Sir Tristram Ricketts BT: Horse-racing administrator

Tristram Robert Ricketts, racing administrator: born Stroud, Gloucestershire 17 April 1946; Administrative Officer, GLC 1968-72, Personal Assistant to the Leader of the GLC 1972-73; Assistant Principal Officer, Horserace Betting Levy Board 1974-76, Deputy Secretary 1976-79, Secretary 1980-84, Chief Executive 1984-93, 2005-07; Member, British Horseracing Board 1993-98, 2000-05, Chief Executive 1993-2000, Secretary-General 2000-05; succeeded 2005 as 8th Baronet; married 1969 Annie Lewis (one son, one daughter); died London 7 November 2007.

Tristram Ricketts was British horse-racing's consummate civil servant. That he was inordinately skilled was richly appreciated by his colleagues, that he was courteous was never in question, and that he selflessly performed the duties required of the sport could never be gainsayed. Those who worked most closely with him at the Horserace Betting Levy Board, where he was latterly chief executive, and the groundbreaking British Horseracing Board, were unequivocal in the view that there would never be another like Tristram Ricketts.

Ricketts, eldest of four children, was born for a life in public service. His father was Sir Robert Ricketts Bt, a solicitor, and his mother was Anne Cripps, the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer to Clement Attlee. She later became chairman of the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. Tristram Ricketts was educated at Winchester College, then Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he delved into theatre before graduating in Russian in 1968.

In a Footlights production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Ricketts played the parts of both Lane and Merriman, the butlers; in the role of Cecily Cardew was Annie Lewis. Lewis recalled that a reviewer could find little to recommend the production other than the performances by her and Ricketts. By then their eyes had already met, and the two graduates married in 1969. Ricketts loved dancing, too, as colleagues came to relish. His height, allied to his enthusiasm, meant a favourite arm-waving routine to the song "YMCA" was best performed indoors for fear of diverting aircraft.

Directly after graduating he took a job at the Greater London Council (GLC) and in 1972 became personal assistant to the council leader Desmond Plummer. Plummer held a series of prominent Conservative Party posts and, on resigning leadership of the Conservative Group on the council in 1974, moved to another hotbed of political unrest, the horse-racing world. As chairman of the Levy Board he took along Ricketts for the new role of assistant principal officer.

Ricketts served the Levy Board until 1993, as deputy secretary, secretary and, from 1984, as chief executive. The racing industry, 20 years into an uneasy funding relationship with bookmakers, was ripe for change.

So it was in June 1993 that the British Horseracing Board was established, with Ricketts the first chief executive under the chairmanship of the Marquess of Hartington, with a board of diverse interests from racing and business. In 2000, when the successful racehorse owner Peter Savill was appointed chairman, the BHB was restructured to place a far greater emphasis on commerce.

Savill moved Ricketts to a new post of secretary-general and obliged him to report to a new managing director, Chris Reynolds. At the time, this looked a disappointment for Ricketts, and those who were there recall that his lack of commercial acumen set against Savill's fierce business instincts certainly brought pressure to bear on their relationship. In hindsight, his new role was more a realistic recognition of his skills as administrator, political networker and acceptable face of the organisation, especially at the races. Demand for his attributes brought a chairmanship of the Independent Betting Arbitration Service, vice-presidency of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities and chairmanship of the European Pattern Race Committee.

In 2005 Ricketts left the BHB, returning to the Levy Board as chief executive, ostensibly to oversee its winding down in 2009. Despite illness, he continued to work from home until a week before his death.

Ricketts was a comfortable communicator across the political spectrum. He relished overseas conference trips and their chance to trumpet the governance of British racing as a template, and was a witty after-dinner speaker. He was far from the parody of Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister infamy that some have labelled him. Whereas Sir Humphrey was the master of obfuscation and deviousness, Sir Tristram was never manipulative, not a bit élitist. He knew he could not run racing, but he could quite exquisitely administer to those who did.

Tony Smurthwaite