It was a love child. It was conceived in haste, had an unprepared pregnancy, a traumatic birth, a worrying infancy, an over dependant youth, a difficult adolescence and now, in its maturity, has reshaped itself to face a thrilling future. Little wonder that for me, and for many of us, being in at the start of The Racing Post is the proudest thing that we have ever done.
Because for us it became an offspring as well as an employer. It took over our lives with its insatiable demands and unexpected problems. As with all babies, the wonder each morning was that it was there at all and because of this we were at times blind, not to say ferociously protective, about its imperfections. It was a love child not because it was illegitimate but because for most of us it had never been our intention to start a new family in the public glare.
Speaking personally I must have been insane. By the beginning of 1985, through the most fortunate of circumstances, I had bounced from what was becoming an injury prone career as a rider into fronting the newly formed Channel 4 Racing and being sent by The Sunday Times not just to racetracks but to the great arenas of the world. As a director of the International Racing Bureau I had travelled the globe helping with the start ups of the Arlington Million, The Japan Cup and The Breeders Cup. Oh, and my wife and I had four young children. What on earth was I doing in Dubai giving Sheikh Mohammed giddy ideas of starting up a new racing paper?
To be fair it was not all my fault and the intentions were almost naively benevolent. It is important to remember that back in 1985 British newspapers were in the throes of union battles against change and at Mirror Group the owner Robert Maxwell was threatening to close his smallest title, The Sporting Life, “pour encourager les autres.” For racing, incredibly dependent on a specialist daily in those pre internet or satellite TV days , the prospect, the very real prospect, of life without anything except a bookmaker produced runners sheet was not an inviting one.
So it was that Nick Clarke, Chief Executive of the International Racing Bureau, got his friend Geoffrey Copeman of the Eastern County Newspapers to undertake the feasibility of producing and distributing a racing daily out of Norwich. The only connection with Sheikh Mohammed at that stage was that it was to his aide John Leat, as well as to Khalid Abudulla and several other luminaries, that we went to for backing for this early study. That process was underway when I was flown to Dubai in February 1985 but was a long way from the point of any discussion. We were there to advise on the proposed Maktoum purchase of Pacemaker magazine.
What happened next I detailed in these pages a few years back and became part of my book “Of Horses and Heroes.” Of how Sheikh Mohammed immediately stymied talk of buying Pacemaker as the magazine belonged to Robert Sangster “so it would be like buying someone else’s wife.” Of how in answer to the question “but what could we do to help British racing” I had said “start up a new racing paper.” Of how his aides dismissed my protests at lunch and persuaded me to go to Sheikh Mohammed’s “Majlis” that evening. Of how it was there, in that extraordinary mixture of petro billionaire wealth and mediaeval baron meeting place, that the fateful decision was made.
I remember Nick Clarke and I sipping tea on the deep leather lined bench on the side of a long rectangular room with Sheikh Mohammed and his principal aides at the top table. Whether our fellow attendees were “Saeed” from Chase Manhattan or “Abdul” worrying about his goats had to be deduced not from their identical white dish dashes but from the state of their feet and their waiting time. Some “Abduls” apparently spent weeks sipping the tea but we were called in minutes and when asked how we would proceed and what it would cost gaily told Sheikh Mohammed that we would be back in a month and that it would be “about a couple of million.” 12 years on , numerical ascendancy won and tens of millions spent, he could hardly be blamed for doing a deal with Mirror Group
I was, of course, uniquely ill-equipped to run a newspaper but with Nick Clarke as a central dynamo, we set to work using the International Racing Bureau offices located in Tolworth Tower on the Kingston By Pass. To give ourselves racing and betting credibility we took on Sir Peter O’ Sullevan and Air Commodore Brookie Brooks, former ADC to William Hill and head of the Racecourse Association. To ensure newspaper clout we inveigled the super distinguished Sir Gordon Brunton to take up the chairmanship following his earlier role as managing director of Thomson Newspapers when they ran The Times and The Sunday Times before the sale to Rupert Murdoch.
