Interview: Lord Hesketh on Towcester's greyhound racing venture
Peter Thomas meets the racecourse owner and Ukip politician
This interview was first published on July 9, 2014
Forty-one years ago, Thomas Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, the 3rd Baron Hesketh and thus not short of a bob or two, built his first Formula 1 car, opened the throttle and gleefully tweaked the nose of the motor racing establishment.
He and his small band of well-heeled gypsies travelled to the races on big yachts, lived the high life, flew the flag for Britain in their own flamboyantly patriotic kind of way and, as if to underline their devil-may-care credentials, employed a young, over-eager and over-sexed James Hunt to win the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix for them as the high point of his three-year tenure behind the wheel of Hesketh Racing.
Today, silver-haired and 63 and clad in the bright red braces that are the trouser-supporter of choice for the entrepreneur of a certain age, Hesketh sits in a window seat at a comfortable Knightsbridge brasserie, wavering between Coke and Orangina as his aperitif of choice, plumping for the former as "slightly less disgusting and less fattening", before ordering two starters and giving the main courses an admirably wide berth.
Expectations of the one-time sporting iconoclast as a booming, boozing bon viveur are dashed even before the chilled cucumber and dill soup has lighted upon the crisp, white tablecloth.
Talk turns to his abiding loyalty to Margaret Thatcher, to his present role as Ukip defence secretary, to his current sporting and political touchstones Bernie Ecclestone and Nigel Farage, and all thoughts of joie de vivre are whisked away before they’ve been touched.
"But you’ve got to remember when I built my first GP car I was 22 and we were all bachelors and we did have a great deal more fun than the middle-aged competition," he points out. And anyway, although he’s choosing from the low-calorie menu today, he lunched here yesterday as well, "and I thought to have the veal kidneys in beurre Roquefort two days running would be tempting fate".
The 3rd Baron, quite plainly – although he has gone from the Ferrari Daytona and Rolls Royce Silver Shadow of his youth to a prosaic French runabout when he’s in residence on the Riviera and nothing at all when he’s in Knightsbridge – hasn’t yet resorted to living life in low gear, as those in racing’s corridors of power would no doubt testify.
The same stubborn independence that informed those motor racing salad days has been carried on into his role as the doggedly maverick owner of Towcester racecourse. Where once this enthusiastic amateur tilted at the windmills of Monaco and Monza, now he makes a stand as a non-member of the Racecourse Association, a conscientious objector to the new bargaining conglomerate Racecourse Data Company and the driving force behind Towcester’s under-construction greyhound track – and his commitment to the cause remains unwavering.
His view of racing’s financial future is very different to the one that prevails elsewhere and he has no intention of selling his own racecourse short in the interests of unanimity.
"They’re all engaged in the same thing, which is trying to reach a consensus on something that’s impossible to reach a consensus on," he says, by way of judgement on the scheme to cash in across the board on the sport’s pre-race data rights. "So they ought to go back to the drawing board, because there are going to be winners and losers and they’re just going to have to get used to it.
"I hear people talking about a ‘racing right’ to replace the levy, but my personal view is that there will come a moment, not tomorrow but eventually, when racecourse incomes will be wholly dependent on the betting revenue and profitability they generate from their product.
"The ‘racing right’ horse went out the stable the day racing allowed the bookmakers to become their partners in the satellite deal. I went to them with an offer that involved no bookmakers and it didn’t even get reviewed. Racing could have controlled it all and had vast revenues that have gone now and won’t be back.
"So I’m not in the business of giving my property away, and I don’t think a lot of the people involved now have the remotest understanding of what their property is worth."
It’s fighting talk from a man whose interest in horses was curtailed by early misfortune – "I had a pony and I was sent out on a leading rein to go hunting by my mother and I got rolled over in a muck heap, aged six or seven, which I didn’t like one little bit" – and which was rekindled only after he had run too short of cash to continue financing a Formula 1 team, seen Hesketh Motorcycles plc blow a gasket and set up British Mediterranean Airways to serve the noted tourist hotpots of Beirut, Damascus and Uzbekistan.
In the meantime, he acted as Chief Whip and Treasurer to the Conservative party, serving in assorted roles under Mrs Thatcher and John Major and acquiring the kudos of being the only man capable of persuading the ‘Iron Lady’ to abandon her Methodist principles and visit a racecourse: Towcester, of course.
Famously, she backed two winners, one of which was called Blue Express. Hubby Denis struck the bet on the advice of clerk of the course Hugo Bevan and was last seen scrabbling round the ring trying to ascertain the SP for reimbursement purposes. The other she gleaned by invading a weighing room full of half-naked jump jockeys in the same manner she had recently invaded the Falklands, lining them up against the wall and buttonholing a trembling Irish conditional, who spilled the beans. Denis struck that one, too, apparently.
In an ideal world, Lord Hesketh would perhaps return to the heady days when he hosted Mrs Thatcher at his family pile, Easton Neston, in the aftermath of the Brighton bombing and she urged him to take up his seat in the House of Lords and wield his political might. Sadly, the rising upkeep of a Grade 1 listed mansion in Northamptonshire – home to the Fermor-Heskeths for almost 500 years – saw the house offloaded to a Russian with more disposable income, along with most of the estate but not the racecourse, which continues in its own idiosyncratic way, with free entry to racegoers and a dog track in the offing.
