Simon says

He wanted to be a rock music impresario but Simon Bazalgette is banging racing's drum as Group Chief Executive of the Jockey Club

You were ready to turn your back on racing in 2008 after four years successfully running Racecourse Media Group, which pools the rights of Britain’s leading racecourses. What made you change your mind and become Group CEO of the Jockey Club?
The Jockey Club called me in to ask me what I thought about racing and what needed to be done for it to have a brighter future. I talked about a number of things that involved being much more open and customer-friendly. Also how important the media needed to be as part of the sport’s strategy for the future. They surprised me by agreeing with me and asked me to lead the Jockey Club and help to deliver those ideas. There was no way I could turn down such a brilliant challenge.

Simon Bazalgette is taking racing and the Jockey Club into a brave new era

The racecourses – with the notable exceptions of Ascot and Chester – are starting their own pool betting operation as a rival to the Tote. What is the motivation behind this and what can it achieve for the sport?
It is a fantastic opportunity for the sport, but also for racegoers and punters. On-course betting is such an important part of the raceday and yet racecourses currently have no control over the service or products offered. The 54 racecourses involved plan to offer a fantastic experience to customers and racing will receive all the profits from the venture, a proportion of which has to go into prize-money.

As a childhood supporter of Brentford FC and a current season ticket holder, what have you learnt from football that might benefit racing?
Football has shown the significant benefits of all involved working together wherever possible. The Premier League is the obvious example, but more recently La Liga clubs have come together for the first time after years of Real Madrid and Barcelona thinking going it alone was worth more to them. Instead the new approach has already paid dividends. We have shown a number of times in recent years that when racing comes together this approach works best for us too. For example, over the last three or four years we have been speaking to the government with one voice and that has been a key element in getting the new levy in place.

The levy reforms, which now cover offshore firms, will see racing receive £90 million in funding. The result is the scrapping of the Authorised Betting Partner policy. Will this produce a better working relationship with the bookmakers?
Our Authorised Betting Partners initiative brought in £15 million of funding for horsemen that would have been lost, at a cost of more than £1m to the Jockey Club. It was an example of us doing what was in the best interests of the sport. In the process we enhanced relationships with Betfair, 32Red, Bet365 and SkyBet for example, as well as attracting a range of new partners. Now the levy system has been modernised our only focus is on mutual benefit for all in the racing and betting industries. However, while supporting ABP we did whatever we could to maintain as strong a relationship as possible with retail betting operators.

As part of the 2018 fixture list, grassroots racing will receive an extra £10m thanks to additional levy funding, with most races in Britain run for no less than £6,000. To unlock the funding, racecourses are being asked to increase their contribution to prize-money. Will the Jockey Club be doing so?
The funding process is only starting to work through now. But absolutely, yes, the Jockey Club as ever will lead the way in prize-money in 2018. You need only to judge us on our record, which this year alone is seeing us contribute an additional £2m into prize-money, much of it at grassroots level.

Most people understand that selling Kempton is a difficult decision, but probably one that when you trade everything off, it’s in the best interests of the sport

JCR media rights payments depend on field sizes, with eight runners or more the optimum, as well as data, marketing, promotion and sponsorship. What is JCR doing to hit these targets and attract more horses?
The part we can influence directly is the quality of our racing surfaces, prize-money and the experience we offer to horsemen. We can also support industry initiatives to encourage the promotion of British racing, including potential owners. Furthermore, there is a significant positive impact on betting markets for every additional runner, so we need to work hand-in-hand with the betting industry in more sophisticated ways – involving marketing, having access to each others’ customers, and the times when we should be putting on racing, bearing in mind more than half the betting is now done on mobile phones. It’s all about how to drive the betting value of our racing, given that the returns ultimately benefit the horsemen.

The Jockey Club was criticised for how it revealed the Kempton sale news and its subsequent response to industry concerns. Did you get it wrong on this occasion – and is the sale going ahead?
Nothing has changed since our announcement in January, which proposes to raise a huge amount of money to support racing all over the country. Our Stewards firmly believe there is the opportunity to do more good for the sport through these proposals than maintaining the status quo. We have been as transparent as we can about what the considerations are and it is not an easy decision. We have got to trade off what we think is best for the sport in the long term. If we sell Kempton, we need to make sure the issues that do arise from the sale can be addressed or mitigated, and, given the money that can be generated, it’s worth making those investments.

