14 January 2007

When Paul Roy was running Merrill Lynch’s Global Markets and Investment Banking Division he was handling a cast in their thousands and revenue in its billions. But can he run racing?

That’s a nice heavy challenge for punters to ponder for a nano-second before discarding it as a 33-1 ‘no-hoper’. But when this 60-year-old investment banker stood up and spoke for the first time as chairman of the newly formed British Horseracing Authority this week, there was a sense of purpose which suggested those odds might be worth a second look. He even invoked the ambition that the BHA would be “the most independent governing and regulatory body in British sport”.

On the face of it a speech to the Thoroughbred Breeders Association annual meeting is an unlikely setting for a racing re-incarnation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The quick form book summary says that Roy is an Epsom butcher’s son who became a city big hitter, got some horses, won the St Leger last year with Sixties Icon, and has now been talked into heading up another shy at the impossible task of making racing make sense. Why should he succeed when all the others have come up short? On the news of the appointment one of his friends sighed and said: “He must be bonkers.”

Between them the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Wakeham, Peter Savill and Martin Broughton brought talents and connections enough to run a cabinet let alone govern a sport. But, 14 years on since the then Stoker Hartington unveiled the brave new idea of the British Horseracing Board, the game and its administration can be seen as beleaguered as ever.

The battle to maintain racing attendances, newspaper interest and network TV interest is becoming increasingly difficult. The attempt to find an alternative funding source to the Betting Levy Board has been shelved and yet another major corruption hearing began last week. Stepping to the plate on Tuesday, Roy said: “I want to make it absolutely clear to you today that the BHA is not just a name change and yet another new acronym in racing. It’s a genuine fresh start.”

Those are bold words but those around him know that Roy does not say things lightly. And while he asked for three months to “get my head around the detail”, he also insisted he would get it. There is a reassuring thoroughness about him. At Merrill Lynch he headed up an operation dealing with $10 billion of revenue and his New Smith Capital Group already have $5.5 billion of assets which he helps handle from his office overlooking Berkeley Square. These sort of figures need the most transparent of regulation and the first thing Roy brings to the party is the ability to hold a mirror up for racing to look itself in the face.

It’s a large activity; last week Roy quoted figures of “an economic impact of some £3 billion a year, employing 88,000 people directly or indirectly”. But, he argues, it will not attract the new investment it needs until it makes clear to the outside world that it is no longer a closed shop where people whisper behind their hands and rich outsiders are considered as mugs for the fleecing. Rather than being discouraged by the negative headlines of current investigations he talks about them demonstrating “our determination to investigate potentially corrupt practices”.

Those of us wondering if racing can ever change its ways should notice how Roy has already focused in on an area of existing expertise. “In the financial world,” he said to an audience every single one of whom would know exactly what he was getting at, “a clear distinction is made between somebody acting as a principal and an agent. Acting in a dual capacity or taking a fee on both sides of a transaction has to be disclosed.”

He argues, and he should know, that the new city millionaires will not get involved until this nonsense is outlawed. He says that, right across the board, racing has got to put its own house in order, to realise that it has to attract customers by co-operation and the pursuit of excellence. He is only in charge of governance but he can point the way. This may not quite be Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, for the people, by the people,” but there is no escaping the “fresh start” message.

Roy may have been able to hire Lionel Richie, The Searchers and Jimmy Tarbuck to perform at his recent birthday but the real quality he brings comes from much earlier in life. The love of racing came from the days of the family bungalow next to Tattenham Corner which his father used to leave at 4am every morning to get the meat at Smithfield. The Roy fortune was built on an equally early-start work ethic. Time may prove we are lucky to have him.

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