Steve Harman, the new Chairman of the BHA says he “bit their hand off” when asked about the possibility of taking over in High Holborn
Lord Hartington, Lord Wakeham, Sir Thomas Pilkington, Peter Savill, Martin Broughton, Paul Roy, Steve Harman. Steve who?
Good question, and one that reverberated around the racing industry like a muffled gong towards the end of March, when Steve Harman was appointed to extend the distinguished and previously familiar roll call of Chairmen of the British Horseracing Board and its successor, the British Horseracing Authority.
Of course, several people did know him. After all, Harman was a rising star in the international oil and gas industry since joining the Shell group at the age of 24 in 1980, leading to his current vice-presidency; he is a trustee of Help For Heroes, one of today’s highest profile charities with strong links to horseracing; and he has been involved with ownership partnerships and syndicates for nearly 20 years.
Yet as far as public recognition was concerned, his profile could not have been much lower.
Harman’s name has appeared only once as a registered owner – and that was not by design. “One of the partnership in Creepy, the jumper we have with Martin Keighley – and I’ll not say which one – was too lazy to think up a collective name for us and just put down our individual names,” he confides.
More relevantly in an administrative context, though, there was no public evidence of his having had any involvement in the all-important sphere of racing politics.
That situation began to change late last year, when the process got underway to find a successor to Paul Roy, whose term of office was due to end in April.
For all Harman’s anonymity, his nomination did have a couple of advantages by association. He has been a member of Thurloe Thoroughbreds’ syndicates for about five years, and its Managing Director James Stafford’s brother-in-law is Oliver Pawle, whose head-hunting company had been employed by the BHA for the recruitment, and Harman had subsequently joined Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, whose driving force Harry Herbert acted as a referee.
Nevertheless, if the full identity of the final shortlist of four candidates had ever been made public, Harman would likely have been priced up at 66-1, behind the more recognisable figures of BHA Director and former National Stud Chairman Nicholas Jones, owner and former Deloitte Chief Executive John Connolly and Normandie Stud’s Nicholas Cooper.
Even when the choice came down to two, Harman was probably odds against to Connolly’s odds-on. In the event, when the BHA board was asked to make its decision, there was no doubt. The man with “a disarming smile on the face of a tiger,” in the words of one of his associates, was a clear winner.
He’s obviously passionate about racing. He’s a great listener, with no ego. I think he’ll do a fantastic job
Paul Roy’s verdict is most revealing. “Steve came across as somebody who really wanted the job,” he says. “He’d done his homework and mastered the brief. He made it very clear that he put himself forward because he wants the best for the sport.
“He’s obviously passionate about racing. He’s a great listener, with no ego. I think he’ll do a fantastic job.”
Harman’s passion for racing, on which several industry figures have commented privately since he began a ‘soft’ introduction to the sport’s many facets, which formally started on July 1, is a common theme among others who were closely associated with the appointment process.
Racecourse Association Chairman Ian Barlow, a fellow Thurloe Thoroughbreds member, who made up the nominations committee with Racehorse Owners Association President Rachel Hood, describes Harman as “a passionate, Joe Public racegoer, a listener, with a good, calm personal style.”
Barlow adds: “He has extensive business experience across the globe in a variety of roles, including as Chief Executive of Pennzoil in the US, which is a substantial company in its own right, and has good experience of dealing with governments.”
Hood herself reflects: “We were looking for a person who would be an effective Chairman and would add value to the role, and neither Ian nor I was likely to contemplate someone without passion for the sport, which came through when we interviewed Steve.
“He’s been an owner for a long time; he owns horses under both codes, which was a plus, and his experience of international aspects was also important. I think he can be an ambassador for British racing and believe he is the right man for the job.”
BHA Chief Executive Paul Bittar, who will work closely with Harman as racing seeks solutions to the ongoing challenges of establishing commercial deals with the betting industry, unearthing a replacement for the levy system and cementing the BHA’s position alongside the horsemen and racecourses, has quickly forged a relationship with his next Chairman.
“First impressions of Steve are that he’s a very good listener and asks lots of questions!” Bittar says. “He clearly has a deep-rooted interest in the sport but joins the BHA without any political baggage, which, personally, I know can be very helpful.
“His Shell CV is impressive and provides many years of experience of working in and overseeing business operations on a large scale. Due to the joint ventures and tightly regulated markets he’s worked in overseas, he understands the need for partnerships with stakeholders and with government.
“He appears comfortable with and capable of seeing the big picture and developing long-term strategic aims.”
Bittar adds: “I’ve had a very good relationship with Paul Roy and the change-over to Steve as Chairman will bring new challenges, but I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
The feeling is mutual, for Harman explains: “When I first met Paul Bittar, I thought, ‘He’s somebody I want to work with.’”
As for the man himself, a picture of Harman beyond his undoubted passion for racing is gradually beginning to emerge, and will become clearer over the coming months.
