You‘ve been the pre-eminent writer about British horseracing politics and finance for the last 25 years. How did it all begin?
I concentrated on that area for the Racing Post but before that I’d already been writing about the industry, particularly when writing for Pacemaker in your time as editor.
I’ve actually written a weekly comment column since around about 1969, when I was doing a piece for a weekly paper called The Racehorse. Before that, at Timeform, I edited a magazine called Racing Week, which Phil Bull introduced. Reg Griffin asked me to take it on after a brilliant writer called Arthur Shaw died; I was only 21 when I started writing the editorial in 1967.
My very first job was as a civil servant in the Estate Duty Office. For this I had to come down to London, where I had digs in Shepherd’s Bush. But, because of the need to have a law degree to get on in the Estate Duty Office, I decided to look elsewhere.
Every day on the way to the office I walked past the William Hill betting shop on Shepherd’s Bush Green – it’s still there today. I called in to read The Sporting Life on the wall because I couldn’t afford to buy it. I saw a classified ad for a company called Timeform that I’d never heard of, for a job that I wasn’t qualified to do.
But I wrote off and received a response that said their MD would be in London on such and such a day and I should meet him at the Mayfair Hotel. So that’s how I came to be interviewed by Reg Griffin.
I was given the ‘100-question’ interview, made up of lots of different categories – like ‘Which racecourse runs races over a distance of five furlongs and eight yards?’
That was Bath; I still remember, though they now call it 5f 11yds. I started at Timeform in June 1964 as a clerk, taking an annual salary drop from £550 in the civil service to £500.
Presumably, you were very keen on racing when you were growing up in Doncaster?
Yes, as a kid, Doncaster was the capital. We went racing as a family but my mother and father had no connection with racing. They were keen on racing at Doncaster, but only Doncaster.
Doncaster had two weeks’ holiday a year, when industry would close down. The railway works, where my Dad worked, would close down in June and those people who could afford it went on holiday.
It also closed down in September for St Leger week. As a teenager, I used to read about racing a lot and follow it on TV but I had no idea I had retained so much.
I was working 14-hour days, six days a week; my family was coming second and I needed a change
Did you regard Phil Bull, Timeform founder and legendary gambler, as a man of great intellect?
It would have been difficult for me, at such a young age, to have been able to make that judgement. I was only 18 when I started on Timeform but I don’t think the senior staff regarded him with as much awe as in the past. He was not the force of old when I was there – it was coming up to the time betting tax was introduced and that immediately knocked the margins that he relied on as a shrewd punter.
What I did pick up was how important he regarded the relationship between racing and betting. He took the view that there were only two financial ‘putters in’ to racing – owners and punters. This has always coloured my view about the way the sport operates.
Phil was strongly of the opinion that racing was an entertainment – it was part of the entertainment business for a large number of people who were, in the main, punters, whether on the racecourse or off the racecourse because by then legalised off-course betting had come in.
Strangely, in the mid-1960s, that was quite a novel idea that many of racing’s hierarchy didn’t accept. It used to be said the raison d’être of racing was the improvement of the breed.
But ratings since the 1960s actually suggest that top horses are still very much the same as a group.
I also learned about handicapping at Timeform. I knew how to work out what the best horse was at the weights. Probably the most important thing I appreciated was that beaten horses can still show improved form. A horse can finish sixth and still show better form than he’d shown in his life before.
Can you remember any of Bull’s famous betting coups?
The Philoctetes betting coup in 1967 will always stick in my mind. We were all gathered together at Timeform and told there was going to be a big betting coup where people would be sent in twos to betting shops to place bets in cash. I
t was planned like a military operation in Phil’s office with maps and everything. But, of course, during the planning stage none of us knew the name of the horse.
I went with another member of staff to Glasgow who was told the name of the horse the evening before. Philoctetes was a three-year-old maiden running at Yarmouth.
He had run a couple of times as a two-year-old and he clearly needed the distance. The idea was to put the money on in no more than £5 units at betting shops in a lot of the major towns and cities throughout the country. They estimated it would start at 100-8.
Philoctetes was trained by Teddy Lambton and ridden by his second jockey, Snowy Fawdon. We’d visited only about three shops when it became obvious that word had begun to get round.
As it turned out, the coup was an all-round failure. First, because we couldn’t get all the money down. Second, because Philoctetes started 5-2 fav and not the anticipated 100-8. And third, because he was beaten into third!
So how did you break away from Timeform when most people tended to stay there for life?
I went to a press conference in Leeds where I met the sports editor of the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, David Jones, who offered me the job as racing editor.
That started over 11 years on the paper. It was largely an office-based job because it meant preparing the racecards, writing the main column of the day, plus tipping; the first edition would be off at 10pm and the second edition at 11pm-1am.
I eventually became deputy sports editor and I did the occasional feature. It was a good training ground. John Motson and Chris Poole had worked there.
I made a point that anything that happened in South Yorkshire or North Derbyshire to do with racing, I wanted to know about it. So I spent time out during the day trying to meet people.
