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Simon Bazalgette loves his house in Kew, south-west London, so much that he does not mind living under the flight path of Heathrow.
We are in the back garden admiring his apple, olive and fig trees and a couple of frogs in the corner. The chief executive of the UK’s Jockey Club is telling me the garden is his wife’s work when our conversation is drowned out by the noise of a plane overhead. “It’s amazing how quickly you get used to it, although luckily they don’t come over all the time. They haven’t been coming over this morning.” Then, with a smile, he adds: “They obviously saw you coming and decided now’s the time to move the flight path.” Even the controversial proposal for a third runway at Heathrow, opposed by so many Londoners, is met with a shrug. “You’ve got to have one somewhere, haven’t you?”
For the 53-year-old all the noise is compensated by the “fantastic location”: the end of a row of six terraced houses built in the 1830s and overlooking Kew Green. Soon we are standing on the balcony of his sitting room looking out at the green. “I’ve got four boys and, as with boys, they’re like dogs, we have to send them out to run about a bit. The green is, effectively, our front garden. But we don’t have to worry about cutting the grass.”
Beyond Bazalgette’s “front garden” is Kew Cricket Club’s ground and the Royal Botanic Gardens, while Kew Bridge is just round the corner and the National Archives a five-minute walk away. “And you’ve got the M3 and M4 motorways, so you can escape.” Moving here from north London four years ago also meant that Bazalgette, who grew up in Teddington, returned to his roots. One of the first things greeting visitors to the house is an umbrella stand in the hall on which hangs a scarf of his boyhood football club, Brentford, for which he has three season tickets.
Complementing the location is the unusual layout. Any visitors are first ushered into the ground-floor kitchen-cum-dining room, while the sitting room is on the first floor. Bazalgette has made the most of this to display his great passion: music. A guitar symbolically separates the dining area from the kitchen and one wall is stacked with a remarkably catholic range of CDs: Louis Armstrong, Tchaikovsky and Bazalgette’s favourites: David Bowie and Captain Beefheart. The garden is reached via “the music and play room” where a table tennis table is surrounded by several guitars, a piano, a giant plastic trombone and Bazalgette’s personal favourite: a ukulele.
Yet when I ask him to do a George Formby impression he smiles and says, “I can strum it as long as there are no pictures taken.” Bazalgette was not always so shy. “I was a semi-professional musician for a while. I couldn’t earn a living as a professional, but I got a few free beers playing mostly in dodgy clubs and bars around London. But that was long before I moved to Kew and not since I became respectable.”
A qualified accountant, his dream job would have been to own Music Choice, the first digital broadcaster in Europe. As chief executive in 2003 he failed to organise a management buyout and, almost against his will, became a racing administrator, like a horse reluctantly forced into the starting stalls. In 2004 he became the founding chairman of Racecourse Media Group, which pools the rights of the UK’s major racecourses. He planned to keep the role for only six months because he “knew nothing about racing” but ended up staying for four-and-a-half years. In 2008 he was preparing to leave horseracing altogether when “the Jockey Club invited me in for a chat”.
One of Britain’s great sporting institutions was going through the most dramatic change in its then 258-year history. With its historic policing role handed over to the newly created British Horseracing Authority it was now the most powerful business in British racing, owning 15 of the most important racecourses in Britain.
“They asked me, ‘What are your thoughts about the sport?’ I thought I do not intend to stay in the sport, I’ve got nothing to lose, so I shall give it to them with both barrels. I told them racing was focused on vested interests, not on the customer. They didn’t see customers as passionate racing fans [but] more of an irritation and didn’t really understand the importance of media. They needed to make racing fit for the future, rather than living in the past.
“To my astonishment they said, ‘We agree with you and we’ll give you the mandate to fix it’. The Jockey Club sneaked up on me really. I could not refuse their offer to restructure the racing establishment.”
In the eight years since Bazalgette’s restructuring, flat racing has finally been given a narrative. “In sport you need an end and in the past the flat racing season just fizzled out. Now we have a day to match the last day of the Premier League [football] season, which really decides the best horses across all ages for the season.” This October will mark the fifth birthday of the British Champions Day and while Bazalgette is confident it has been a success he concedes that “we’ve still to really connect the dots so that people can follow racing from beginning to end. [About] 5.8m people go racing each year, second only to football, but more work has to be done to make it relevant to the modern age.” He insists racing “is not the toff’s sport it is often painted out to be,” but concedes that inherent class bias “hasn’t completely been eradicated”.
What makes him optimistic is that the betting levy — the 10.75 per cent of gross wins that bookmakers pay to the industry (about £75m this year) — will finally be changed. “The levy is no longer fit for purpose. It has loopholes and about 30 to 40 per cent of the market is not paying. This is because of internet betting with companies licensed outside the UK.”
However, with racing generating more than £3bn a year and employing about 100,000 people, Bazalgette is confident he has a friend in George Osborne, the UK chancellor. “The government is committed to the Horserace Betting Right, which will mean any company, wherever based, taking a bet on British racing from UK punters will have to pay a levy.” But he admits that the reform “might take five years”.
By then the Prince of Wales could be king and, unlike his mother, he has no passion for the sport. So will racing not suffer and has he discussed this with the Queen? For the first time there is a note of caution. “I’ve no worries about the ongoing support of the Royal Family. It is not a subject you would ever discuss with the Queen. That’s for them as a family to sort out. It’s not for us to make demands on them.”
Bazalgette would rather talk about how under his leadership the traditional singsong that takes place at racecourses after the racing ends has developed further. Likewise, he is pleased that the Jockey Club is now the sixth largest concert promoter in the UK. “So I am in the music business.”
Photographs: Michael Harding