Racing: Savill a prickly preacher for turf

Richard Edmondson talks to the upbeat new leader of Britain's racing industry
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IT WAS rather a shame that John Wakeham could not cut it as chairman of the British Horseracing Board. The good Lord had the perfect surname when you consider what needs to happen to racing's top brass.

The rousing now is to be done by Peter Savill, businessman, racehorse owner, Wakeham-hater and, the description he won't tolerate, Cayman Islands- based tax exile.

For one, the new chairman of the BHB has been based in Ireland for the last two years. He and his wife, Ruth, have a young son and are expecting an addition to the string. "And I've never been a tax exile," he says. "I've made all my money living abroad. I left England without a penny in my pocket and developed businesses in the Caribbean, America and South America. A true tax exile is someone who makes their money here and then moves abroad." So there you go.

Peter David Savill will concede however that he is a 50-year-old Yorkshireman, a Catholic by upbringing and education. And Savill should recognise much of the machinery around him in his new posting as his father, Harry, used to be an antiques dealer. His son's task is to blow away all the archaic thinking associated with high office in the turf. He could also do with removing the farcical memory of his election, which was deemed unanimous even though several Board members would happily have chased him out of the office with a carving knife. And there is still the other memory of Wakeham's reign, which, in reality, was more of a shower.

Poor John did not have much time, on several levels, for racing and its participants. His main preoccupation each morning seemed to be remembering if he had packed all the lunchboxes needed for his myriad of occupations. Savill did not like him and the feeling was mutual. Their conflict saw one supplant the other and reinforced Savill's reputation as an uncompromising, ruthless figure.

This, however, is not a description the man himself recognises. "If I've received that reputation it would be from my battles with Wakeham over the financial plan and before that," he says. "I felt I was responding to an unnecessary attitude towards me. But then if I think things are wrong I'm not frightened to stand up and say so. I hope I would always use arguments rather than hide behind issues of personality. Hopefully anyone who has leadership potential knows their own mind."

Ah, the financial plan. This is the commandment which may have been delivered on tablet to Savill on Mount Sinai. It is the document he expects to save racing.

Savill's plan, put simply, deems that racing needs an extra pounds 105m a year to remain competitive. About pounds 25m of that, he says, can come from self-help, but the other pounds 80m needs to be provided by government. He doesn't mind how they do it - they can return more betting turnover to the sport or tell the bookmakers to provide some folding stuff rather than the sofa change they do at the moment. Just as long as they do it.

Savill himself does not pay tax in this country, and he sees no embarrassment in getting into the queue at the Treasury on behalf of impoverished racehorse owners alongside an exhausted junior doctor and a single mum with a babe in swaddling clothes.

Many of the plan's sums are based on other racing nations where prize- money is more plentiful. There are comparisons with France, the United States and Japan, where owning racehorses is almost better than having a job.

Savill, though, does seem to get things done. He made a fortune out of those magazines you find on cruise ships, in hotels and next to the sickbag in the aircraft seat pouch. His personal wealth is estimated at pounds 40m.

This week, one of his smaller fans, Matthew McCloy, resigned from the BHB. McCloy has never really recovered from a flight to the Breeders' Cup during which he asked for another vodka and tomato juice and was instead brought a pair of handcuffs to secure him. After the Bloody Mary came bloody Peter at the BHB, and Savill is already looking like a man whom it is best not to cross.

There are not that many failures on the Savill curriculum vitae and even if he is publicly upbeat about the prospects for the financial plan he is also realistic enough to concede that much of it will not happen until towards the end of his four-year tenure.

In addition, he recognises that while his back is being slapped to soreness at the moment, there are several who will effect the same motion with cold steel should he slip. "I have lot to prove to the Board," he says. "When they called me back into the room and offered me the position I said that I was both grateful for the trust they were putting in me and I was hopeful that I could repay that trust.

"I also said I was well aware that I had a lot to prove to some of them that I was absolutely the right person for the job. I accept there are reservations about whether I can work easily both within and outside the Board.

"I have absolutely no doubts that I can because my business career was built on negotiation. By definition that means you have to make concessions in certain areas to finish with an agreement. Clearly, though, there are people who still need to be convinced."

It might just have been, of course, that they liked his face. Celtic Swing's owner has the reputation of occasionally being a rather prickly customer with his trainers when he has an opinion on matters equine. But he looks a rather benign character, a moon face with spectacles lending something of a clerical appearance. Savill, however, is merely a preacher on the turf.

Neither, it must be added, does he have a gong of any distinction or an army career to look back on, and the money in his account is that awful new stuff he's made himself rather than collected from a trust fund. Even if Peter Savill does nothing else, he's done rather well to get this far.