It was the best and worst idea I ever had. 30 years ago this week the Racing Post was on the streets and we were both basking in the glory of the achievement and reeling from the enormity of our mistakes.
To be involved in the birth of a paper is one of the most amazing experiences of any professional life. To be holding that first edition aloft as we danced around the canteen in Raynes Park was to have the pride of parenthood shared with the many that had been involved in all those advancing stages from conception to delivery. As parents do, we thought the baby looked perfect. As parents often are, we were seriously deluded.
For a start we were unaware of the impending problems with the printers. Our schedule to come out for the Craven Meeting meant that, incredibly and nearly fatally, we never had a full dummy publication run and the added pressure on the printing webs brought a whole series of breakdowns, missed pick-ups and a mounting crescendo of phone complaints about unavailability. We got to Newmarket cradling the new baby unaware that most would-be readers were unable to see it, and even if they did, that there was plenty they found unappealing. We went to see Sheikh Mohammed to celebrate but the mood was soon uneasy not jubilant.
Mind you he was as much to blame as I was. The point of our meeting just 14 months earlier in Dubai had been for him to accept my recommendation that he should buy Pacemaker. But soon after he had swept in flanked, I remember, by two Kalashnikov carrying soldiers in black dish-dashes, he said, “no, Pacemaker is Mr Sangster’s magazine. I have discussed this with my brothers. We think it would be like buying someone else’s wife. Is there not something else we could do?”
It was a fateful question. For back in February 1985 Fleet Street was bedevilled by disputes and Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell was threatening to close The Sporting Life to show the unions who was boss. A group of us led by my International Racing Bureau colleague Nick Clarke had been discussing how to fill the void with something other than a betting shop sheet. Sheikh Mohammed’s question got its fateful answer. “Well if you really want to help,” I said, “you could guarantee a new daily racing paper.”
No matter that I then went on to caution of the personal aggravations likely to ensue and that the Pacemaker ethos was much more suited to his family’s bloodstock interests. I was summoned back to another meeting that evening and flew home having promised to return within the month with a plan for how this new paper was going to work. Seeing as I already had three jobs, four children and absolutely no experience of running a newspaper this added conception was about as unwise as they come. But, boy, it was exciting.
Using offices of the International Racing Bureau in Tolworth we got Graham Rock to come back from Hong Kong as editor, the former Thomson Group supremo Sir Gordon Brunton as chairman and set about recruiting staff and thinking how to operate. The former proved rather easier than the latter. Graham Dench and Emily Weber are working for us still and all sorts of great guys like Tim Richards, Howard Wright, George Ennor, Paul Haigh, Jim McGrath, Tony Morris, Francis Kelly and Colin Mackenzie were happy to come over as was Desmond Stoneham in France, Tony O’Hehir in Ireland and Jack Elliott in Australia. A callow youth named Simon Crisford became Newmarket correspondent and soon after we started, two young guys called Paul Hayward and Edward Whitaker got their first jobs with us. Wonder what happened to them? But finding managers to run the operation and offices to work out of, let alone printers in both north and south was much more difficult.
It is now frightening to think that we did not take the keys of our brand new, but completely unequipped, building in Raynes Park until mid-December. And that by our launch the best we could do for printing was to bike negatives of the pages down to Hayward’s Heath to cover distribution in the south. For the north and Ireland, as our new fax process was not installed, there was nothing for it but to helicopter up to Eddie Shah’s operation in Warrington and, when printed, fly some of them to Dublin for Ireland.
Even more alarming in hindsight is the memory of the form coming through on to Graham Rock’s desk from where it was compiled by Peter Jones’ Trainers Record team down in Dorset. With colour pictures and some direct input we claimed to be ‘cutting edge’ but those first portable Tandy’s were an old Model T Ford compared to today’s laptops and we still had a copy taker writing ‘Towcester’ as ‘toaster’. Needless to say, the bookmakers and other advertisers had a great time playing us off against the Sporting Life on which, Robert Maxwell, stung by our 25p cover price cut his down from 50p with the provocative cry, “if those Maktoums want to try undercutting me, they will find it as appetising as eating frozen concrete.”
In many ways it was ‘Captain Bob’s’ biggest blunder. By cutting to our price he allowed interested buyers to sample our tabloid shape and jockey’s colours at no extra cost than before. By directly challenging Sheikh Mohammed he had gravely underestimated his man. Our owner may have had a thousand more important things to do, but he listened patiently, made good suggestions (the title Racing Post high amongst them) and was unfailingly supportive to me while others dropped away.
A lot of things needed to change and some key people to be replaced but we were on our way. Best of all we shared the most thrilling sense of adventure. In a still hidebound world we were something new. Of course we were making it up as we went along but we knew these were the best of days that would never come again. It was a challenge and we were tackling it.
Ah yes, what a wonderful mistake.