge exposure and raises our profile
Somersby was a superb servant and ran at eight consecutive Cheltenham Festivals. What was the key to his soundness and longevity?
Apart from one blip he was incredibly sound. He had a lot of attitude and was a wonderful servant. When everyone thought he was finished he produced those runs in the Champion Chase, finishing second two years’ running aged ten and 11. He should have won more races but still earned more than £600,000.
Would you have continued in ownership if you hadn’t met Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe?
I’m a businessman; I discovered very early on in business that you must surround yourself with good people. I was very lucky that when I looked at getting involved in ownership I was introduced to Henrietta Knight, who has guided us on our journey and introduced us to people who can help us put together a string of top-class jumpers without spending fortunes.
The one thing I will not do is join the ranks of chequebook enthusiasts who will pay any money to get a horse. The real enjoyment comes from sourcing a store and watching it develop. In fishing terms, what gives you pleasure is selecting a fly that you’ve tied yourself on a winter’s night, under a dim table lamp, then going out and catching a trout or salmon. Rather than buying all the equipment from a specialist tackle shop. It’s about the whole experience.
That’s why I respect the breeders – look at the team behind Coneygree. They’ve nurtured it, hugged it, cried with it. When they get a glory day it’s a much bigger moment, rather than signing a cheque for half a million. We bought Somersby for £80,000 and Racing Demon for £65,000 from the Costellos. That’s not a fortune in today’s market.
I try and tell my boys – who are fanatical about racing – that life is about who you do it with. It’s about the whole experience and we had fantastic years with Hen and Terry. I enjoyed their company and we had a lot of laughs. That’s very important. You’re pouring so much money into the sport and there are a lot of lows but occasionally you have the highs. To survive the lows you need to be with people you trust and like being with.
How do you source your horses these days?
Henrietta Knight is still involved in the operation and is a very important part of the team. She manages the trainers for me, Dan [Skelton] and Mick [Channon], which horses go where, race planning, injuries, schooling. Henrietta misses the training world. This year Hen has bought me three horses. In total I have eight in training, plus three three-year-old stores and two two-year-olds, a yearling and two foals.
Are you enjoying the breeding side of your operation?
I’m only breeding in a small way with one broodmare, Lakaam. She is the dam of Sgt Reckless. He was like mustard on the gallops but we could never get him to do the same on the track. He demanded firm ground; I’ve sold him now. I’m just learning about the breeding process and Mick Channon is helping us.
Of all your big wins, which stands out most and why?
My favourite horse was Calgary Bay – he was a big, gentle giant. He scored three times at Cheltenham, twice on New Year’s Day. He won a chase at Doncaster under Graham Lee, coming from nowhere, and I thought this is one hell of a horse. He later landed the Sky Bet Chase and finished his career winning at Ascot in 2015, then we retired him.
I think Somersby’s best win was the Victor Chandler at Ascot in 2012. The horse we beat, Finian’s Rainbow, won the Champion Chase next time and I think we would have won that race if we’d stuck to two miles, rather than choosing the Ryanair.
Timico has boosted the value of the Gold Cup to £550,000, but what is more important – increasing prize-money at the top end or grassroots level?
I think we need more prize-money across the board for owners. We’re so far behind places like France and Australia. It costs three grand a month to keep a horse and often you’re running for £1,200 in bumpers – it’s ridiculous. There’s too much low quality racing.
I believe it’s a fresh approach to close Kempton, with Sandown down the road. Sell the asset and reinvest the money into making a better experience for racegoers, sponsors and the industry. People should be able to look at racing and see not a return but fair compensation for their efforts and investment.
Which of your current crop of youngsters are you most looking forward to for the rest of the season?
We’ve had a really frustrating season. We sold some of our older chasers last year in order to reinvest in young stock. I’m very excited about Kasakh Noir, who we bought from Tom Malone and trained by Dan Skelton. Unfortunately he’s out for the season after being cast in his box but he’ll be back later this year. Kasakh Noir won really well at Newbury and is one to look forward to.
Another with Dan is Some Invitation, who won very well first time out over hurdles at Wetherby. Mick [Channon] has a lovely bumper horse called Glen Forsa and Mr Whitaker, a promising hurdler. This will be the first time in 12 years when we haven’t had a runner at the Festival.
On the Flat I’ve got Harrison with Mick and he ran sixth in the St Leger. Will he go hurdling? Not yet. He’s been gelded and is having a breathing operation. Graham Lee said he’s got one hell of an engine. He could be a Gold Cup horse – that’s Ascot, not Cheltenham!
I think it’s a fresh approach to Kempton. Sell the asset and reinvest the money
You seem to have been a very lucky owner. But what could be done to improve the owner’s lot?
Racing has to be more professional in how it attracts owners and sponsors. They need to craft a product and experience that people want to buy into, like at Cheltenham and Aintree. But some of the other racing is pretty poor and racecourses have to work harder to look after their owners and sponsors, and recognise that without these people putting the money in there would be no sport. Initiatives such as the ROA Gold Standard Awards certainly help.
You sold your first business, Chatters Entertainment, days before the 1987 stock market crash. Good judgement or luck?
I sold it on my mother’s birthday, October 14. I went fishing – one of my other great passions – on the isle of Lewis the day after. When I came home from that holiday the world had changed. The Great Storm had happened causing so much devastation. Black Monday was the 19th. It was extraordinary. But I was very lucky and pleased to get out of that business.
You have been very successful in business. What’s your secret and can you apply any principles from your working life to owning racehorses?
The fun I get out of businesses is getting them going, taking them through the early growth phases, winning customers and making them profitable. I love trying to beat the odds and beat the big boys. I’m 56 and I couldn’t sit at home and do nothing.
But nothing’s for life; I’d sell anything and then reinvest, then the journey continues. I’m comfortable with that. That’s why you have to be quite ruthless about horses. If you didn’t sell your horses you’d end up with hundreds of them!