The original idea was that I would front things up as editor and that Nick Clarke would be managing director. But John Fairley, the head of Channel 4, ruled this would be incompatible with my TV role and the IRB would not release Nick without a massive transfer fee. So Gordon Brunton supervised a series of beauty parades of potential managing directors, and I rang the late Graham Rock in Hong Kong to tell him I had got him the big chance he had been asking for.
Graham was a remarkable guy in having bet his way out of the costs of an early divorce before taking on the relentless 2 ,000 words a day task of Kettledrum in the Sporting Chronicle then getting himself a job as handicapper then stipendiary steward in Hong Kong when that paper closed in 1983. He was a 40 year old of great talent and energy and hugely respected by his peers. His only experience of editing had been of a student newspaper when at Bradford University but I knew him to be so utterly loyal and unafraid that his staff would give everything for him in the months ahead.
He repaid the trust with a vengeance, taking on his former Chronicle and Timeform colleagues Francis Kelly and Howard Wright as close associates and gathering around them as informed and able a group of journalists as one could wish for. No one refused him from Sporting Life stalwarts like Tony Morris and the late George Ennor to Fleet Street players like Tim Richards and Colin Mackenzie, and the IRB’s international experts Desmond Stoneham in France, Tony O’Hehir in Ireland, Dan Farley in America and Jack Elliott down in Australia.
On this morning after the 2011 Grand National you can see a small part of the legacy too. In the Observer the lead piece comes from their Chief Sports Writer Paul Hayward who started his working life copying results into the infant Racing Post data base, while the race itself was called for BBC by the magnificent Jim McGrath who in March1986 gave up his role as the face and voice of Hong Kong to start again on the newsdesk in Raynes Park.
Getting to that address only happened very late in developments, so much of the early planning was done out of makeshift desks in the IRB’s Tolworth Tower and it was from there that their current MD, Alastair Donald, the recently seconded from ICI, produced our first modest attempt at a plan for Sheikh Mohammed’s blessing. “We all trooped off to his flat at the Carlton Tower,” remembered Alastair on Friday, “and Sheikh Mohammed took a quick look and said ‘you have designed me a mini, I want a Rolls Royce.’”
Sheikh Mohammed was very proactive. He would take me to one side and say “get the best.”There were meetings in Newmarket and Dubai and London. Advisors like John Gosden and Michael Osborne as well as his bankers and the ubiquitous John Leat would be called for brainstorming sessions, and when we were dithering over the actual title it was the Sheikh who said “it must be ‘Racing Post’.”
But for all Sheikh Mohammed’s support the actual mechanics of getting a newspaper from a mere idea into the first reader’s hands in 14 months was beset with all sorts of difficulties, not least in where to print it. By the time of actual publication in Craven Week, mercifully delayed from the hope of being ready for the Grand National, we were printing from Haywards Heath in the south and from Warrington in the north where Eddie Shah was waging his own war with the unions with the launch of Today in March 1986.
It looked and felt a desperately fraught process and today’s journalists who activate things at the press of a button will listen as if to steam engine tales when we explain that the plates went from Raynes Park to Haywards Heath by bike and to Warrington by fax with all the inherent risks that such journeys ran. If a biker failed to show you could usually get another one, but if the fax line went down it meant no papers in the North or Ireland. When that first happened, we felt so desperate that I called John Leat who miraculously commandeered one of Sheikh Mohammed’s helicopters which landed on a nearby cricket pitch and whisked the offending items to Lancashire.
Mind you the bikers were a distinctive black leathered bunch who would sit in reception in such varied states of disarray that you tried to avoid wondering how they were going to navigate the 40 miles to Sussex. My favourite was a long haired, gum chewing, “non natural nutrient” specialist who had a pet rat called Zack inside his jacket which he liked to produce to shrieks of dismay. Hope he has a property empire somewhere now.
