Don’t be deceived by the pea-on-a-drum memories of her riding Gold Cup winner Cool Dawn before his Andrew Thornton steered victory at Cheltenham; or even by the smiley, open presence of the tiny person who came to welcome us at Sainsbury’s Holborn Circus headquarters last week. Dido Harding carries a force field in front of her. It can even push you out.
For while at 5ft 2 and eight and a half stone Dido is small in stature, (there is a famous picture of her trying to lug more than three stone of lead back to the weighing room after winning on Cool Dawn at Kempton), in business she is a big shot. From Oxford (a first in PPE just like her contemporary David Cameron) to McKinseys, to Harvard Business School and then to Thomas Cook, Kingfisher, Tesco and Sainsbury’s she has thrived on increasingly important jobs and is about to become Chief Executive of Talk Talk when it floats on the Stock Exchange as a billion pound company in the spring.
The idea had been to photograph her in some huge, daunting, 23rd floor, state-of-the-art, main board directors’ office and presumably a framed picture of Cool Dawn on one side and of her two small daughters on the other and with the mounted statue of old Prince Albert doffing his hat to the passing traffic far below. “Oh no, we don’t do offices, we just have desks,” Ms Harding said breezily on Monday, “we do all meetings along here” and led us down rows of identical glass-fronted, central-tabled interview rooms until she reached her requisite one. Shock horror, there was a meeting in there already – a dozen men and women earnestly pondering charts and flow sheets.
Well it would be “shock horror” with many people. In even the most innocent cases of double-booking there is usually a fair bit of “give us a couple of minutes” embarrassment whilst the incumbents sit dumbly in front of their folders. Not last week. Dido never raised her voice or flourished a schedule slip but the acceptance and exit was so instant and un-flurried that if there had been one of those Grand Prix pit stop timers ticking away in the top of the screen it would hardly have reached ten seconds. Now that’s what we mean by “force field.”
In view of her obvious “scholarship stream” background and indeed the genes of her grandfather Field Marshall Lord Harding who commanded the Desert Rats amongst his other tasks in the last war and became head of the army afterwards, you might imagine that the “force” had a degree of arrogance or at least military heaviness about it. But it was not like that. It was just that a decision had been made and there was nothing to argue about. It was then that you realised that racing has a very special friend in Dido Harding.
For no other FTSE 150 company (as Talk Talk will be aiming to make FTSE Top 100 soon), will have a head, let alone a 42 year old female head, who will have ridden round Cheltenham and Aintree in an earlier life. What’s more Dido’s marriage is far from a one spouse dominated partnership. Her husband John Penrose, whom she met at McKinseys, is currently the Shadow Business Secretary. Come the summer and the likelihood of a Conservative government, the Penroses will be a power couple to match any in the land.
But that’s not what Dido wanted to talk about. She wanted to talk about racing and not so much what she could do for it but what it has done for her. About how it all began with pictures of her grandfather capsizing in an open ditch, of her father’s Dorset dreams of winning a hunter chase, of her own dead slow point to pointer who took two years to complete and four years and twenty efforts to finally win a race, and most of all about the now 22 year old Cool Dawn whom she still rides over the Mendips at weekends and who was such a “Horse of a Lifetime” that she quite justifiably called the book she wrote about him “My National Velvet.”
For all the Harding family distinction, (she is actually “The Hon Dido” as her father has inherited the title), and her own star-set business career, Cool Dawn was neither an expensive nor indeed a risk free conveyance. Robert Alner bought him for the Harding budget limit of just £7,000, the horse took her over a five bar gate within ten minutes of her first day’s hunting, reared over backwards in the paddock before both the first and last races in which she rode him, and in his opening point to point season not only won two races but also ran out at Larkhill and bucked her off on the return journey.
The tiny figure vainly grappling with her own massive and super talented horse was just the target that the point to point world’s unique chroniclers Mackenzie and Selby love to hit. “The performance at the Beaufort had to be seen to be believed,” they reported after Cool Dawn and Dido completed an opening hat trick despite running off the course at half way and resuming a furlong adrift – a performance which so inspired Paul Barber that he offered an open cheque in the unsaddling enclosure. Even after Cool Dawn and his diminutive partner had sailed home at Ascot in their second season, Mackenzie and Selby concluded damningly – “Dido Harding remains a complete passenger and all Cool Dawn’s defeats are probably down to her.”
“But I was a passenger,” said Dido merrily last week. “I had no idea what a good horse was like and who knows what might have happened if he had had a decent pilot from the beginning. But he wasn’t straightforward and it was quite satisfying to hear stories about how he carted Robert out hunting when I was away, and even last weekend he started bucking when we turned to come back down the Mendips on Sunday.“
The “passenger” certainly got a ride for her money. Five wins from seven races point to pointing and two wins and two placings under rules including a second to Elegant Lord in the 1996 Foxhunters at Cheltenham is no mean return for £7,000 budget. And it should be noted that after the long legs and professional power of Andrew Thornton reaped a spectacular four victory improvement culminating in the 1998 Gold Cup, Cool Dawn never really fancied it again after having to be hit home for the first time at Cheltenham.
