By Hans Ebert
There’s a wonderful recording by the late Billy Preston, the only musician to be credited on a Beatles recording- he played keyboards on “Get Back”- called “That’s The Way God Planned It” and which is on constant Repeat these last few days. Why? First, whether the god person planned it or not, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Bernard “The Plodder” Saundry, former CEO of Racing Victoria, returned to horse racing as Chairman of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing.
The next day, Simon Love, the low key CEO of the VRC, resigned from his post “with immediate effect”- but will stay on until, yes, an “interim CEO” is named. Please. One can already hear what the cynics are saying. Cynics aside, surely it wouldn’t have taken brilliant administrative skills for the VRC to have seen this coming, or knowing it was on the cards, and have its ducks in a row? But, then again, when there are no ducks, it’s called a lame duck organisation.
What these latest developments say is that horse racing truly has a problem attracting even those who can fill the role of a lightweight “executive” in a racing club- not a good, effective, forward thinking senior racing executive- but somebody to just fill a void and be given a spanking new name card with accompanying meaningless title.
This is why incompetence keeps constantly being promoted and there continues this silly game of musical chairs played by the same small cast of characters.
There’s “experience”, and there’s old fashioned thinking. Too often, in these days of constant change, these wires get crossed and the safe and predictable route is taken. The result? Nothing changes.
The Return Of The Plodder is not really a surprise. From everything one knows about him, he’s a lovely gentleman with almost two decades of experience in the racing industry, but perhaps a little ineffective if one were to look at the chain reaction of fires that are still smoking that happened at RVL under his watch. But if someone who doesn’t create waves, wants to feel loved, and turns a blind eye to the fallout of debris being furiously swept under the carpet, the chances for survival in the racing industry are huge.
On the subject of huge, Simon Love was a lonely figure the first time we met in the rather empty offices at Flemington Racecourse. It wasn’t exactly a hub of activity. Being there right after visiting my parents’ grave sites, these were more alive with excitement.
With only the Melbourne Spring Carnival to get right- and not to say that this is any stroll in the park- and overseeing twentysomething race meetings at Flemington, the role of being CEO of the VRC was not an overly taxing one. It wasn’t exactly like being racing’s answer to Soul Brother Number One James Brown, The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz. Maybe he worked too hard, because Brother James is dead. One minute, there he was shimmying across the stage screaming that he felt good, the next minute, he was dead.
Simon Love is no James Brown. He’s a soft-spoken, laid back individual, who quietly got on with his job and enjoyed a poached barramundi in a truffle sauce with a good bottle of white followed by a light almond soufflé.
The last time I saw The Love Man was a few weeks ago when having dinner with him and Giles Thompson, below, the interim CEO of Racing Victoria, who finally got the gig on a full-time basis.
The Spring Carnival was mentioned in passing along with me asking about the whereabouts and role of the suddenly very quiet Sal Perna and the need for some quick home runs over a very good Cantonese dinner at the Grand Hyatt. The Sautéed Prawns In Black Bean Sauce was particularly yummy. Everything was coming up sunshine, lollipops and roses though Sal had seemingly gone underground. And now, there’s no more Love.
The reason for the abrupt resignation of Simon Love- it came quicker than Emirates bailing out of being the major sponsor of the Melbourne Cup- will soon be made known through some woolly words, though some might already know why.
Then, as usual, someone will be hauled in from somewhere in the bowels of the VRC and given the CEO title along with the obligatory sugar coated corporate press release about finding the “perfect candidate” and how it’s all business as usual. But as we should know by now, the odds are that it will all be bollocks buried inside that word called “experience.”
As McCartney once sang, “I’m fixing a hole to stop the rain getting in”, and which is why the horse racing industry lumbers along with stupid stopgap- it’s the most appropriate word that comes to mind- measures and band aids to stop the haemorrhaging while speaking to itself with other industries completely uninterested in coming along for the ride.
The music, television and movie industries are hardly overflowing with talent in their executive ranks, but there are at least a handful with the right people skills, who are capable of doing the maths, and extremely savvy when it comes to the Art Of Negotiations. They’re no pushovers. They’re tenacious, they take no prisoners, and they also know when to bend. Not bend over, but knowing when to become flexible enough to close a deal.
Racing executives trying to close a deal is something seen over the years, and looked on recoiled in horror when something so close to being a done deal suddenly becomes lost in translation by not knowing when to leave Good Enough alone.
In these books, closing the deal is something only one racing executive has the knowledge and persuasive skills to do. Why? Confidence in himself, confidence in the product, and the ability to understand both sides of the coin without lowering his own extremely high standards of excellence. And, yes, there’s the experience- but not “experience” that’s actually survival and being able to hang on and on and on without being shown the door.
The horse racing industry is in such dire straits today that not even Mark Knopler can help. In Europe, it’s on its last legs. And with technology taking the sport away from what’s happening on course, and onto the online world, attendance figures will continue to dwindle whereas the ‘live’ streaming of races will grow. It’s happened to the music industry, where the streaming of music cannibalised download sales, and it is affecting a vital part of horse racing.
The thrill of hearing those thundering hooves and making a day at the races an entertaining social event could well become a thing of the past. Without racing clubs stopping their usually lost Human Resources people going back to that old well where those past their Use By Date lay in wait to be dragged up again, but, instead, look for talent in innovative consumer-driven industries and give them the freedom to create and make the sport 4-5 hours of total entertainment that no one will want to miss, and everyone will want to participate in, horse racing will become so exclusive that the bottom will fall off. Maybe it already has.
Unless racing clubs find racing executives with the knowledge, confidence in their product, presentation skills and personalities (remember having a personality?) to work with very different business partners, especially in the technology sector to capture the imagination of the sports heartbeat- the loyal racing fan- and bringing back new on-course excitement, horse racing will lose its relevance. It will also lose its appeal to the uncommon common person.
How many racing clubs out there today have the teams capable of looking this far and making horse racing exciting again, and with a racing media accentuating the positive?
More to the point, what carrots do racing clubs have to attract talent like this- talent outside of racing to take even a passing interest in wanting to be part of the sport? If those leading the charge come across as not knowing where they’re going, who’ll want to follow them into that giant abyss of nothingness? That’s called career suicide.