If he wasn’t such an engaging, sharp minded, perma-tanned, do-it-now, sort of guy it would be easy to get irritated with Andy Stewart. Take this week – while Paul Nicholls and 20 strong string of Stewart horses struggle with the elements down in Dorset, Andy had a look at the Siberian conditions, said “forget Big Bucks” and sugared off to Barbados.
In these envy inducing circumstances, there was some slightly shameful satisfaction in hearing of his trip down to Brighton through the snow on Wednesday taking four and a half hours not to mention the delightful titbit that when he finally holed up back with the palm trees on Friday evening it was actually raining in paradise. But fear not, the sunshine and the envy soon returned. And so will Andy Stewart. Because he is not just a multi millionaire city big shot – he has been nuts on racing from the very beginning.
You have got to be pretty keen to hitch-hike to Aintree as a 15 year to watch Foinavon win the Grand National, and pretty single minded if curmudgeonly schoolmasterly objections to his attending Marks Tey point to point saw a parting of the ways between him and Felstead School and the eye surgeon’s son then having to start sweeping the floor and chalking the boards in a stockbroker’s office. You have got to be pretty deep into the satisfaction stakes when you can call your new business Cenkos after the first horse you owned on your own. Even in this weather and with racing indulging itself in its latest series of “Racing For Change” introspection, you are likely to be a “half full” rather than “half empty” man.
But we knew all this already. What made this week’s conversations fascinating is that they were interspersed between talks with two other people equally committed to racing albeit from very different generations – one being one thirty years Andy’s junior and the other no less than thirty four years older. Let’s introduce 28 year old Paul Stewart, Andy’s currently wheel-chair battling son who is on the verge of launching the international Sportpost.com website and the 92 year old non-pareil that is Sir Peter O’Sullevan who is defying the doctors to supervise arrangements for his late wife Pat’s funeral on Thursday.
If you expected either of them to feel sorry for themselves you would be grievously disappointed. Paul project has had to survive the double blow of the world banking collapse and his own serious spinal accident out skiing. But on 18th January, under the slogan “Fans Take Charge” there will be a 17 sport mix of videos, debates and sports star blogs which has enough young people appeal to have Ladbrokes come in as a betting partner. Peter has nursed poor Pat through the pitiless downward progression of Alzheimers and by rights he should be still in hospital with bronchitis. Yet there he was at lunch in his local Chelsea restaurant on Sunday not only detailing duties for the service but coming out with fighting talk not just about the future of the Derby as a horse race but of the holder of that title. “My New Year’s wish,” he said in those inimitable tones, “is ‘Repentance from Lord Derby, Salvation for Newmarket’.”
In their separate ways Paul and Peter represent the indomitable, “hope-versus–experience”, vitality which remains racing greatest asset. “Of course there are still too many committees,” said Andy Stewart this week’s about Racing For Change’s interim “best practice” wish list, “too many people who just want a free lunch and go ‘blah-blah-blah’ all the time. But I think Racing For Change is beginning to get it together and we have to give them a chance. Most of all we have to support the people who make racing successful at the moment and that is not just the big tracks. “
“Take Plumpton on Sunday. It was a privilege to be there. They had aggressively marketed a ‘two for one’ scheme and the place was packed and there was all sorts of activity from hog roasts to Abba Lookalike competitions. A percentage of those people will be hooked and will want to come again. It’s no good us just talking to the same bunch all the time. We need new racegoers and that means taking down the barriers and being friendly. If you don’t have fans in the stadium you are never going to progress.”
Cynics might think that Andy’s enthusiasm might be not unrelated to being able to greet the Nick Gifford trained Nomecheki in the Plumpton winner’s enclosure three days after doing the same to Big Bucks at Newbury albeit ruining his ankle with a fall on an icy pavement in between. But the Stewart you see high jinxing things in the paddock tends to be the party end of the very serious player that is beneath. Cenkos was an interested bidder when this paper was up for sale two years ago and a visit to the man in his office was a fairly daunting experience as his mind raced with possibilities all around the globe in all aspects of the business. It was that mode the he was in last week and while he insists there is nothing concrete Andy Stewart remains a man to watch in 2010.
His highest profile interest has been planning a bid for the Tote but explains that all that has to hang fire well into the summer. “Over the years I have had some very helpful conversations with the minister Gerry Sutcliffe,” says Andy but there is an election coming and when it’s over a decision on the Tote is hardly like to be a high priority. But I still feel very strongly if people who are both interested in racing and successful had control of it there could be a lot of untapped potential there”
Which brings us to China. When Andy was bidding for the Racing Post, he already had plans (which might have made some of us surprised at what our articles looked like) of having the paper translated into Chinese. For years now it has been clear that China remains the last great empire for racing to crack as the modernisers in the country look to see ways they can harness the huge revenue streams of legalized betting at present outlawed as one of “The Great Sins” in old style Communism.