“I’ve worked in the US, China, Hong Kong and Japan, places where reputation and integrity are absolutely essential,” he says. “These are important assets in racing, as the events of the last few weeks have proved.
“British racing has so many rich qualities, and the last thing it needs are egotistical leaders. I don’t like blowing my own trumpet, but I believe I have got a level of humility and am a good listener.
“I have experience of dealing with stakeholders, such as the US and UK governments, and building coalitions with a range of industries and pressure groups, and this is an area in which I think I can help in racing. I can already see a lot of opportunities.”
Harman adds: “British racing is one of the sexiest sports in the world. The whole experience is unprecedented.
“A lot of people talk about other countries and their Tote monopoly systems. That may be true, but look at British racing’s assets. Where in the world do you get the breadth of involvement that we have?
“I took a party of high net-worth businessmen from America to Towcester the other year, and they couldn’t get over what a good experience they had. They still talk about it today.
“I’m not saying owners should suffer for ever over prize-money, and people can make various points about the bookmakers in this country, but I believe it is better to talk about increasing the size of the cake than arguing about how it is divided.
“There is an opportunity to increase the revenue in British racing and I’ve got a background in that sort of area.”
Married with three children, Harman, who turned 57 last month, was born and brought up in Durham, among a family steeped in coal mining and teaching.
“There were several miners in the family, including my uncle and stepfather, who was a Bevin boy,” he says. “My father was a teacher and my mother taught painting to miners.
“Teaching was important and we came from a tradition in coal mining that encouraged people to go into further education. I was brought up on top of the university and there was never any question I’d go anywhere else after I left school.”
Harman was the fifth generation of his family to attend Durham University – his son is the sixth – but none seems to have developed as much interest in horseracing as a result, although he admits there may have been an ulterior motive in his joining the Durham University Racing & Gambling Society within weeks of enrolling.
“DRAG was full of very good-looking women, so it was like bees to the honey pot,” he explains. “I met some great people. It was a thriving society and we had a marvellous time going racing. Sedgefield was the first meeting I attended and that’s where I got the jumping bug.
“The racing interested me most and I wasn’t hugely into gambling, though I do remember one of the first winners I backed was Angel Clare, trained by Tony Dickinson, who won first time out in a novices’ hurdle at Sedgefield at 16-1.
“I didn’t start to own horses until I was in my thirties but I reckon that more than half of my friends from university got involved in racing; people such as Martin St Quinton [Harman was best man at his wedding].
“Those friendships have stood the test of time and even now some of the partnerships I’m involved with include people whom I’ve known since then.
“I’ve recently been checking out how early people are introduced to horseracing, and universities are still providing a very useful way into the sport.”
Harman’s racehorse ownership ventures began in 1995, when he returned to England after a spell working for Shell in Hong Kong.
“I had some spare money for the first time in my life,” he recalls, “and Simon Dow was the first trainer to reply to my inquiries. Since he was about 20 minutes away from where I live, I took up the offer to join a partnership in a three-year-old filly called Shining Dancer, who was originally trained by Sir Michael Stoute.
“She won for the first time in June as a four-year-old at 20-1 at Windsor. In fact, she dead-heated in a race sponsored by Indesit, and we won a microwave. I don’t remember what we did with the prize but I do know we stayed on the course for a long time after the last race.
“Altogether she ran 18 times for the partnership, and as well as at Windsor she won handicaps at Kempton and Sandown, and was placed six times up to two miles, including a third in the Queen’s Prize.”
To get into racing in a formal capacity is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time
He continues: “The amazing thing was that I’d come across Shining Dancer before I got involved in owning her.
“I was racing with the family at Catterick when a horse bolted on the way to the start and then did virtually the same in the race, going very wide on the final bend and nearly managing to destroy our picnic. She was crazy – but it was Shining Dancer, who as things turned out was running her last race for Sir Michael.
“When Simon offered her to me, I realised there must be a message there somewhere. What a small world, and a total coincidence, but I do think things happen for a reason.”
Harman’s ownership interests have blossomed more recently, although not as far as sole ownership or racing clubs.
“I’ve nothing against those types of ownership,” he explains, “but I’d rather be part of small partnerships, three to six people preferably, although more recently I have gone into syndicates through Thurloe Thoroughbreds, Highclere Thoroughbred Racing and Owners For Owners.
“I’ve got enough for now! If you add up all my shares it would probably come to between three and four full horses, which is just about affordable.”
Turning back to Harman’s new role, he is far too savvy to start expressing his thoughts on possible policies and strategy. Which leaves one question unanswered: why did he want the job in the first place?
“I’ve done a number of things in my career, in and out of Shell, including my bit for Help For Heroes, where I’m sure British racing can take its excellent support to another level,” he says.
“To get into racing in a formal capacity is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. So when I was asked last November if I was interested, I bit their hand off. In fact, I got more enthusiastic about it as the interview process went on.
“The question really should be, ‘Why wouldn’t you go for the job?’”