Racing: No decorum at the forum as Wakeham walks

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The Independent Online
The turf war at the British Horseracing Board claimed its first significant victim yesterday when Lord Wakeham, the BHB chairman, resigned.

Greg Wood reports on a departure which was sudden, but not unexpected.

There is never a good time for a billion-pound business to lose its chairman, but 24 hours before its AGM is possibly the worst moment of all. The annual Industry Committee Forum, which is as close as the racing industry gets to a meeting of its shareholders, will take place as planned in London this morning, but it will be overshadowed by the resignation yesterday of the man who was supposed to be in charge.

Lord Wakeham decided that his two-and-a-half year tenure as chairman of the British Horseracing Board could not continue when his colleagues around the top table decided to endorse Peter Savill's long-awaited financial plan for racing, which will be unveiled at the Forum.

"I have today resigned as chairman and director of the British Horseracing Board as I was unable to agree with the financial plan put before the Board this morning," Wakeham said in a statement yesterday. "In my opinion, the plan is unrealistic in the current economic circumstances."

Wakeham and Savill have been sniping at each other for weeks, in particular following a leak of details of the plan late last year. As parting shots go, Wakeham's withering dismissal of Savill's work was a beauty, since it will be plastered over the trade papers as representatives from all sections of the industry gather to hear the plan for themselves this morning.

When its author takes the stage to argue his case, the impression that racing lives in a world of its own will be stronger than ever.

Apparently, Savill will argue that an extra pounds 105m needs to be injected into the industry, much of which he expects to arrive via a reduction in the Government's rake-off from betting turnover. While no-one can deny that the Exchequer does very nicely indeed out of off-course gambling - to the tune of more than pounds 300m each year - Wakeham is clearly dubious as to whether a Government which has just removed benefits from single mothers is likely to divert funds towards what is felt to be a rich man's hobby.

He is almost certainly correct, although it must also be pointed out that this dispute comes at a very convenient moment for Wakeham. He has been under pressure for months from many quarters, most notably Sheikh Mohammed, whose now famous Gimcrack Dinner speech expressed surprise that the BHB chairman could find enough time in his schedule to accommodate a string of other posts.

Wakeham collects jobs the way some people collect stamps, and the last time anyone counted, he had a total of 14. He is the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, and fills the same role at Vosper Thornycroft Holdings plc, the Kalon Group and the Carlton Club.

He is also a non-executive director of several other companies, including N M Rothschild and the Bristol & West Building Society, not to mention the Chancellor of Brunel University.

The baggage of his former career also weighs him down. As a former Tory chief whip and committed henchman of Margaret Thatcher, Wakeham lost what political clout he still had with the arrival of the Labour administration.

Even the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, which originally nominated Wakeham to a position on the board of the BHB, seemed to have turned against him

Yet rather than suffer the sort of humiliating departure which finally claimed his beloved Margaret, Wakeham can now turn on his heels with his honour relatively intact. The chance of racing receiving even a fraction of the sum which Savill is expecting is practically nil, but it will be left to someone else to deal with the fallout when the truth finally dawns on a fractured and disillusioned industry.

Precisely who that will be remains to be seen, although Sir Thomas Pilkington, a former senior steward of the Jockey Club, has taken over as BHB chairman on a temporary basis. "I want to emphasise that the whole BHB and all sectors of the industry are united in supporting the new financial plan," he said yesterday. "It is a comprehensive and carefully argued review of racing's position and we look forward to a constructive dialogue with the government on it."

Just how united the racing industry really is behind the Savill plan will become clear at the Industry Committee Forum this morning. At the same event a year ago, the bad blood between Wakeham and Savill first become apparent when the BHB chairman made a pointed reference to Savill's tax status.

Twelve months before that, the proceedings were dominated by the messy (but entertaining) saga of Matthew McCloy's trip to the Breeders' Cup (the Industry Committee chairman, you may recall, was not just wearing his seat belt when the plane landed, but handcuffs too).

Both will be difficult acts to follow, but this latest Forum may well turn out to be the liveliest yet.