Jack Berry started training in a yard that he and his wife Jo built themselves. Mark Tompkins had just started training there and I got to know Bryan Smart.
As for other sports, I did a three-part series on the state of athletics in South Yorkshire and, as part of that, I interviewed a young up-and-coming athlete based in Sheffield – a certain Sebastian Coe. Even then, he was very thoughtful. He was a guy who could do a lot more than run.
Has modern technology made a racing journalist’s job easier or harder?
It has certainly made it easier to communicate. The biggest change I’ve seen is with photographic equipment. Getting coloured pictures for the front page of the Racing Post in those early days was a nightmare.
The logistics of getting a picture of a 3pm race from Newmarket into a newspaper that came at out 7am the following morning involved several messengers, film development and processing. Today, it goes straight from digital camera into the newspaper system.
I remember when we started the Racing Post and moved into the office in Raynes Park the first thing I did was order six typewriters, because I couldn’t imagine people being able to master the new system. But we did and the typewriters were never taken out of their boxes!
In some ways new technology has made it easier for journalists, although the knock-on of this has made it harder because of the instant news syndrome. It’s harder for people to stand back and digest the news and ask, ‘What is the real story?’
What encouraged you to join the Racing Post and how did you find working there during those early days?
When still on the Sheffield Morning Telegraph I was approached about a job on The Daily Telegraph racing desk. I knew that if I was to get on I’d have to go to Fleet Street and, of all the newspapers I could have chosen to join, the Telegraph was the one I most wanted to work for.
I turned that job down but the following year Tony Stafford asked me to be his deputy racing editor. At the time, it was definitely a step up. So the family upped sticks and came to London. It was a big decision.
In 1985 I remember being in the Telegraph office when a fax came through about the launch of a new racing paper. It had Sheikh Mohammed’s backing, Graham Rock was to be editor and Brough Scott was also involved. Not long after that I was offered a job by Graham Rock with a two-year contract.
We were already here in the south so we didn’t have to move, which was a big advantage. I’d been taken on with no specific job in mind, which seemed a bit odd at the time, but they hadn’t got a news editor so I naturally fitted into that role.
Of course, I didn’t realise at the time that I’d be news editor, features editor, pictures editor, rota organiser and everything else, because Graham, even though he was officially the editor, was busy running the business side of the paper.
It was a much more difficult job than anyone perceived at the time. It was the advent of the Racing Post that made Robert Maxwell realise that, unless he did something with The Sporting Life, it would fold. The Racing Post came about only because The Sporting Life had been threatened with closure, but, ironically, it turned The Sporting Life back into a good newspaper.
So for a long time we had two very good newspapers competing with each other. It was really exciting working from scratch with what was in effect a little family in Raynes Park.
I was then working 14-hour days, six days a week. My family were coming second in my life and something had to give. So we re-organised and I became the paper’s racing industry reporter in a move to help combat a revitalised Sporting Life that had a very long history and loyal readership on its side.
You’ve always shown an ability to collect a lot of complicated details and disseminate them, often at speed. How do you do this?
I always think in simple terms and try to break things down logically. Also, I immersed myself in the subject of racing polities so it is easier when you are consistently involved. You know the people and who to talk to. I’ve also tried to give the story first and do a reaction later.
There has been a tendency more recently to look for reaction immediately, but often the people you ask to react won’t at that time necessarily know the basis of the story.
You have only to look at general sports journalists to see how they treat an event. They’re now often tweeting sentence by sentence from an inquiry that’s going on and then have to write a considered piece at the end, either for the website or for the newspaper.
I’d find that extremely difficult. It comes back to one of the reasons why I’m ready to retire.
You never seem fazed by anything. Have there been occasions where you’ve ever thought to yourself, ‘I’m not going to get this done in time’?
Yes, when you get a 300-paragraph report and you have a few hours to make a story out of it. The problem is how much you are expected to bring other peoples’ opinions in.
Often, not only do you have to read, understand and précis the report, you then have to feed in opinions of other people.
There have been times when I have been very close to, or even past, a deadline. Lately, I worked from home, or away from the open plan office, which has made it easier. I don’t get flustered provided I’m allowed to operate in my own way.
Most of the material you’ve written has been for people in the racing industry. It’s very important for an industry paper, but only a relatively small number are interested in it…
I am conscious of that. However much I try to make it simple, you have to recognise the majority of readers don’t have much interest in an industry story. You also have to make up your mind about how much the reader already knows.
For example, you can’t write about the Levy Board but first try to explain what the Levy Board is. You have to assume the reader knows something about the subject when writing this specialised material.
The readership may be small but it is highly significant. The racing world is quite large but influenced by a very small number of people.
What have been the most beneficial changes to the industry in your time?
I believe the formation of the BHB, which was largely down to Stoker Hartington. The Jockey Club couldn’t exist or last in its form as a self-elected oligarchy.
However good it might have been at its job, it was out of place in the modern world. Stoker was astute in recognising this. The way he got the Jockey Club over the line was remarkable.
