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End of an Era

When viewed against the limitless dimensions of outer-space, it may seem as though the Voyager space-craft (both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2) drift serenely in space, barely moving at all – when in reality they are the fastest man-made objects in existence, travelling at nearly 39,000 mph as they speed away from Earth.

Just like the Voyager craft, it may seem as though nothing ever changes in the traditional sport of horseracing. Yet, in truth, the landscape shifts continually and racecourses have to change with it. Most of these changes are seamless, but every now and then something happens that is seismic…

You can tell that you’re getting old when you discover that you were around at the start of an era which is finally coming to an end. That was just one of the thoughts that went through my mind when I learnt of Stephen Atkin’s impending retirement from the role of Chief Executive at the Racecourse Association.

Having joined the RCA in 2000, Stephen is one of those people whose age it is difficult to gauge. As far as I recall, his hair has always been grey, but that may just have been a legacy from his previous role as Finance Director of the British Horseracing Board – a position that he held when I commenced my career at Worcester Racecourse. I have heard people say that working with Peter Savill, then Chairman of the BHB, could do that to you.

But if Stephen wasn’t grey when he started working with 59 different flavours of racecourse (the number has fluctuated), it was always going to happen after a few years of continuous exposure to Britain’s racecourse executives – that is, if his hair didn’t drop out entirely.

And I speak from personal experience, having spent nearly eight years coordinating joint activities on behalf of the five Scottish racecourses a few years ago. On one occasion I wrote to the courses, unconsciously omitting the letter ‘o’, rendering them into the ‘five curses’ – a Freudian slip which reflects the fact that finding common ground among management teams can sometimes be likened to herding cats. While we all share similar objectives, we all have different ideas about the route we should take to get there.

During Stephen Atkin’s tenure, the RCA has been required to gallop in order to create the illusion that everything remains serene and unchanged. Governing bodies have come and gone – first the BHB, then the HRA, now the BHA. The Levy Board, the statutory body that helps to fund the sport through receipts from betting, has been disbanded (almost) and resurrected more times than a jack-in-a-box pops out on its spring. Media rights deals, incorporating changes inspired by the digital revolution, have been brokered and re-brokered by various groupings of racecourses in a number of evolutionary cycles.

In the meantime racecourses have changed too. Gone are the days when you could claim that a track had been transformed by painting all the buildings green. The RCA has played a significant role, together with Great British Racing (the industry sponsored marketing body), in bringing racecourses into the 21st Century by properly researching customer needs, by procuring advice from leading leisure industry consultants and helping racecourses to learn from each other.

And all the while, Stephen Atkin has seemingly achieved the unachievable – by maintaining friendly relations with everyone throughout the industry. We all wish him the very best.

The secret to Stephen’s success is probably that he’s managed to steer steadfastly away from disseminating duff tips. This week’s duff tip is for Roll The Dough, in the 2.30pm at Newton Abbot on Saturday. Here’s hoping that the Hobbs trained chaser can shift as fast as a Voyager space-craft.

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