Champion trainer is ready for Festival battle with Henderson
You would not have expected Paul Nicholls to stop for anything over the last few weeks as he prepared for jump racing’s annual show stealer, the Cheltenham Festival, which started today.
But, last Tuesday, he did. Taking his cue from Jose Mourinho that the world would stop to watch Real Madrid play Manchester United, the champion trainer travelled from his yard at Ditcheat in deepest Somerset to Old Trafford. He returned mourning for the man whose horses he trains, Sir Alex Ferguson.
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When a legend runs for the final time on Saturday, watching at Ascot will be Sheikh Fahad, one of racing’s major players who three years ago had never even visited a track
Saturday’s British Champions Day at Ascot has just about everything. With £3million in prize money it is racing’s richest day and will host Frankel’s last race.
There could be no better finale to the flat racing season than for the wonder horse to win the Champion Stakes and retire to stud unbeaten but he is up against last year’s winner, Cirrus Des Aigles.
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Popular jockey is looking forward to taking on ‘brilliant’ favourite despite his own chances of success being limited
You only have to see Frankie Dettori leap off his winners to know he is a natural showman. But then he learnt it young, from his mother who was a circus performer in his native Italy. Even so, I was not prepared when he seized my tape recorder and, holding it with both hands like a pop star, looked ready to belt out a tune.
Then, with a smile, he explains: “This is part of my Latin upbringing. People in Italy are much more open and flamboyant than the reserved English.”
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Racecourse chief can’t wait for week’s blue riband event and rejects talk it is wrong to stick with family partnership which won last year
Robert Waley-Cohen is chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse but, on Friday, he will not be presiding when the Princess Royal presents the most coveted prize in jump racing.
His horse, Long Run, is the favourite for the Gold Cup and will be ridden by his son, Sam. “If we win I don’t think I can stand here with a microphone in my hand saying we’d like to welcome to the podium the winning owner,” says Waley-Cohen Snr. “That’s obviously nonsense. If I lose, I’m not sure I have a big enough heart to smile broadly while somebody else is given the award.”
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As the Cheltenham Festival kicks off next week, gambling boss, Ralph Topping, explains that football is fun but racing remains tops at his firm
Ralph Topping, chief executive of William Hill, is able to do what we would all love to do: dress up sporting jaunts as work. A visit to the Cheltenham Festival next week could be counted as work, as could a trip to the European football championships in Poland and Ukraine in the summer. But, says Topping, “I don’t like jaunts. Somebody at work said, ‘Ralph doesn’t work 24/7, he works 26/9.’ I turned down invitations to see two semi-finals at the World Cup in South Africa because it would have meant practically a week away from work. As a Presbyterian Scot, I get guilty if I’m not working.”
We have just sat down for lunch at the Ivy and the man who runs the country’s largest bookmakers with 2300 shops has encouraged me to order haggis.
I have already provoked him to defend his homeland by suggesting that Scotland is a backwater. “Everywhere’s a backwater if you’re sitting in London. There’s a lot going on at the moment.”
But then Topping, 60, is the son of a West Lothian policeman who, when I ask how he would vote on Scottish independence, says: “I come from a family which is very much independence-minded. Would I vote for it? Do I like Alex Salmond? Put it this way, I do think Salmond is the best politician in the UK at the moment, the cleverest.”
Topping does, however, have a shrewd assessment of the English products that work for his business. So, while William Hill sponsors the Scottish Cup — “a good product”, says Topping — it is the marketing deal he did with the Football Association in January that, he admits, has opened up the world for his business. “We’re a big company with a strong presence in England. We’ve got a big global footprint now, and there’s a hell of an amount of interest in the Premier League. Being associated with England is a good thing for our brand.”
Football did keep Topping awake on November 19 last year when all the favourites came in.
This — the football equivalent of Frankie Dettori winning all seven races at Ascot in 1996 — cost William Hill £6million and the industry £30 million. Football now has an increasing share of the business which, last year, saw William Hill’s income rise 6% to £1.1 billion. The online business contributed £321.3million, a 28% rise in net revenues.