For a long time even getting to publication had seemed questionable as more and more insoluble logistical problems kept cropping up and projections of sales and advertising had to be revised downwards while the bookmakers played on the buyer’s market and the Sporting Life abandoned its union battle to try and crush us at birth . At one stage Nick Clarke had a meeting with the Robert Maxwell ostensibly to discuss a deal but in fact to be given a booming lecture on “Captain Bob’s” invincibility and the memorable line “if those Maktoums want to fight me, they will find it as palatable as eating frozen concrete.”
Once started, things actually got worse rather than better and the portents were there from the very first day. Whist we all danced dizzily round Raynes Park when the first editions came through on Monday night, there was a sobering truth at Newmarket on Tuesday morning when the news came through of constant web breaks and delays across the south and it was a decidedly grumpy Sheikh Mohammed who met Sir Gordon and me on the racecourse. Much later one of our newspaper vendors was found lying dead drunk on the Newmarket pavement still clad in his once fresh white Racing Post selling coat.
Sometime in May I went to see Sheikh Mohammed in London with the news that one of the senior managers would have to go that evening and another within a month. I explained that it was likely to get messy, that all our team knew we had not signed for a risk free venture and that he was perfectly entitled to pull out now in the knowledge that his initiative had at least given racing back a much improved Sporting Life. On hearing this Sheikh Mohammed sat bolt upright, looked me very directly in the eye and said, “you must do what you have to do.”
The improvements took their time and took their toll. Most notably on Graham Rock himself. Unsupported by management, he took on more and more of the paper’s troubles on his own shoulders and gradually became oblivious of his own team’s need for change and a general smartening of our too tabloid style. I remember very clearly talking to him on Derby Day morning 1987 with the news that we had managed full distribution nationwide and now that our production problems seemed to be overcome we could pay more attention to the paper itself. “Oh, there are no problems with the paper,” he said.
With newspapers as with television it is a not uncommon phenomenon that the effort of getting the paper out or the production on air becomes such an achievement that there is no energy left to actually improve the project. It was the most painful decision of my professional life but early in 1988, we called Graham into the managing director’s office and told him that it was over. To his eternal credit he successfully rebuilt his career and from then until his far too early death in December 1997, he never spoke a bad word to me about it.
To try and restore momentum I moved full time into Raynes Park as Editorial Director and got Michael Harris to leave Pacemaker to take over as Editor, although poor Michael first went on honeymoon to Africa where he nearly died of hepatitis. It took a while but gradually the tide of sales and of public appreciation began to go our way and it was ironic that by far our best managerial line up, with Michael Harris promoted to chief executive and our former news editor Alan Byrne brought back as editor, proved to be our last one in the original ownership.
For twelve years, through rain and shine, Sir Gordon Brunton had overseen our monthly board meetings with the scrupulousness of a Footsie 100 company not a struggling trade paper. His face, firm, intelligent and welcoming, was always something to lift the heart. But that morning it was different. The bolt came out of a clear blue winter sky. I had been to the dentist but it was now I needed an anaesthetic. Gordon introduced the Sheikh’s envoy with the news that, without Gordon’s knowledge, a deal had been done to place us with the Mirror Group.
In hindsight, particularly in view of the £10 m charity donation Sheikh Mohammed extracted from Trinity Mirror when our present owners took over in 2007, it may have been for the best. But it remained a grave discourtesy to the chairman who at our monthly board meetings had been asking for guidance for a deal that could be done.
Our time under the Trinity Mirror was hardly a happy one, not least for Alan Byrne who manfully handled the physical transfer from Raynes Park to Canary Wharf over a sleepless Derby weekend in 1998. He did the right thing in leaving when he did and it has been even more right that he has come back as Chief Executive. Because although he was not there at the very beginning, no one ever doubts that to him the Racing Post has been family too.