Here we are tim
End of an era as Jockey Club falls on own sword
After over 250 years racing's oldest institution exits stage left to make way for Horseracing Authority
Published on Mon 3 Apr 2006 10.12 AEST
It is a little over a quarter of a millennium since the Jockey Club was founded in a central London public house by an assortment of aristocrats, landowners and significant men-about-town. A few years later, many of their social equivalents on the other side of the Channel took a one-way tumbril-ride to death by revolution, but in Britain, the Jockey Club endured and prospered. The Empire rose and fell, the American colonies were lost and slavery abolished. Through two World Wars and - God preserve us - several Labour governments, the Jockey Club's word remained law on the British turf.
So take a good look at horseracing this morning, because for the first time since 1752, someone else is making the rules. As of 12.01am on April 3, 2006, the Jockey Club does not tell anyone what to do.
From now on, the sport obeys only the Horseracing Regulatory Authority, under its chairman John Bridgeman - a former director general of the OFT - and Peter Webbon, the HRA's first chief executive.
As a name, the HRA will never drip with history the way that Jockey Club still does. But there can be no doubt a profound change has taken place, and one that, in a rather British way of which the original Jockey Club's founders might well approve, has somehow crept in without anyone really noticing.
The great majority of the 160-odd staff on the payroll of the HRA are the same people who worked for the Jockey Club last Friday evening, and they are doing the same jobs. But their contracts are now with the HRA, which is constituted with three independent members - independent of the Jockey Club, that is - on its five-strong board.
Were it not for an ongoing debate over the transfer of pension entitlements, the Jockey Club insists that the HRA would have launched with an entirely independent board, rather than having two Jockey Club nominees as it does at the moment. But there can be no doubt that the Rules of Racing, everything from security to safety, and licensing to law-making, are now in the hands of the new authority.
It is quite an inheritance for the people in charge, and an immense responsibility. The need for a modern regulator for racing is intimately linked to discussions over the future funding of the sport. In simple terms, if the Government is to be persuaded to perform a considerable U-turn and reprieve the Levy system, racing will need an efficient, credible system of regulation, free from the baggage that the Jockey Club carried with it.
As such, the choice of Webbon as the HRA's first chief executive may well prove to have been an inspired decision. A vet by training, he has been closely involved with racing for a decade as the sport's chief veterinary advisor, but no one could ever cast him as an establishment Yes-man. He is smart, opinionated, and never afraid to speak his mind when he thinks it is necessary. He is also a man who gets things done, a trait that was most apparent in 2001 when, almost single-handedly, he kept Britain racing throughout the foot-and-mouth crisis.
There were plenty of voices within racing ready to close the sport down for the duration of the crisis, at an incalculable cost in terms of jobs and income. Webbon, with a mixture of sound veterinary argument, practical hygiene schemes and simple determination, refused to bow to ignorance and panic.
"When I arrived in racing it was in a veterinary role, but I was increasingly getting involved in other things," Webbon says. "Foot-and-mouth was a particularly challenging time, but it also gave me a taste for being involved on a much broader front.
"It was a fascinating period, and there were a lot of lessons to be learned about proportionate responses, and making responses based on evidence, avoiding emotional reaction, and not necessarily taking the easy line.
"In a sense, closing down racing would have been the easy line to take, but once you have stopped, when do you start again?"
As the HRA's chief executive, Webbon accepts that he will be the lightning rod when the sport hits trouble. "Of course, that comes with the job," he says, "but I would never think of avoiding it, and I intend to be a very visible chief executive, visible and accessible. I'll be going racing a lot, and not just the big meetings. You'll see me at Wolverhampton and Ludlow as often as you do at Ascot and Newbury."
The first test of Webbon's resilience under fire could arrive as soon as this weekend, when the Grand National, the one race that still unites the nation, also has the considerable potential to produce bad news, not least after the death of nine horses at Cheltenham last month.
"Cheltenham had a bad four days in terms of injuries by any measure," Webbon says, "but the previous nine years had been much better. I'd be hoping for a bit more rain at Aintree to slow them down and ease the ground, but all we can do is hope that it goes reasonably quietly.
"The number of different bodies involved in racing is frustrating in one way, because it can make it quite hard to achieve things at times, but at the same time, the relationship between all the different factions is quite fascinating.
"I think what we always need to bear in mind is that racing is extremely simple sport. You take some horses, run them around a field, and see which one gets to the post first. There's a huge industry built up around it, but sometimes we lose sight of just how simple it is."
1752 Jockey Club founded at the Star and Garter pub, Pall Mall.
1768 Sir Charles Bunbury elected senior steward, the first of three great "Dictators of the Turf".
1830 Lord George Bentinck, "the scourge of welshers and fraudsters", is appointed senior steward.
1855 Admiral Rous, the turf's third "Dictator", appointed as official handicapper. He conceives and introduces the weight-for-age scale.
1879 Licences for jockeys introduced.
1903 Doping is banned after an American race-fixer uses cocaine to improve horses' performance.
1920 Number cloths introduced.
1965 Starting stalls introduced.
1966 Court case forces Jockey Club to grant trainer's licences to women.
1977 Women admitted as Jockey Club members for first time.
2006 Club passes responsibility for the regulation of racing to the Horseracing Regulatory Authority.