A day in the life: Elliott bets on bookmakers deal keeping Arena in the winner's circle

The chief executive of Arena Leisure will now see his racing broadcast in 8,000 bookies. And he's on track with ambitious expansion plans
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Mark Elliott's alarm chimes just as the horses which race over Arena Leisure's seven tracks are preparing for a morning blow on the gallops. It is going to be a big day for the company he runs. Arena is preparing to announce a £55m deal with BAGS - the Bookmakers Afternoon Greyhound Service - that will see pictures from its seven courses broadcast into Britain's 8,000- plus betting shops for the next five years.

It's a significant enhancement on the previous arrangement between the two and Mr Elliott is hoping for a good reaction from the City as he begins the short drive to Esher station, Surrey. From there he takes the train to London Waterloo and heads to the group's office in Berkeley Square to await his investors' response.


The announcement is up on the City's screens and the telephone is ringing nearly non-stop from this point on as Mr Elliott fields calls from analysts keen to quiz him on the fine details.

BAGS currently handles the pictures from all 59 British racecourses, but faces a rival in the form of a joint venture between 30 courses and the technology company Alphameric. They had been hoping to persuade other racecourse groups to join them, but have received prior warning that Arena will not be among them. Calls from the racing industry will be handled by racing director Ian Renton, who is in Doncaster overseeing the redevelopment of that famous old racecourse, while Mr Elliott handles the City scribblers and shareholders. "It's a simple story and a good deal for us," says Mr Elliott, whose hopes of a good start are rewarded, with the shares heading north as trading gets underway. He has a television screen in his office, but he rarely gets the chance to watch At The Races, the TV channel in which Arena holds a 47.5 per cent stake - particularly not today.


The volume of calls has started to ease and Mr Elliott can begin work on another of the company's ventures. Arena is to launch a catering division, which demands five separate searches to secure key staff including a financial controller and chief executive. The new business will initially handle the catering at Arena's seven courses - replacing Letherby & Christopher - but Mr Elliott hopes to be able to push into other venues when the business is established.

While L&C staff at Arena tracks are expected to transfer to the new division, Doncaster, closed for redevelopment, will require a completely new team. Mr Elliott wants to expand Arena beyond its racing base, and into venue management. He once said the rather staid racing industry treated Arena as the "barbarians at the gate", decrying its naked commercialism. Mr Elliott has never been afraid to put noses out of joint where he feels the need. However, while the BAGS announcement will not win any friends among the 30 - who also own ATR's big rival Racing UK - he claims the attitude has changed.


Lunch is a brief sandwich at the desk ahead of a meeting with a big institutional shareholder, which is considering investing in Arena. "These are fairly regular exercises. At long last our story and potential is beginning to be understood," says Mr Elliott with an eye on the share price, which is up by more than 25 per cent in the last month or so.


He now starts on a review of the forthcoming planning application for what he hopes will be Britain's first casino built at a racecourse - a "racino" at Wolverhampton, one of the group's success stories. With a big glass-fronted grandstand, the course puts one more in mind of a dog track than a racecourse, a business Mr Elliott knows a thing or two about from his days as boss of Wembley. The racing there is mostly low-grade fare. Mr Elliott admits that the track's floodlit winter "twilight" meetings are there to provide a service for bookmakers, which want to have something to show on their screens with the aim of keeping punters in their shops beyond 4pm, the time at which jump racing finishes at this time of year. However, a Friday evening at the track - one of only two with floodlights in Britain - has become a popular (and boozy) night out in the local area and some of those punters might be persuaded to stay on if the casino is approved.

The first application failed after it was called in by the Government, which was unhappy with the impact on the green belt. The company has worked up an alternative. The casino will be smaller, the hotel bigger and the green-belt impact much less. Mr Elliott has high hopes for it, eyeing the success of similar ventures in the US. "There it was basically driven by competition from Indian [native American] and riverboat casinos. The racecourses had to adapt to survive and racinos have been a huge success. I think there is potential to do the same thing here," he says.

The removal of planning matters from John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has seen the Government taking a less interventionist line, and Arena's second-stage redevelopment at Lingfield (also on green-belt) was allowed. MrElliott is hoping Wolverhampton will be treated in the same way. He wades through the paperwork until 4.30pm.


The markets have finally closed, and Arena's shares are up 3.5p to 51p. Mr Elliott can now breathe easy and start work on appraisals for the men who run Arena's seven tracks. He takes time to give the work at Lingfield the once over; a large international hotel operator (he won't say who) is being drafted in to run a planned hotel.


Racing's awards season is getting into full swing and Mr Elliott is required to attend the Racehorse Owners Association Horse of the Year ceremony at the Hilton at 7pm. It will be the standard rubber chicken do, but gives Mr Elliott the chance to hobnob with the industry's movers and shakers. The mighty mare Ouija Board takes the headlines as horse of the year but there are other categories and as owner of three of Britain's four all-weather tracks, Arena has sponsored the all-weather horse of the year.

Winter flat racing on the dirt is not everyone's cup of tea. But the winner, Young Mick, is a testament to the opportunities provided by dirt racing. After starting the year with a lowly handicap mark of 60, he won fiveraces on the dirt before switching to turf and more exalted company. He finished the year with four victories at Ascot .

Mr Elliott says he is excited at the prospect of six new high-class "listed" all-weather races which might even attract horses of the quality of Young Mick.


He departs, reaching home by taxi at 1am. "We've worked hard to raise the quality of all-weather racing and it has really become established," he says. "Yes a lot of it is about providing product for the bookmakers but, remember, those races generate income from the levy on bookmakers profits that funds horse racing."

Some in the racing industry may still be ambivalent about Arena, but they'll all raise a glass to that.

At a glance

Name: Mark Elliott

Age: 41

Job: Chief executive, Arena Leisure

Since when: October 1, 2005

Salary: Earned £96,000 to the end of 2005

Before that: Chief executive of Wembley; began his career as an accountant

Family life: Married with two daughters; lives in Surrey