Richard Edmondson meets Peter Jones, the visionary with his hands firmly on the controls.
A cumulus of Havana smoke is no longer Chairman of the Tote. That posting now belongs to a man who looks as though he might be the fifth Goon. The word can only apply to the appearance of the bespectacled and frizzy-haired Peter Jones, however. Even in his narrow tenure since last August, it seems that Jones has developed a relic of Victoriana into a Tote company which now cares to peer into the future.
Only this week came notice of the biggest wager the Tote has ever taken, a bet to take out pounds 1m should Monday's Fontwell bumper third, Maidstone Monarch, win a Grand National from the year 2000 onwards. Tote Credit, it must be said, has not built a name for laying thick bets.
The suspicion has been that if the mutton-chopped, Dickensian telephonists that take the Tote's calls ever heard someone flicking through a roll of notes at the other end of the line, they would immediately rip the switchboard out of the wall and hide under the table. But the Tote has changed. And entirely because the man at the top has changed.
Woodrow Wyatt was the autocrat's autocrat, though he did not disagree with his critics (he never listened to what they were saying in the first place). Like another top figure in racing, he never tired of telling people what a thorough genius he was. You can dispute Lord Wakeham's assertion that he is "a high-quality person", but you could never disagree that his was an extremely high-quality resignation from the BHB.
Peter Jones, at 55, is different. He's a shrewdie but he lets you find that out for yourself. He doesn't even have a flashy handle. "I've got a fairly anonymous name," he says. "I'm really an East European count with a double-barrelled surname, but it's all part of my masterplan.
"I don't seek or crave publicity. I'd swap a dozen interviews for a good profit stream any day."
The new chairman, let's call him Peter, is enjoying himself. "It's been every bit as good as I anticipated it would be," he says. "There's a massive challenge out there for the Tote. We've got an infintessimal share of the market. We've got a set of people working for the Tote who've become frustrated down the years that they can't fully express themselves."
This staff can be broken down into four compartments. There is Tote Credit (the boys who now let you bet in more than coppers); Tote bookmakers, the shops recently swollen by the acquisition of premises from Ladbrokes; Tote Direct, the pool betting facility in rivals' shops; and, perhaps most famously, the racecourse pool itself. All their ills will be scrutinised, though a common remedy has already been prepared.
"The Tote has never regarded marketing as being one of it's main functions and the marketing department has been underfunded and undermanned," Jones says. "Most of what it's got to do in the future has got to be marketing- led." This is not staggering news. Peter Jones reached high station in the marketing and advertising industry. If you're agin him you might call the man a number cruncher. Pros will tell you he does his homework properly. Like lots of business folk, Jones talks in a morse code of initials and acronyms. When he first meets his family at the bathroom door each day probably the first thing he says is "GM".
Jones is not just a Boardroom Johnny, however. He knows his racing and likes to think he is a bit of a specialist at staying chasers, even though the best horse he has owned was the Catterick sprint specialist God's Solution. He was even a member of the BHB, though that should not necessarily be held against him.
Jones has been in the game long enough to form a view on what's wrong. "The sport has been very patchily marketed," he says. "Some racecourses - like Cheltenham and Goodwood - market themselves very well. But there are plenty who don't do a particularly good job. Marketing has never been very high up racecourses' list of priorities. Many racecourses don't even look at marketing as an expenditure that can produce income.
"It's a lack of understanding of the process. Most racecourse managements, in modern-day British terms, would be described as moribund.
"They just haven't had the level of business experience which shows the cause and effect of good marketing techniques. It's a lack of education in the way of business."
New marketing at the racecourse will include beginner windows, where first-timers will not have a queue of foot-stamping, impatient rhinos behind them. There will be high-roller windows too, as well as much literature advertising Jones' pet subject, the exotic bets.
Foremost among these is the new Superbet, which is now unlikely to be with us until March of 1999. Jones insists they must get the bet right, but that date seems an awfully long way away as the Lottery encroaches further into the mind as the only method to win big money. It now appears the favoured Superbet will be to guess the first six home in a televised race each Saturday. "We want this pool to go up to pounds 1m a week," Jones says. "And you won't get that habit established unless you get the right bet that people can get excited about.
"We've got to play up the big wins when they come along. We've got Frankie Dettori, who we'll use to promote our products and when people win big prizes, we'll be bringing Frankie out to present them. Whenever we've let Frankie loose to do work on the racecourse he's always been mobbed. He's a fantastic personality."
Peter Jones himself does not want to be a personality. There are plenty though who believe he has embarked on what will be a fantastic term of office at the Tote.Reuse content