Wyattosaurus enjoys his final roar

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Even as Lord Wyatt of Weeford unveiled the 21st and final annual report of his long tenure as the chairman of the Tote yesterday, along the road in South Kensington, the curator of the Natural History Museum was making space for an important new exhibit. Move over tyrannosaurus, it is time to welcome the Wyattosaurus - the last of the great dinosaurs.

The noble Lord did not go quietly, but then no-one expected him to. Having spent two decades telling everyone what a marvellous job he was doing for what was, by the time of his retirement, a six-figure salary, he was hardly likely to miss out on his final opportunity. Indeed, whenever a question was directed towards his successor, Peter Jones, Lord Wyatt generally assumed it had in fact been intended for him, and proceeded to answer. There could be no better illustration of the way in which the state-owned betting organisation has been run under Lord Wyatt, nor of the change of direction which many in racing now hope it will take.

Wyatt and retiring have never before been words which sat easily together, and certainly, no-one could accuse him of having been anything but a hands- on chairman. Sometimes for better but at least as often for worse, the Tote has been forced to follow a path dictated by its chairman's unshakeable belief in his ability as a navigator. It often seemed the only opinions which mattered to him were his own, and those of whoever was Home Secretary when his contract came up for renewal, a process which continued on the nod even when he was well beyond the age at which a civil servant would have been forced to retire.

"The Tote is big business. It wasn't when I was appointed chairman by the Labour Government on 1 May 1976," was the typically self-effacing introduction to the chairman's final annual statement. "It was a shambles on the edge of bankruptcy. Last year we made record profits."

Well, up to a point. Yesterday's accounts do show a record profit, before the Tote's contribution to racing, of pounds 12.8m, a rise of 21 per cent on the previous year. The problem, though, is that it is 21 per cent of what is, given the Tote's monopoly on a form of betting which guarantees they cannot lose, not very much. The return to racing last year was pounds 8.7m, another record, but many believe it could and should be a great deal more.

As a result, there is a great deal of hope pinned to Peter Jones as he prepares to take over at Tote House on 1 August, and in terms of personality at least, the contrast with his predecessor could hardly be more stark. Softly-spoken, thoughtful, a man who chooses his words with care, his natural style seems to be to manage through consultation rather than dictat, and thus much more in keeping with the current mood.

Still, the honeymoon will not last long. Jones will need to deliver, not least on the Lottery-style Superbet, long-promised but yet to even reach the drawing board. "The ideal time to start it would be in 1998," Jones said, "but it depends on how quickly we can develop the idea and software." Whether the working concept is the four-race Fourtuner which Lord Wyatt revealed to the apparent surprise of his managers earlier this year remains to be seen.

Jones may have had little chance to air his views yesterday, but it was still possible to sense that the Tote, which perhaps represents racing's best hope for a secure financial future, is about to enter a important new phase of development. Wave goodbye to the Wyattosaurus.