Even the political affiliation has disappeared, with the KBE’s defection to Ukip three years ago, but the old-school loyalty remains, in politics as in racing, along with the commitment to his core beliefs, if not the swashbuckling swagger of old.
"Some people see me as a sort of enfant terrible," he muses, "but I’ve owned the track for 58 years [since the death of his father, the 2nd Baron] and I’ve been a director for over 40, which means I’ve seen this financial wrangling all before.
"Racing has always been about fragmentation. People have been unhappy in the past, it was just that in those days the Jockey Club ruled with a rod of iron, but those days have gone. The Jockey Club should have been the Bernie Ecclestone figure in horseracing but they rather gave it away.
"Now, though, I think the Jockey Club represents Margaret Thatcher and the BHA represents Ted Heath in terms of convincing ability and I know which I’d rather have in charge, because corporate structures are by definition immune to radicalism, and that’s why you finish up with these committee-type programmes I refuse to sign up to."
It’s an outlook that sees the thudding mistakes of the past and finds little with which to leaven them in the present. What Hesketh desires is the kind of future leadership that possesses the political nous to advance the cause of racing, combined with the business sense to realise that the sport cannot go on as it is. Most importantly, howlers like the privatisation of the Tote must be eradicated, should such an economic opportunity arrive again.
He explains: "Having been in the government for five or six years, you learn to truly understand what the Establishment is, how the decision-making process happens in departments, how regulation comes about and the impact European legislation has on British affairs.
"Look at the total foul-up over the Tote, which was wholly predictable. It was a total disaster and it cost racing £200 million, yet it could have been different if you’d put somebody in charge who knew what they were doing. I told them what they needed to know but they didn’t want to hear. It should have been owned by the racecourses but they said they didn’t want it because it didn’t make enough money, but it didn’t make enough money because it wasn’t there to make money – it was enough for it not to be an embarrassment to the government, which was a default owner.
"Now technology is changing and in 2017, when the monopoly collapses, everybody in racing will be fighting over who gets what, and the number of racecourses that exist will change, because the media rights contracts have disguised the fact that without them there are quite a lot of tracks that are dead and buried and the new arrangement won’t be run properly and can’t compensate."
Lord Hesketh, the enthusiastic amateur who took on the Grand Prix professionals and won, intends to be in pole position when the race for turf prosperity – and survival – begins, but only time will tell if he’s right about the future, or everybody else is.
Excited by challenge of safeguarding future of Towcester
Yes, he is building a bookmaker-friendly eight-lane greyhound track, due to open in December, but he is also preparing for a future in which everybody will be fighting their own fights for media coverage.
"Horseracing is in very serious decline," he says matter-of-factly, "and I think in 2017 there will be some racecourses that have few if any fixtures they’re being paid for. One of the attractions of greyhound racing is it’s relatively unregulated in certain areas.
"Say we race 20 times a year, that means there are 345 days we don’t race, but if we put in 150 days’ greyhound racing, that starts to seriously transform the numbers. We’ll own all the infrastructure, cabling, fibre-optics for broadband distribution – outside broadcast costs will be cut by 90 per cent, which is hugely important – and the model is based on media rights.
"We’ll have on-site drug testing in every race, to provide integrity, and if the market’s there in the Far East we’ll have no problem putting on a 12-race card at seven o’clock in the morning.
"SIS will take our product initially but we have markets beyond that, in central Asia, east Asia, South America, Africa. That’s where the growth’s coming from and where I’d be going if I had any kind of executive role in racing.
"The horse or the dog is only a part of the story and neither of them is the dominant part, yet if you say that, you’re considered to be setting fire to the Bible. But there will be much more money for all those people who are the most vocal critics, because we’ll have a more successful sport.
"I’d say I haven’t been so excited since I built my first F1 car."
Lord Hesketh on . . .
He was charming and was a natural sportsman with perfect timing, whether he was hitting balls or driving a car. He liked pretty girls and if you’re an F1 star, you’re 26 years old, you’ve got long, blond hair and you’re good looking, make hay while the sun shines, I’d say. Everything’s frowned upon these days, but it was frowned upon then, too, by the people who like to take things seriously.
Making the front page
The motor racing press didn’t take us very seriously but the national press did, so we were on the front of Paris Match, on the front of Sports Illustrated, a half-page editorial in the Times, which drove everybody in the sport completely crazy, but it was getting it to a much bigger audience, in the same way racing is for betting but needs a bigger audience.
Nigel is a straight guy and what you see is what you get. People are becoming increasingly pissed off with a generation of politicians who know exactly how to answer a question on the Today programme, and that is to not answer it but to appear that you have. We’re a people slow to anger, but we’re moving from tranquility to grumpiness.
The future of gambling
My personal view is that pool betting will become the biggest area. We’re talking about the Chancellor taxing offshore betting but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think you’ll have huge global pools that can be accessed by mobile and nobody’s going to care what the Chancellor’s got to say.
That’s where things need to open up – a Pattern that accommodates bloodstock interests but also deregulation for betting purposes. Purists will say it isn’t about the betting, it’s about breeding. That’s all very well as long as they’re prepared to pay for it, because the consumer, the betting public, whose agent is the bookmaker, isn’t interested in their product, with the small fields nobody wants to bet on.
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