On all this Andy Stewart is an intriguing witness. He has long held business interests in China, describes the last Shanghai hotel he stayed in as “making the Dorchester look like a Travelodge”, and has every intention of seeing if he can harness the Dragon. “What you need to understand,” he says, “is that this is going to be a very big year for China, bigger even than the Olympics. Shanghai are expecting 70 million visitors for Expo 2010 and the younger generation of businessmen are going to be ready to discuss all sorts of developments and that will include some form of legalised betting.”
“They see what happens in Japan where there were 200,000 when Cenkos ran in ‘The Grand Jump’ and they say ‘we are a civilised country, this is a leisure sport we should participate in. They know that the older generation and the little red book say ‘over our dead body’ but they point out that illegal gambling is happening anyway and legalising it and taxing it highly is a much more constructive path.”
The famous Stewart, spiky faced enthusiasm is gathering force as he relates a story of discussing the Tote with a Chinese tycoon at Ascot who was particularly struck with the idea as he thought it was owned by the Queen. But when it comes to nailing down what exact developments he might be able to link his contacts with there is an uncharacteristic coyness in the answer. “You could say,” he answers, “ that I continue to monitor very closely what is happening in the People’s Republic away from Sports and Legalized Lotteries.” Which presumably means – “watch this space.”
He is much more forthcoming when it comes to “Racing For Change” whose first ill-timed “Brian and Ben” announcement he dismissed with the scathing comment “if you were to take that marketing package to a world-leading brand, they wouldn’t even get past the doorman. They haven’t got a clue.” This week’s announcement he felt was much more sensible and he is particularly impressed that Wilf Walsh, the former Coral MD, has come on side and believes his friend Paul Roy remains key to the future.
“Wilf is a really good player,” says Andy, “he understands the reality of the situation and he will cut to the chase. And I think we need to unite behind Paul because he is passionate about the BHA and he does have the ability. I am always impressed with people who have not just run things but have founded businesses. That is what Paul has done and I think we need to join the ‘half-full’ club and tell these people that they have not done a bad job so far but can we help them in taking the business forward and not asking the same people the same questions. Granted interfacing with the Levy Board we have got to take decisions, you can’t ask everyone, you don’t run a business on consensus, you have to get on with it.”
When multi-millionaires speak like that there is always a tendency to say “it’s all right for them.” If you have Celestial Halo in the Champion Hurdle and Tataniano in the Arkle to reinforce the banker bet of Big Bucks in the World Hurdle, pontificating on the future for ordinary racegoers might seem to come from a rather lofty perch. But while it is a long time since Andy Stewart hitch-hiked up to watch Foinavon, he still gets excitedly involved in the argument.
“Someone sent me a marketing video of Ladies Day at the Festival,” he says. “ Forget about Big Bucks, what came through was the excitement of the experience. Goodwood is great too – that Double Trigger restaurant is just as good as Scott’s in Mayfair and nowhere near as expensive. At two many courses it is exactly the other way round. It is all about making the experience good. Plumpton did it with their Afghan day, they had lots of kids there who watched the Shetland Pony Derby and then were saying they wanted to be involved. Racing is going to look out and find a new generation.”
Time it would seem to take in the next Stewart generation and on Thursday evening, Paul Stewart was watching the Barbados sun set gorgeously into the western ocean as the temperatures dipped obligingly from the 80s. “We think racing is very well served for the specialist,” he said as he explained the reasoning behind Sportpost which has impressed super chef Raymond Blanc among its investors, “but what we are doing is linking up sports fans generally. Nobody follows just one sport and we think people are tired of having to scour all over the web for their daily fix of sports content and want this one place to get all the information and videos and articles and debate them with their fellow fans.”
Two days earlier Paul had taken two non-racing friends to have dinner with Tony McCoy and his wife Chantal who had sensibly escaped from the Lambourn Arctic. “They were both sports fans so beforehand I explained quite what an achiever Tony is and they were fascinated. We think that racing can hook my generation but they need to be introduced to it. At the moment the only way you get to know about it is through a parent or sibling. There are a lot of barriers for the newcomer and people feel intimidated as to where to go and what to do. We have to change all that without losing the magic of the thing.”
Next day one of the most magical things that the game has ever produced sensibly kept his scarf on in the restaurant. “It’s still a great game,” said Peter O’Sullevan, “although some people do stupid things to wreck it like moving the Derby from a Wednesday and this latest thing that Lord Derby is trying to do at Newmarket.” We have to go back to 1946 for Sir Peter to be the age Paul Stewart is now but that was the year which had particular significance on Friday lunchtime. For it was then that Peter met his wife Pat. And only because of a bet that failed.
“We had a bit of a touch going on a French horse called Dornot in the Manchester November Handicap,” he said, “backed it from 100-8 to 5-1. It was cruising when its hock went. If it had won I would have gone back to Paris with the connections. As it was I went to the End of Season Ball at the Midland Hotel and Pat was there. I had told Joe Orlando, the band leader to have a bet and when I apologized he said “that doesn’t matter but I tell you something – that blonde you are dancing with, she is the most beautiful girl in the room.”
Wisdom and romance from down the years. When winter shivers it is easy to see the cup as half empty, but when Sir Peter raised his glass in memory – only a faint heart would lack the courage to see it as half full.