The headhunters tasked with finding Nick Rust’s replacement as chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority face some tricky choices as they start scrolling through their contacts. How upfront can they be about the requirements and challenges of the role? Or, to put it another way, do they actually want anyone to call back?
The job has its compensations, of course. Chunky salary, offices in central London and a guaranteed ticket to some of the biggest and best sporting events on the year. But the successful candidate will also need the hide of a rhino to absorb the regular kickings, the patience of a saint to deal with the incessant, often irreconcilable, demands of the sport’s various factions, and the diplomatic skills of Bismarck to keep everyone on speaking terms.
And to top it all off, your room for manoeuvre is limited. It might say ‘CEO’ on the office door, but the majority of the sport’s fixtures – and all of the significant ones –belong to the tracks which stage them. So too does the money from media rights that has now overtaken the Levy as the major income stream from the betting public. As a result, there are internal issues of vital importance to racing which are at least partially – and sometimes largely – beyond your immediate control.
This should also be borne in mind when assessing Rust’s tenure in the role, and whether he will leave racing in a better shape than when he arrived. On this basis, his most obvious achievement over the last five years earns him plenty of credit, because the income stream that he can do something about – the levy on bookies’ profits – now includes money from offshore operators. It took a well-judged mix of stroke and poke to get there, and probably required an ex-bookie like Rust, with an intimate knowledge of the industry’s pressure points, to make it work.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the extra money could be wiped out, and more, by the drop in media rights income to courses if, or when, hundreds of betting shops close following the restriction of gaming machine stakes last year.
The tracks were well aware when they signed lucrative ‘per-shop’ rights deals that many shops depended on the government’s continued tolerance of £100-a-spin roulette on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. Rust and the BHA were entirely out of the loop. And yet, if or when the loss of media rights revenue really starts to bite, racing will probably remember it as having happened on his watch.
Away from the money, Rust has also been active on welfare issues and maintaining the ‘social contract’ with the British public, as opinions on the use of animals in sport and elsewhere continue to shift. His well-known scepticism about the long-term future of the whip, however, did not find favour with many jockeys or trainers, while drawing a comparison between racing and “hunting, coursing [and] dolphins” also antagonised many of the sport’s fans and participants without advancing Rust’s argument that racing is doing “all we can to manage avoidable risk”.
Aside from the ‘macro’ issues, though, it is the management of ‘micro’ issues that can arise without warning that tend to define how CEOs are judged and remembered.
On the plus side, Rust can point to last year’s week-long shutdown after the appearance of a new strain of equine flu, which some saw as an over-reaction at the time but got the job done – and the horse population re-vaccinated and heading towards a tighter regime – in good time for the Festival. The review of equine fatalities at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival came up with sensible, well-considered proposals going forward, while the BHA’s review of bloodstock auctions did the same.
As for the negatives? The extended saga of the Jim Best case was an obvious low point, for all that the trainer was ultimately banned for cheating. The ‘wrong’ horse running in, and winning, a race in 2017 also did little for the sport’s reputation for competence, and the damage was compounded when another accidental ‘ringer’ took part in a race six months later. Improvements to both the disciplinary system and the raceday checks on runners have followed.
But then, no one ever leaves this job with a five-star rating, or anything close. It’s part of the package. Good luck, headhunters, and good luck above all to anyone who is brave enough to return the call.
Wednesday’s best bets, by Chris Cook
Inspection season follows right after panto season; we have lost Plumpton (booo!) but Newbury has been passed fit (hurray!) and an interesting card will take place on a very testing surface. Tempting bets are a bit thin on the ground but 5-1 is good about Le Boizelo (3.25), who has been at his best in two runs under this jockey.
It’ll be worth tuning in to the bumper that closes the card, when Flinteur Sacre makes his racecourse debut. He is a full brother to Sprinter Sacre and, like that star, trained by Nicky Henderson. There has been plenty of buzz already.
Ben Curtis is the jockey everyone wants for this all-weather season and he’s in line for another couple of winners at Wolverhampton. In the opener, he’s back on Dark Phoenix (12.55), having got Paul Cole’s colt to break his duck with a good ride at Kempton last time. This longer trip should help, as may the fitting of blinkers. There are one or two rivals to worry about but 100-30 is fair.
Later, Curtis climbs aboard the veteran That Is The Spirit (3.35) for the first time. The horse won immediately on returning to England last summer to join Mick Appleby and may have needed the break since August. He’s not as good as he was but a mark of 80 is very beatable in this company and 2-1 is fine.