Dukes are not natural revolutionaries. But there can be no doubting the Earl of March and Kinrara, who will one day become the 11th Duke of Richmond, when he calls for a horseracing revolution.
We are sitting in his office in Goodwood House. Outside on the driveway you can still see the debris of the motor- racing Festival of Speed held earlier this month. On the floor are the helmets of Emerson Fittipaldi and Barry Sheene and on the shelves a facsimile of the first rules of cricket drawn up on 11 July 1727 by the second Duke of Richmond and a Mr A [Alan] Brodrick.
Amidst this weight of sporting history, the 55-year-old Etonian sounds his bugle. “What racing needs is a Bernie Ecclestone,” he tells me.
“It is in the same state as F1 before Bernie took over. We need one person to say, Right, the time’s come. I’ll sort this out and get a grip on the sport.’ Racehorse owners don’t really mind how the sport is presented to the public or what it looks like on television. Racing needs to decide how the public can be attracted.”
His Lordship has no fears about attracting the public to Glorious Goodwood. He does not like the term ‘glorious’, which was invented, he says, by journalists. He prefers the title he used as a child — ‘the July race meeting’.
But Goodwood brings glory and £12million annually to a varied sporting business which earns him £50m a year. And the festival, starting today, will see 120,000 gather on the Sussex Downs over the next five afternoons.
What is more, Goodwood will buck the recession. Corporate hospitality is up by 25 per cent compared to last year and, says Lord March: “The actual number of punters coming has increased. We have more people paying, eating and drinking more.”
But for his Lordship this represents an isolated peak of success in a sport facing ruin.
“I don’t think racing can survive without fundamental changes,” he adds. “Racing is not in control of its own destiny. The racing clientele is diminishing. The number of people who follow racing for the love of racing is diminishing.”
This decline could accelerate even more, he fears, when Prince Charles becomes King. “The Queen always came to Goodwood when I was a child but she stopped coming when Charles stopped playing polo at Cowdray,” he explains. When I was a child the racing and the polo always went together, we raced all afternoon and we all went down to Cowdray and played polo in the evening. But that doesn’t happen any more.”
Royalty, and in particular Edward VII, helped make Goodwood but March concedes: “Charles does not seem interested in racing and when he becomes Monarch there is a big possibility that the royal patronage of the sport will cease.”
This picture of gloom is completed, says Lord March, by gambling. Alarm bells should be ringing after the World Cup saw £1billion bet with bookmakers, more than four times as much as was wagered on racing’s biggest event, the Grand National.
Lord March warns: “As gambling becomes more fragmented and people start betting on other things, those people who are only interested in betting are moving away from racing.
“After the war you could only bet on racing and people came to the races. The question is: were these people in love with racing or were they really just gamblers who couldn’t gamble on anything else? I fear it was the latter.
“So how can we show them racing is much more interesting to gamble on than football?”
The answer from racing’s bosses, led by the British Horseracing Authority, is to have a Premiership racing season modelled on football’s Premier League. Goodwood could have three races in the proposed Premiership — the Nassau and Sussex Stakes, which are both Group One races, and the Goodwood Cup. While Lord March supports the plan “in principle” he feels that it does not go far enough.
“I think it is very difficult to make a racing Premiership work unless there is a way of following it through the season,” he says. At the moment, he argues, the Premiership plan is not coherent enough and does not provide the continuity that motor racing and football provide.
On the Flat a winning horse almost always goes to stud immediately and that, says Lord March, “is the real tragedy”. He adds: “When an owner says, Actually this horse is so valuable I’m never going to race it again,’ we need something which prevents an owner from doing that so the horse continues racing. This is even more important in racing than in cars.
“A car hasn’t got a personality. With racing the horse ought to be this great hero that everyone rushes out to see. There have been so few horses in the last 10 years which have caught the public’s imagination.”
So much so that when I asked him to name a horse that had caught his imagination, he confesses: “God, I don’t know. . .”
And as he reflects he looks back sadly to a time past when horse, jockey and the racing public did connect. But he feels that they no longer do, not even at his beloved Goodwood.
“My most abiding memory of Goodwood as a child is people sitting on Trundle Hill. They used to sit for free — or for 2s 6d — and watch the horses run up this hill, a beautiful prehistoric monument, a fantastic piece of England. There’s a famous story about a horse in the 19th Century which ran on to Chichester and just never stopped.
“The horses used to slow down when crossing the road, we’d put sand down and the policemen would stop all the traffic. It was so eccentric.
“Fifty thousand a day would come, whole families having picnics. And as jockeys like Lester Piggott rode by they’d shout: All right, Lester. Got a tip for the next one?’”
All that stopped in the mid-1970s when they curved the track and, recalls Lord March: “The horses stopped going up the hill, people stopped going there and the connection between the public and racing started to decline. I think it’s a real shame.”
If that was part of the wider change, which saw Goodwood acquire hospitality boxes and all the paraphernalia of a modern sporting stadium, Lord March believes that racing could learn from the way he himself has reintroduced motor racing to Goodwood.
When he returned to live at Goodwood in 1992, having been a distinguished stills photographer and worked on Stanley Kubrick films, he decided to revive motor racing which his grandfather had organised there after the war.
Lord March’s motive, he admits, was the need “to generate some cash” and he decided to follow his passion for cars. Local objections meant the old racetrack could not be used but the solution lay in his own driveway.
“Not able to use the racetrack I thought we’ll just get F1 cars roaring up the driveway and race them up this hill towards the racecourse.”
The Festival of Speed was born and it has since proved such a success that 176,000 turned up to watch earlier this month. Seven long years later Lord March did reopen his grandfather’s old track, starting the Goodwood Revival season which every September sees some 140,000 gather.
It is this motor-sport success that Lord March is convinced provides a template for horseracing.
“With the Festival of Speed I worked out a formula so both the customer and motor racing love it,” he says. “We don’t charge an entry fee for cars. We went to the owners of these great cars around the world and said, We’d love you to come. We’re going to give you a fabulous weekend.’”
The public pay to get in but in return they get what Lord March calls, “a piece of theatre”. He adds: “The first thing is people want to look at the cars, they want to get up close, they want to talk to drivers. They don’t want to be pushed away and told they’re not good enough to see this. So we create something which the customer enjoys.”
His Lordship does insist that to see the show the public must play their part and that means coming suitably dressed. “You’re not allowed in the motor-racing paddock unless you have a jacket and tie,” he adds.
“You can’t wear jeans. Because motor racing’s so much about jeans and T-shirts nowadays we just want to do it differently. When you go into the paddock you’ve got all these wonderful pre-war cars, everywhere you look, it looks like an old photo.”
Lord March is convinced that by getting people to dress well he has also got them to behave well.
However, his efforts to impose a similar dress code for ladies at Glorious Goodwood two years ago was not taken well.
He felt there were far too many “chavs” on the course but their response was sharp with, as Lord March recalls, “some bloke in the Sun saying: When I see Lord March I’m going to give him one.’ I just felt there was a sort of English summer dress code that was worth preserving.
“Goodwood in the summer is not Ascot but it’s about being on the top of the South Downs in the summer and you should not dress like you’re going to a nightclub in an hour’s time, or dancing into the evening in Ibiza or something. The sort of bling side of things is really inappropriate.”
He has not done it yet but he warns: “In order to make a point I wouldn’t mind turning people away.” For him this is all part of what he calls giving “people a good time”. But while he can claim he has done that with motor racing at Goodwood, his real anguish is, however much Goodwood is hailed as glorious, he cannot on his own make a similar impact on horseracing.