Enjoy Warwick’s Andre Klein’s whirlwind tale of a boyhood dream realised and his infectious attitude to the sport and its potential to turn even the most ardent naysayers.
If you turn to page 131 of Jenny Pitman’s autobiography you will see a black and white photo of the 1983 Grand National winner, Corbiere being led through the streets of Upper Lambourn by Jenny’s son, Gold Cup winning rider, Mark Pitman.
Jenny strides alongside her stable star but there running behind you’ll see the fresh looking face of a 12-year-old boy trying to catch up and take over lead rein duty. That’s me. Jenny, our next door neighbour at the time had beckoned me to come on down from the crowd to join the parade.
My Dad had the Rose and Crown at Ashbury at the time. Racing folk from that part of the world will know that in the 1980s it was simply the place to eat and dare I say it, drink. Steve Cauthen, John Reid and a host of other stars of the day used to prop up the bar. John Francome even mentions the fish and chips he enjoyed there in his autobiography, Born Lucky.
However, sticking with autobiographies for a moment longer, you’d only to have read Charlie Brooke’s book, Crossing The Line to know that my Dad, Marcel was in partnership with the Tulloch family. He was living a rags to riches fantasy with a bargain priced horse called Mahogany, trained by the canny Upper Lambourn conditioner, Charlie Nelson.
Mahogany started favorouite for the 1000 Guineas in 1985 and went into the race unbeaten. The run-up to the Classic had been a dream for all involved but on the day she ran into Pebbles, who is certainly now recognized amongst the best fillies to have raced on turf – she was recently commemorated with a plaque in Newmarket High Street. It was just one of those things that happens in racing. I can’t remember anyone appearing disappointed in defeat and the party went on back at the pub, regardless.
It was living around these magical moments in magical times that made me fall so deeply in love with horse racing. That, and hanging around with my two Grandfathers who were both so loyal to The Sporting Life and William Hill.
My passion was so strong early on, that when asked at school aged 13 that big question: what did I want to do when I grow up, I had a very clear answer.
Without hesitation, I said that I wanted to run a racecourse and I wanted to do it New Zealand. Why New Zealand? Well, my other two passions were and still are trout fishing and rugby. Why consider anywhere else?
So after finishing my studies, and cutting a long story shorter, in 1998 I took flight to Australia with my back pack and landed a job in fortuitous circumstances with the South Australian Jockey Club in Adelaide. After four years of various tasks, which stretched from setting up their first website to being a race-day operations manager; writing publicity material for Magic Millions; to putting my mouth behind a microphone as a local racing correspondent for ABC Radio, I accepted what was my dream job in South Island of New Zealand as a very young GM of the Otago Racing Club in Dunedin in 2002.
Within a few years I was in charge of a consortium of 13 racecourses that spread across the southern half of South Island. One night on the way back from the Cromwell Races, we named this new organization Gallop South. By the time we were home, we had the logo done, the website registered and some merchandise on the way.
We worked stupid hours – dawn to dusk – with hardly a weekend free, let alone a Bank Holiday but, crikey, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. It was pig in the proverbial material: an addiction and simply the best job ever-imaginable charging from course to course, event to event and seeing crowds increase because of the ideas we conceived and planned, often on the back of a race card.
The fun ideas to entice people to the track (or into racehorse syndicates) never stopped flowing (they still don’t), but my proudest achievement was the fact we created three completely new fixtures, from scratch, marketed them appropriately and they sky rocketed within a few years to sit within in the top ten attended and most profitable race days in New Zealand. All this in an area of the country that had no huge racing occasions. Those race day events are now, and will hopefully remain an integral and important part of fabric of the respective town’s social diaries, where everyone comes together to have fun and enjoy horse racing.
These achievements highlight the need to race when people want and can come. The fixture list in New Zealand allowed for that flexibility and it’s a frustration that it’s not that easy here… although as our May Carnival at Warwick proves, it’s not impossible. A small tweak here and there can make a huge difference.
My other contribution to racing in the land of the long white cloud was the restructure of jump racing, which until I was given the opportunity to re-shape was run in an ad hoc manner, coordinated on a local rather than national level. I loved this pure racing task and still feel fortunate to have been empowered to undertake the challenge by the far too trusting former BHA man, Paul Bittar, who was at the time CEO of NZ racing.
In 2015, I felt it was time to come home to England. I’d been back every year, and hosted tours to Cheltenham, Aintree, Ascot and Punchestown and this had further fueled my ambition to work in the industry in the UK. When the role at Warwick, came up, and with my family all living nearby, I didn’t need to be asked twice to put in my job application.
The challenges I faced at Warwick held more than a passing resemblance to those I faced when arriving in Dunedin. The principal one was that the town the racecourse existed in, in this case for an impressive 300 years, had no affinity with the course.
There was no love, no pride, no interest in what should have been an incredible community asset.
For sure, there had been some local political ramblings over the location of a hotel proposed on-site and the course has endured negative spin as Flat racing was brought to an end – the track was deemed unsafe. However, none of this was enough to warrant what was in some quarters of the community almost hatred of the racecourse. If there was a challenge we had to tackle head-on, then this was it. Here was my number one priority.
Warwick is a lovely racecourse. It sits on the threshold of town and country. It’s a three-minute walk to the impressively ancient town centre from the public turnstiles and it has a heritage as rich as any course in the country as the sixth oldest racecourse in the world. It rests in a pretty landscape; it’s small and intimate. It has modern facilities mixed with the character of old. It stages good racing and has a sound reputation with the jump racing fraternity and it has the wonderful support that being a Jockey Club-owned racecourse brings.
I wouldn’t be doing this job, unless I wanted everyone I meet to love horse racing like I do. That’s impossible of course, but there is nothing to stop me trying to at least educate everyone I meet about it. At least then there might be an appreciation for it and, if nothing else, that’s a good enough platform to begin.
I’ve noticed that people tend to enjoy enthusiasm. I always show that I’m enthusiastic and excited about all we are doing at Warwick wherever I am and with whoever. I talk things up in simple terms, as those are the only ones I know, and it seems to rub off on people!
It’s a cost-free strategy. Have a voice, be upbeat, be excited, be proud and people tend to get caught up in the excitement. Every course in England has heritage and there is always a tale or two that will amaze non-racing-minded people. But keep it simple because the reality is most people don’t have a clue about our sport!
Keep the language simple and avoid the jargon, especially in Business Networking Breakfasts, for example. Focus attention on your big days and the big races. Speak in terms everyone understands and you have a better chance of taking them with you on the journey. Don’t alienate or baffle them with insider’s talk – it’s a language the majority don’t understand.
So, building bridges with the community is what keeps me busy most days now. Chamber of Trade; St Mary’s Land Working Party; Economic and Tourism Committee meetings. Finding ways to engage with the Lions, the Rotary, local charities and making the assets of the racecourse useful to more people. Communicating with our immediate neighbours about what we are doing; who my team is, and what our challenges are. Educating them on Warwick’s successes and Warwickshire’s many industry participants. Encouraging participation in our race days. Trying to make them feel part of it. Get the schools, the pubs, the shopkeepers all involved. Ask them for help, advice and problem share, make them community partners. Share social media posts. It goes on and on and on. But slowly and surely with luck we will convert them to supporters and maybe even fans. Who knows?
If nothing else, at least I know I tried to spread the good word of horse racing and have thoroughly enjoyed the task. There’s a long way to go and we are nowhere near jumping the final flight.
On that note: did you know that Warwick was the first racecourse to programme an official hurdle race, anywhere in the world?
See, I can’t help myself….