Racing: Tompkins lures owners into the net

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ONE POSSIBLY telling indication of the reluctance of the body racing to embrace new-fangled ideas is a minute section near the back of the latest edition of the annual trade who's who, The Directory of the Turf. Those listed under "Internet Services" account for only a few of the tome's 500-odd pages. Whether the World Wide Web frightens the horses or not, it would seem it causes their trainers to whip round and bolt in terror.

But there are of course exceptions and one man to be boldly going where none have before is Mark Tompkins. The plain-speaking Newmarket-based Yorkshireman has just launched a scheme to draw owners into the net. Literally.

His brainchild, Raceworld, is an owners' club in many ways like other owners' clubs. For a small annual payment - in this case pounds 250 - members have the fun of having horses run in their colours and an insider's access to the news from a training stables. The difference is that today's technology allows subscribers from Cambridge down the road and Cambridge, Massachusetts, to feel equally close to the daily action.

The creation of Raceworld is not the first time that Tompkins has taken the initiative where business expansion is concerned. During the Eighties he pioneered the now-commonplace concept of multiple ownership with horses running in the names of regional newspapers.

"I wrote to every newspaper in the country with a big enough circulation and we drew them in from all over the place," he said. "We had a hell of a lot of good fun and I'm sure many of the readers who were involved got a taste for the sport and went on to other horses. But everything has its sell-by date and the way forward now, the future, is the Internet. The logical step was to have a worldwide racing club."

Training racehorses these days is painted as being as secure a profession as that of a college master in Morse's Oxford. It is a business that depends on firstly persuading someone that buying a racehorse is a sensible thing to do and then rewarding that investment in terms of either finance or fun, and preferably both. Tompkins is chairman of his local Trainers' Federation and he said: "I can say for a fact that of my 65 members 30 are struggling. Costs are going up and half of them haven't got a bean to rub together. But quite a lot of them don't try either. They don't have a brain in their heads to know how to think of new ideas.

"And new ideas are needed. The Arabs are polarising, so everyone is going to be after the next lot of people. And single ownership of a horse is undoubtedly expensive. It's amazing how rich you've actually got to be to own one on your own."

There is a story told, perhaps apocryphal, of how when Sir Victor Sassoon was asked how much involvement Sir Noel Murless allowed him with his large string of horses, his plaintive reply was: "Well, he allows me to name them." There is no room for such distance at Flint Cottage. "Communication with owners is one of the most important things", Tompkins said. "They must feel involved, and we absolutely want them to be. But it is also something that can drive me mental; with multiple ownership you can get every member phoning up of a morning to ask the same thing.

"Someone with a horse in training might talk to the trainer once or twice a week at most. With this system they can plug in and get a daily update. And as well as for people who enjoy going racing, it could be ideal for older or disabled people who can't get about as easily, or a whizz-kid in the city who can take a cople of minutes to check on his horses, or someone living abroad who wants a taste of racing in England."

So, what does a Raceworld member get? The string for this year numbers seven and includes the dual-purpose six-year-old Sky Dome, with entries at Cheltenham and in the Lincoln, for instant action, plus five specially- selected two-year-olds. The web-site - smart-looking and user-friendly, it has to be said - offers daily updates and information and the trainer's views on current racing topics. Future plans include moving pictures and there is an e-mail address to make it interactive. Logging onto will give a taster.

"Buying the horses and setting it up was a risk," said Tompkins, "but we've put nice horses into it and if they are successful it will be self- generating. In the first year we'll be happy if it breaks even and keeps rolling. But these days you've got to come up with ideas. You can't afford to lie in bed. You've got to be up and at it."