There are a number of discussions about where we go with the King George VI Chase and relocating the all-weather track. As announced previously, we are going round the country listening to different views from all stakeholders. On the whole, most people who have been engaged have been reasonably constructive, even if they’re not supportive of us selling Kempton. Most people understand it’s a difficult decision, but probably one that when you trade everything off, it’s in the best interests of the sport. It’s still at the consultation stage with the council and, depending on the outcome, we will have to consider whether we apply for planning permission. That’s probably a year away.

The King George VI Chase, won last year by Thistlecrack, will be found a new home if Kempton is sold

Your love of music – once being a semi-professional musician – encouraged you to create Jockey Club Live, the sixth largest music promoter in Britain. The result has been many successful music nights on our racecourses. How do you cultivate those occasional, young music-event racegoers into regular race fans?
We have staged music nights [at Newmarket] for more than 30 years, well before any of the current management were involved to take any credit! But we did launch Jockey Club Live as a joint venture in 2014 with experts from the music industry to replace the supplier relationship we employed previously. Before then we would simply buy in acts from a third party, with all the risks and without any ability to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with artists’ management. It has also helped us to significantly enhance production values, which has led us to secure a roster of top acts.

By staging racing, plus music nights, where six races are followed by a Kylie, a Tom Jones or a Kaiser Chiefs, we welcome more than a quarter of a million people – who may not otherwise attend – to our venues each year. For many it’s their first recent experience of a racecourse. So we are raising awareness of racing, which the artists are also doing for us on their social media platforms. They don’t become a racing fan overnight, but it can be the start of a relationship with the sport.

We’ve also seen headlines about bad behaviour during these post-racing concerts, when excessive drinking can lead to violent incidents. What is JCR doing to tackle this problem?
All our events are well stewarded to match the size of the crowds and with a clear, responsible drinking initiative, which in fact is in place across all UK racecourses. We offer a range of facilities to ensure people enjoy a memorable evening’s entertainment. Almost all the events have been fantastic, which is why so many people come back each year. Anyone who has attended them knows there is a real feel-good and friendly atmosphere, which is helped by them being open-air events.

If you could book any group to play at one of your tracks, who would it be and why?
One of music’s greats, like Stevie Wonder because he can appeal to everybody. My kids would love to see him, and so would I!

ITV is doing a fantastic job showcasing our sport to such a large proportion of the UK – I think the fun the team are having translates to the viewer

Having been involved in the decision to award racing’s terrestrial rights to ITV, how would you analyse the programme so far? Are viewing figures – well below BBC levels – what you hoped for?
ITV is doing a fantastic job showcasing our sport to such a large proportion of the UK – I think the fun the team are having translates to the viewer. With nearly 100 days live, British racing enjoys all the promotional and levy benefits from the most free-to-air coverage of any sport. It is also great that more people have tuned into raceday after raceday on the ITV main channel compared to Channel 4 in only the first year of this rights period. And that’s despite the dramatically changing ways we watch and follow sport in the media. We now need to work with ITV to use all their promotional might and platforms to help reach and convert more and more people into fans.

What has been the most rewarding moment during your time at the Jockey Club? And the biggest disappointment?
We stage Employee Days, bringing the whole company together at one of our racing venues. It is a hugely rewarding day, hearing from the staff directly about all the great work that is going on to help to improve our sport and give people a fantastic experience. The biggest disappointment was the government first nationalising and then selling the Tote, compromising its original purpose, which was purely for the good of racing.

Where do you see British Racing plc in five years’ time – and will you still be at JCR?
I think we can be confident about the future: with a governance structure that helps to bring together horsemen, racecourses and the governing body around shared goals – and without the black hole in racing’s finances. What we must do now is work together to ensure all parties benefit from any success and ensure we attract enough new loyal fans to the sport for it to have a bright future. Personally, I am enjoying my role at the Jockey Club, as I have since 2008, and shall continue to care about a bright future for the sport. But who knows where any of us will be in five years?

CLOSE UP AND… PERSONAL
I relax by… jamming with my kids, with all of us playing different instruments
Actor to play me on screen… no idea! Besides, Steven Spielberg hasn’t called yet
Favourite song/artist… Blue Eyed Beans From Venus by Captain Beefheart
My pet hate is… when someone refuses to understand other points of view
Four dinner party guests… Captain Beefheart, John Gosden, Laura Mongan and Usain Bolt

CLOSE UP AND… PROFESSIONAL
Most thrilling moment in racing… as an owner when William Buick produced Brief Encounter late to win on Dante day at York in 2009
Best horse I’ve seen… Frankel on Guineas day
Racing has taught me… everyone has something to contribute, wherever they come from and whatever they do
Alternative career… rock impresario
Best advice received… don’t just judge people on what they do, try to understand the motivation and pressures behind the reasons why

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