They retained quite a lot of responsibility but less power. In the long run, it’s also helped the Jockey Club too. It is now much more focused in running 14 racecourses.
Another massive benefit has been the involvement of the Maktoum family. British racing would have been in a very different situation had they not come on the scene.
The number of people who have benefited from the involvement of the Maktoums is enormous, from boosting employment to charity support to ensuring the future of racing’s newspaper.
As you have spent the latter years of your career concentrating on issues about how the industry is run, does this mean your passion for horses and racing itself has been diluted?
I haven’t followed day-to-day results closely for some time. But I sat on the BHA/Jockey Club Pattern Committee for 20 years as an independent member and that concentrated my interest on the Group races.
I was always aware of what was going on at the top, but I’ve not had a bet since my Timeform days.
Are there any pieces of writing of which you are particularly proud?
I suppose I’m most proud of a number of interviews I sourced myself for the Racing Post, such as The Princess Royal, Princess Haya, Zara Phillips (her first interview with a national newspaper) and Benny Andersson of Abba.
…and any you wish you hadn’t written?
There is one piece of writing I’m not very proud of. The Derby sponsorship was up for renewal and I got to know that there were two international companies vying for the sponsorship.
There was pressure on me to name one of them, which I didn’t want to do, but I did name P&O. So the morning of the announcement, the Racing Post headline said ‘P&O to sponsor Derby’, which was wrong.
The following day the headline story, also written by me, said ‘Vodafone to sponsor Derby’. It taught me a lesson.
Which racing journalist have you particularly admired over the years?
I much admired Peter Scott on the Telegraph, who I worked with. If it happened in racing, Peter would report it. He conveyed the facts to his readers efficiently, without any frills.
I’m fine with those who use a lot of figurative language – the Racing Post has some very fine feature writers – but it is factual stuff that interests me most.
Who have you admired most in racing politics during your years as a Racing Post journalist?
Apart from Stoker Hartington, I would have to say Tristram Ricketts. Tristram was the civil servant of British racing. He would balance warring factions very skilfully and diplomatically.
He was not particularly well served by one of his Chairman. I would also say Julian Richmond-Watson for the final transformation of the Jockey Club into its current commercial position; he’s left it on an extremely sound footing.
…and who have you most enjoyed as a performer?
Tony McCoy is top of my list for his ability to give his best on a chaser rated 60 and a Gold Cup winner in equal measure.
Can you draw a distinction between the way the betting industry operates and the way the racing industry does?
The betting industry is made up of wholly commercial operators who know their businesses and run them accordingly. Whereas racing – and this where I take the Phil Bull line – is not really an industry, though I accept it’s convenient to call it one.
There is a motor industry; there used to be a coal-mining industry. There isn’t a racing industry. It’s a collection of small businesses that come together to promote a sport that provides entertainment.
What about your perception of where racecourses stand in the industry and that of owners?
Racecourses are the chief promoters of racing. What they do individually and collectively stimulates racing as an entertainment. Racing is essentially an entertainment based on betting and it takes place at a venue.
Phil Bull’s old line about punters and owners being the only two ‘putters in’ has, I believe, been superseded by the fact that the levy is now based on bookmakers’ gross profits.
As a result, I think it’s betting operators, rather than punters, who are one of the two key contributors to racing’s income, especially when you take into account their contribution through media rights.
Of course, I acknowledge the vital contribution of owners, but believe they are essentially pursuing a hobby, not a business.
Do you think it’s wise for racing generally to support the Levy Board being replaced by a more direct commercial relationship with the betting industry?
It’s got to be replaced. It’s the only way forward. But until a sustainable alternative is found to underpin racing’s funding, without losing the VAT concession, you have to keep the levy.
It’s all right people saying it’s not fit for purpose – you can say that, but only if you’ve got a fit-for-purpose alternative.
Doncaster is your home town. Does it still give you a buzz to go back to Town Moor?
Yes. I’m very proud of Doncaster and South Yorkshire. I am President of the Doncaster Annual Members’ Committee, to which I hope to devote more time now. I was born half a mile from the Doncaster winning post and from the age of four I lived half a mile the other side of the winning post.
To my mind, Doncaster is the best racecourse in the world, which stages the best race in the world. I’d been in racing only six years when Nijinsky won the 1970 St Leger and Triple Crown. Now, in semi-retirement, I watched Camelot’s attempt to do the same, which sadly failed.
Why are you retiring?
At 67, I think it’s time to take things a bit easier and have a bit more home life. I’m Vice-Chairman of the Northern Racing College and I can now devote more time to that. I’ll carry on working occasionally for the Racing Post, and other opportunities may come up.
What are you going to miss most – and least – about your job?
The most will be regular contact with some fascinating characters. The least will be trying to be part of the instant news syndrome.
I follow twitter and have an account and for some reason I have 260 followers. I have never tweeted and will never tweet, because I can’t put my argument across in 140 characters.
I’m well aware that twitter is the fastest information service in the world. But it’s not for me.