The Inside Track - The regular column from the RCA
An interview with RCA Chairman, Ian Barlow
A RECORD number of weather-hit abandonments this summer has played havoc with everyone’s plans, from owners, trainers and jockeys to racegoers and punters. For RCA chairman Ian Barlow it has meant putting on hold his project to complete a full house of visits to Britain’s racecourses.
He was geared up to round off the set at Redcar last month, only for the rains to return to the north east. Now he must wait until next year to fulfil an ambition shared by many racing fans.
Tax expert Barlow has been closely involved in racing for nearly 20 years, since he was invited by BHB chief executive Tristram Ricketts to become independent chairman of the BHB taxation group in 1994.
“Its intention was to be the focal point for tax expertise in the industry,” he says, “and followed the successful launch of the very successful owners’ VAT scheme, which was brokered by Philip Freedman, Philip Potts and Peter Mendham and launched in April 1994.
“The group was full of people who knew a lot about racing, so I embarked on a steep learning curve to be able to keep up.
“From that moment I got hooked, and within 12 months I’d had a call from James Stafford, who was putting together the first Thurloe Thoroughbreds’ syndicate, which I joined.
“I also have my own racing colours – dark and light blue diagonals – which I’ve renewed every year but they haven’t been seen on a racecourse yet. That’s another of my unfulfilled ambitions.”
However, Barlow’s interest in the sport goes back much further than his involvement on the administrative side, and as with many others the spark was lit by his family.
“I’ve been going racing for pleasure since I was about 15 or 16,” he explains. “The first course I went to was actually the ‘old’ Woodbine, when I lived in Toronto, and the first in the UK was Aintree, when the family lived near Southport.
“My father ran two heavy engineering plants, including one near Aintree, and in return for four entry tickets to the course, he provided Mrs Topham with a forked lift truck and an operator to get her up to the first floor of the County Stand, because there was no lift at that time.
“The first National I saw was in 1975, Jay Trump’s year, and I remember Foinavon’s two years later, though I couldn’t see much of the melee, which happened at the farthest point of the course.
“I didn’t go back until 2010, and what a difference. The facilities are fantastic.
“When I went to Cambridge University, Newmarket was the obvious place to visit, and I remember watching the Guineas and getting back for a rowing event in the evening.
“Then, when the family moved to London, I’d go to Sandown, Kempton for the King George, and Epsom.
“I visited more tracks once I became involved with the BHB, and I started to follow the Thurloe Thoroughbreds’ horses at places like Warwick and Lingfield. Since 2004, when I moved from London to live in Sussex, Goodwood has been my local track.”
Barlow is perfectly placed to spot the differences in the racecourse experience over the years.
“My early impression was the variety of the courses and the excitement of watching a horse race,” he says. “I probably took the racecourses for granted.
“The big change over the last 20 years has been the continued improvement in facilities, but also the pressure on racecourses to take account of customer needs at the same time as improving prize-money while Levy Board contributions decrease.
“Facilities are infinitely better, from the bigger courses such as Newmarket, Epsom and Ascot to many of the smaller tracks.”
Barlow is keen to put criticism of his members into perspective.
“There is a lot of misinformation about racecourses in general,” he says. “The majority exist only for the furtherance of the sport. And that goes beyond Jockey Club Racecourses to many of the independents, which have been criticised through a lack of understanding of how the sport is financed and the lack of flexibility that racecourses face.
“They would all like to give much greater prize-money, but they are never going to compete fairly in the short term against nations that operate with monopoly betting organisations.
“It’s disappointing that owners and trainers in particular have latched on to prize-money as a single-issue lobby.
“Prize-money is important, but trainers in particular should appreciate that they can’t build their businesses wholly around it. From a business point of view, prize-money should be the icing on their cake.
“I get as annoyed as the next person who owns a decent horse and doesn’t earn a huge amount with it, but I’m well aware of the strictures on racecourses.
“At the same time I’d like them to do more for owners, so that they are treated extremely well, have a good time and are made to feel special.
“That’s how everyone who deals with owners, including trainers, should treat them. And it applies to all owners, starting with those in syndicates, who are the stepping stone to full ownership.”
Looking out from his professional background in the world of finance, Barlow balances the sport and business of staging racing.
“We have something special in British racing, of which a lot of the rest of the world is envious,” he says, “but we have to remember that racecourses are operating under the necessity of not being funded wholly by the betting industry. For most courses only a third of their revenue comes from bookmakers.
“As a result of all the recent improvements, there’s around £250 million of debt among all the courses, much of it attributable to Ascot and Jockey Club Racecourses but also being carried for smaller but vital projects, which has to be paid off and can only come out of profits.
“All courses should be encouraged to make a return on investment. The bigger groups are better resourced, but the independents, big and small, have a very important role to play.
“The independents’ entrepreneurialism means they operate on very tight budgets and in their own context are very well run, because they don’t take much risk.
“I’d put money on them surviving through thick and thin, though that’s predicated on their getting a fair share of fixtures. They provide the foundation for younger horses under both codes, and are an important ingredient in their local communities.”
Looking to the future, Barlow says: “I’m optimistic, but I don’t underestimate the difficulties during the ongoing recession. We must continue to innovate.
“The sheer variety of British racecourses is fantastic. My local track, Goodwood, is among the most beautiful in the world, while you’d go a long way to get a better day out than on a Bank Holiday at Cartmel.
“And wherever you go – Carlisle and Ayr to Cheltenham, Ascot to Beverley and Perth - the beauty of the sport is that all types of people, from all kinds of occupations, backgrounds and parts of the country go racing, united by a common passion.
“What other sport, especially which attracts women, is so inclusive and offers a combination of the opportunity to dress up, enjoy decent food and beverage and a chance to bet, in a welcoming environment?”