Sir Stanley Clarke

President of Northern Racing
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The Independent Online

Stanley Clarke was not a man easily missed. Broad of frame and of smile, he made a huge impact on British racing by buying up a string of courses and applying at all of them a revolutionary policy: giving the customers what they want.

Stanley William Clarke, businessman and racehorse owner: born Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire 7 June 1933; chairman, St Modwen Properties plc 1986-2004, president 2004; CBE 1990; founder and chairman, Northern Racing 1994-2004, president 2004; Kt 2001; married 1958 Hilda Leavesley (one son, three daughters); died Barton-under-Needwood, Staffordshire 19 September 2004.

Stanley Clarke was not a man easily missed. Broad of frame and of smile, he made a huge impact on British racing by buying up a string of courses and applying at all of them a revolutionary policy: giving the customers what they want.

This may, of course, sound an obvious aim, but no one took advantage of its simplicity quite as well as Clarke. He would enthusiastically encourage feedback from people at his racecourses whether it be by walking around with a name-badge on his jacket or pinning up "How are we doing?" posters in the loos.

Clarke's involvement in racing extended beyond ownership of nine courses; he was also a successful racehorse owner and briefly held a permit to train in the 1960s. Along with his wife Hilda, he featured prominently on the point-to-point circuit, with good horses such as Mount Argus and Captain Frisk.

Stan Clarke was born in Burton upon Trent in 1933 and started life as a plumber. But his business acumen allowed him to enjoy his racing hobby at the highest level, in particular when winning the 1997 Grand National with Lord Gyllene.

Each National seems to come up with headline news, but that year's running more so than ever. It took place on a Monday, having been delayed by 48 hours by a bomb scare. Amid a festival atmosphere, of a type Clarke was always trying to engender at his courses, Lord Gyllene was ridden by Tony Dobbin to a runaway victory.

The New Zealand-bred gelding was one of a succession of high-class jumpers to run in Clarke's black-and-white-striped colours. Barton won the 1999 Royal & Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, and is one of a few horses to defeat the triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate.

Another Cheltenham Festival winner was Rolling Ball, who also won over the Aintree fences but is best known for victory in the 1991 Royal & Sun Alliance Chase on only his second start over fences. So excited was Mrs Clarke by the success that she fainted afterwards in the winner's enclosure. Another quality Clarke horse was Lord Relic, who won the 1993 Challow Hurdle at Newbury by 10 lengths.

Having built up two successful businesses in Clarke Quality Homes and St Modwen Properties Ltd (later St Modwen Properties plc), Clarke turned to racecourse ownership in 1988 when buying Uttoxeter. The course was struggling at the time but was quickly transformed under Clarke's ownership. He gave each of his courses a distinctive green and white livery as part of a re-branding that concentrated hugely on their having a "spotless" appearance.

Clarke built up his racecourses portfolio to embrace nine courses - Bath, Brighton, Chepstow, Yarmouth, Fontwell, Hereford, Newcastle, Sedgefield, and Uttoxeter - and was instrumental in creating a more aggressive, commercial approach among courses. His acquisition of Brighton was a particular success. The seaside course had become run-down and in decline, but Clarke's pizazz saw it restored virtually to former glories.

Northern Racing, the umbrella group for these courses, was one of the first racecourse groups to negotiate directly with the bookmaking industry to secure a deal for transmitting pictures from those tracks to Britain's betting shops and beyond.

Appointed CBE in 1990 and knighted in 2001, Clarke was also a member of the Jockey Club and served as a board member of the Racecourse Association for over 10 years. After being diagnosed with cancer, he conducted his life with typical pugnacity, as his son, Simon, recalled:

In the last three years he has been knighted, floated his second company and served a full year [2003-04] as High Sheriff of Staffordshire. He did not take his illness lying down - but faced it with the energy and drive that defined him.

A measure of Clarke's success was his purchase of Dunstall Hall for £4.5m, a property just south-west of Burton where his mother Mabel worked as a maid, and he poached livestock as a boy. He had started St Modwen in his early twenties; last year the stock exchange valued it at £268m.

Richard Griffiths