By then the Alners were already in affectionate awe of Dido Harding. “She is just an amazing little lady,” said Sally Alner on Thursday. “Everybody loves her and she makes us laugh. She calls us her ‘Health Farm’ – she would be travelling all over the world during the week and then rock up on Saturday morning and want to know everything that was happening. Mind you she used to be so exhausted that I tried only to run the point to pointers for her on Sundays and I have still never been as frightened as when she rode Cool Dawn that first time at Badbury Rings and he went faster and faster up the straight and then she couldn’t pull him up and disappeared out of sight.”
Ms Harding may not have been the most skilled or powerful of Alner’s riders but she must have been by some way the most irrepressible. For far from resting on Cool Dawn’s “My own National Velvet” laurels and solely chasing the business heights for which she was freely tipped, she was now infused with the dream of riding round Aintree. It was never going to be easy and Dido admits to “riding like a drain” on a horse called Cardinal Gayle one evening meeting at Folkestone, an effort not entirely unconnected with her spending the earlier part of the day in a European buyers’ meeting for Kingfisher in Paris and rushing in from the Eurostar station at Ashtead.
So while the headline reports of the 25 runner 2004 Aintree Foxhunters’ detailed Carrie Ford’s brilliant winning ride on spring heeled Forest Gunner, the longer lasting impact may yet be reserved for the little figure battling home a jubilant 9th of the 15 finishers on an animal with the retail-unfriendly name of “Unlimited Free.” In the previous 12 months Dido had been to Asia 26 times for Tesco International and a fortnight earlier had spent a week in China. Not many women can say that in the boardroom.
Mind you not many long suffering colleagues have to receive calls like the one from Dido to say that Unlimited Free had turned an unlimited somersault at Larkhill and that she was currently strapped to a spinal board and was a likely non-runner for the next day’s trip to Thailand. But she made the plane, hosted the conference, albeit from a standing rather than a sitting position, and took another lesson from racing.
“The first thing I learnt from Robert,” she said last week, the eyes friendly but the voice very clear, “was that if you employ an expert it is not usually a good idea to ignore his advice even if – as when Andrew Thornton kept the ride on Cool Dawn – you don’t like it very much.”
“The second thing was how important it was to be positive. If I had a bad week or was miles from home wondering what I was doing with my existence, I would think about jumping The Chair or watching Cool Dawn in the Gold Cup or remember how we got through those days in point to point changing rooms with plastic bags round your boots to get through the mud in the paddock and your friend coming in not knowing her own name because she had landed on her head.”
“But the most important thing I have taken from riding into business is that persistence wins more often than anything else. Part of the challenge is what you do when an idea doesn’t work the first time and it’s much easier to say it is failing than to keep going. Life’s like that, especially in big organizations where there are complicated problems with lots of different people with a slightly different angle on them. In this building we employ 150,000 people and nine times out of ten the first time we try something it fails. The secret is not to then say it failed, better to say it worked here, it can get better, and just not to bloody give in.”
That last remark has more than a ring of her soldier grandfather, brought up as a three-chapels-a-sunday clerk’s son from Somerset and graduating via Grammar School to a world where decisions were a bit deeper than what staff to sack or what racecourses to close. Such things as whether to bomb Monte Cassino in 1944, or to allow Eoka Terrorists to hang whilst governor of Cyprus in 1956 can lie heavy on the soul, but Dido recalls a loving old man “so calm and centred and clear in his thinking.” Let’s hope he remains an inspiration. General Harding’s first job in Civvy Street was to be the inaugural chairman of the Levy Board.
The idea that someone as able and well connected as Dido Harding should be somehow harnessed to racing is not just irresistible, it is already in motion although maybe not yet as much as some of us might like. She is a member of The Jockey Club, spent five years on the board of Jockey Club Racecourses and while she is firmly resisting attempts to hook her back for the present, there is a tilt of the head in challenge when questioned about racing’s current state.
She has been expecting this. “I guess,” she says placing her elbow on the table whilst there is an almost perceptible whirring of the computer in her head, “I am going to do what my old Tesco boss Terry Leahy has done for 20 years when he doesn’t know the answer to a question. He goes back to what the customer wants. The fundamental problem with racing at the moment is that there might not be that many people but boy are there a lot of different stake holders fighting for their own little piece and forgetting that if you don’t have more fans through the turnstiles, over time it all dies.”
“It doesn’t have enough people following it as a sport and my instinct is to always start with the customer. I have only had one conversation with Chris McFadden and Racing For Change but I think one of the biggest challenges is that the bulk of what consumers are saying they would like from racing is exactly what a lot of stake holders in racing don’t want and vice versa.”
“At Tescos” she says, “we had a plan to make everyone do their own grocery shopping. Because visiting shops as a manager is not the same as doing the shopping and I think that is absolutely true of racing. The stake holders don’t experience it in the way of the people we ask to give us the money experience it. I think the people at Jockey Club racecourses got very bored with me going on about how great supertankers like Tescos and Sainsburys can turn around. But I loved being involved because like everybody in the Jockey Club I love racing. It has given me the highest highs and lowest lows of my life and it’s good to do something in that arena with other people who for various reasons share that passion.”
When we last checked the famous Greek playwright Euripides didn’t write much about the racing circus, but as even his best stuff was no later than 430 BC we will just have to take that on the chin. But he did pen the timeless line “judge a man by the company he keeps” and that applies to women and to sporting activities too. The trouble for racing is that many of its supporters seem to be stuck in the slow lane. No one can say that about Dido.