Mark Elliott: Why gamble on shares when you can have a bet on the nags?

A horseracing boss explains why he's galloping into expansion mode despite all the industry's hurdles
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The Independent Online

There's an old saying in City trading rooms: "Sell in May and go away, don't come back 'til St Leger's Day."

Well, investors have certainly been selling this May and they may well stay true to the saying by staying out of the falling global market until the famous horse race in September. At which point, they will find that the St Leger has moved.

For courtesy of Mark Elliott, the chief executive of the listed racecourse owner Arena Leisure, the traditional home of the race, Doncaster, won't be open this year. After some lengthy wrangles, Arena, which stages around a quarter of the UK's horseracing, acquired the rights to redevelop and operate the site last December from Doncaster Council. The £32m revamp will see buildings knocked down and new facilities take their places but the venue will have to close while the work is carried out.

The St Leger will be held in York this year and Doncaster is not scheduled to reopen until August 2007. Elliott has no doubt, however, that it had to be done. "It's a huge investment, £32m, but Doncaster really wasn't that great. It had become tired and dated. It did not provide the facilities that the modern customer wants. Boxes, for example, were facing the wrong way."

Doncaster is one of seven courses owned by Arena, along with Royal Windsor, Lingfield Park, Worcester, Folkestone, Wolverhampton and Southwell, and the redevelopment programme is not stopping in South Yorkshire.

One of Elliott's plans is to build a casino at the Wolverhampton course, though the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister rejected the proposal last year for "negatively impacting" the green belt. Elliott has not given up and is looking to submit a revised plan to the local authorities before the end of the summer.

"We still believe that a casino is the best thing to put in there," says Elliott, who is talking to a number of casino operators about the scheme. "It will be good for Wolverhampton because it provides an element of regeneration and a lot of jobs.

"We will talk to the local authority and operators and come up with something that deals with the issues that brought the first proposal down."

Elliott is on something of a spree. As well as the £32m investment in Doncaster and proposed £20m casino at Wolverhampton, £10m has already been spent on improving Lingfield Park, with more to come. Meanwhile, applications for a redeveloped grandstand and new hotel at Royal Windsor are being drawn up.

"Courses like Lingfield need to develop, otherwise they stagnate and die," he explains. "If Lingfield just sits there, ultimately it will go into decline."

Elliott talks about his plans for the company with all the enthusiasm of a newcomer, which is more or less what he is, having joined only last October from the now-defunct Wembley. He had worked at the one-time football stadium and dog-track operator for 15 years but spent the last few breaking the company up after its American subsidiary, the gaming centre Lincoln Park, was rocked by a scandal.

Both Lincoln Park and its chief executive, Nigel Potter, were found guilty of plotting to bribe US officials but Elliott staunchly defends his former colleague: "Nigel Potter is incapable of doing anything criminal.

"[Wembley] sold off the assets it had. There were fantastic deals and, at the end of the day, the shareholders did well. But on a personal level, particularly for Nigel Potter, the consequences are appalling."

Not that the Arsenal-loving 41-year-old, who lives in the leafy peace of Surrey with his wife and two young children, has washed up in a calmer sector - for racing has endured some tough going in recent years. First the sport's governing body, the British Horseracing Board, was subject to scrutiny from the Office of Fair Trading. Then the Government's pledge to sell the Tote, the state-owned bookmaker, to a racing trust for a knock-down price had to be revisited in the wake of European concerns that it contravened state-funding rules.

And on top of all this, there has been a bust-up about media rights so unseemly that it could not be more out of keeping with racing's regal history.

In 2001, the At The Races television consortium - consisting of Arena, BSkyB and Channel 4 - signed a £307m, 10-year deal to broadcast racing from 49 of the UK's 59 tracks. Cynics muttered about over-payment but the consortium was adamant it would make money through interactive gambling with the Tote.

But betting though the red button on remote-control panels was slow to take off, and by May 2004, the deal had collapsed. The consortium wanted the courses to sign up again at lower rates, but they refused and many left to set up a rival channel, Racing UK.

So At The Races sued 30 tracks for £51m, and Racing UK counter-sued for £213m. The row dragged on until March this year, when At The Races accepted £1m in costs in return for dropping its claim. Racing UK also agreed to drop its claim.

"I'm pleased that it's all over. I'm pleased that the industry can get together and there wasn't one side left bloodied and one side left victorious," says Elliott. "We believe more was payable than was received, but the court process wasn't going as expected. We could have carried on but it just wasn't in anyone's best interests."

So with the legal battle behind him, Elliott is focused on the day job and trying to attract the punters. "We can get more people," he insists. "A huge number of people out there would enjoy a day at the races."

But it's not just you and me he wants. Earlier this year, Arena reported a 6 per cent rise in attendance after increasing its fixture programme, but it was the corporate sector that really boosted results. This customer base grew 17.5 per cent, helping operating profits jump 21.6 per cent and turnover rise nearly 10 per cent to £40.7m. It meant shareholders got a dividend for only the second time in the company's history.

Racing's rush to embrace the business pound is viewed as a mixed blessing. Cheltenham, for example, has built new conference facilities and some complained that this year's festival was too corporate. But Elliott counters: "It's where all sports have to go. Look at the new Wembley: there's a huge amount of corporate seats in there, which it needs to fund the stadium. You have to get funding somewhere."

Gambling on the markets in a May as volatile as this is one thing. But betting on a growing love of going to the races is one punt that Elliott seems only too happy to take.

BIOGRAPHY

BORN 18 March 1965

EDUCATION

Studied chemistry at Durham University

CAREER

1986: joins Ernst & Young and trains to become a chartered accountant

1990: joins accounts department of Wembley

1998: finance director, Wembley

January 2005: chief executive, Wembley

October 2005: chief executive, Arena Leisure

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