Topping insists that there are no issues in the relationship with Playtech, its joint venture partner, despite a legal spat last year. As for walk-outs by employees in Tel Aviv and Bulgaria, he dismisses them as problems with “rogue employees”. However, William Hill, which has an option to buy out Playtech by next year, may now decide to exercise it.
For Topping, racing is “still the main sport for us” and the one that really concerns him.
“The racing industry hasn’t done enough to promote the sport, never been able to define what it actually needs. It should take a good look at itself. There is a lot it can do to put its own house in order. You can tell me the result of the football match last night. But 19 out of 20 people involved in racing will not be able to tell you the winner of the big feature race the previous weekend. Racing is a great spectacle but it does not last as long in the memory as other sports.”
Topping would get snooker supremo Barry Hearn to run racing. “He knows what the public are looking for. Take a walk down a high street in London, stop a punter and say, ‘How much is 1000 guineas worth?’ He wouldn’t be able to tell you what a guinea is worth. But we still have races called 1000 Guineas, 2000 Guineas. The races involving three-year-olds come incredibly early in the season.
“Does racing need the cost base it’s got at the moment? Should all those racecourses be sitting empty? Racing could probably sustain about 40 to 45 racecourses. It has over 50. That is a fair number of unprofitable businesses being propped up by a state subsidy called a levy.”
The levy paid by bookmakers, currently £65 million, is a perpetual battleground, with the sport feeling it never gets enough. “Well,” retorts Topping, “the industry is fairly Oliver Twist in its attitude. It always wants more. It’s never satisfied. We should never lose sight of the fact that it’s a betting product for people who go into a betting shop.” And for all the horses that Sheikh Maktoum and other rich men own, for Topping, “The working man keeps the show on the road.”
Topping has a very precise idea of what the working man does when he walks into a betting shop. “A working guy goes in a betting shop for about 18 minutes. During that time he’ll have four or five bets, with most of them around £3.”
Topping’s own experience of betting shops dates back to when, as a 19-year-old law student at Strathclyde University, he took a “Saturday boy” job with Mecca Bookmakers. His father had given him a car, but told him he must fund its running costs. “The betting shop had mainly women working in it, and if you wanted to go to the toilet, you had to go in the garage next door.”
Within two years he was working for William Hill, and has never left. “The pay was absolutely fantastic compared with a teacher, which is probably what I would have ended up being. I’ve seen huge changes in the industry, all for the better.”
Failure by critics to appreciate that makes him really angry, be it Mary Portas calling betting shops a blight on the high street or MP Diane Abbott complaining about their proliferation in her Hackney constituency.
“Diane is a great one for the one-liner but, bless her, she isn’t a polymath. What she said was really stupid. We were able to show that the number of betting shops in Hackney had dropped in her time as an MP.”
What reassures him is that the critics are not in tune with society. “There’s an enormous amount of people who get pleasure out of betting. It has become really mainstream, just as drinking has become much more socially acceptable. When I was a boy, women could never go into the pub, they had to go to the snug bar to have a drink. People now don’t look down their nose if you have a bet.”
LIFE AND TIMES
1973 William Hill trainee
2002 Retail operations director
2008 Chief executive
Married with three children
BEST ADVICE I’VE RECEIVED
“This following piece of advice was given to me by Kevin — a director of William Hill who has now died. When I was a trainee manager at Ayr Racecourse, Kevin said to me: ‘It looks like you will go far in this organisation.
‘The higher up you go, do not forget where you came from.
‘You come in with an unblemished reputation, make sure you leave with one.’ I have never forgotten that advice.”
Other Horse racing tagged articles
- Meet AP McCoy, the champion jockey searching for another 396 winners - December 13, 2011
- John Gosden: Racing has got its cup final now, but on the wrong day - October 11, 2011
- Nicky Henderson: Horse racing can be hell at times - March 15, 2011
- Ruby Walsh: Racing has a limited appeal, not everyone likes us - December 14, 2010
- Lord March: I fear for future of horse racing - July 27, 2010