July 10 2011
It used to be relatively easy to caricature The Jockey Club as a self-selecting coterie of well-heeled chaps who all went to the same school. The continuing relevance of these aristocratic amateurs to a modern, professional racing industry was often questioned.
But not any more. In 2006, “The JC” voluntarily handed its old regulatory and governance powers to what became the British Horseracing Authority. Since then, The Jockey Club has concentrated vigorously on the effective management of its commercial assets under a modern corporate structure. These assets include 5,000 acres of land and gallops in Newmarket and Lambourn, a 90-strong commercial and residential property division, and a group of 14 racecourses, which generate turnover of £100m a year.
One of the most popular tracks in the JC portfolio is Sandown Park. On July 2, the Esher venue staged the 125th Coral Eclipse Stakes. The £250,000 contest is named after the 18th-century champion who was foaled during the solar eclipse of 1746 and remained unbeaten during an 18-race career. His dominance was such that it gave rise to the catchphrase “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere”. Many of today’s thoroughbreds are descended from Eclipse, and a silver-gilt snuff box made from one of his hooves adorns a sideboard in the magnificent Jockey Club Rooms at Newmarket.
The 152 members of The JC rightly see themselves as custodians of racing’s heritage, but that doesn’t mean just keeping things as they were. The job of their first-ever group chief executive, Simon Bazalgette, appointed in 2008, is to see that the Club and its enterprises are “fit for purpose” in the 21st century. Bazalgette and his colleagues report directly to the Jockey Club Board of Stewards. And far from being a bunch of port-soaked old fogeys, these are now figures of considerable commercial expertise, led by senior steward Nicholas Wrigley, who is also the executive vice-chairman of NM Rothschild & Sons.
All of the profits generated by The Jockey Club’s businesses are reinvested in the Turf. And to its credit, it is an enthusiastic supporter of the increasingly popular live Music Nights, which this summer will see Tom Jones headline after racing at Sandown on July 27 and Scissor Sisters the week before.
There are some dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries who portray these evenings as encouraging “the wrong sort” to attend. Bazalgette dismisses this as “absolute codswallop” and points out the healthy contribution the concerts make – along with Jockey Club Catering and corporate entertainment – to the primary objectives of boosting attendance, driving the sport’s profile and increasing the crucial prize-money kitty.
But the most exciting innovation this season, and one in which The Jockey Club is also the biggest shareholder, is the QIPCO British Champions Series of 35 élite flat races, which will climax in a glittering new British Champions Day, the richest fixture ever staged in Britain, at Ascot in October.
The Eclipse is an integral part of this series and my tip, the New Zealand-bred colt So You Think, put his Royal Ascot defeat behind him to triumph on the day. That surely makes him a favourite for the title of middle-distance horse of the year.