This year’s Royal Ascot will be Charles Barnett’s eighth and last as the track’s Chief Executive, his previous role at Aintree having witnessed him deal with a void National and a bomb scare
It is 30 years since you began your career in racing, having joined Haydock Park as Chief Executive in 1984. Why are you retiring now?
I know the world has changed and you don’t have to retire at a certain age any more, but I always had it in my mind I’d be at Ascot until I was 65, though in practice I’m doing a bit more than that. I live near Bangor racecourse in North Wales so it is a long way back and forth and the driving does become pretty onerous. There are a lot of things I want to do back at home and I have a couple of other projects in the offing. I hope to do some non-executive work in and out of racing. I certainly won’t be ‘unbusy’.
Do you come from a racing family and what were your first memories of the sport?
No, our family wasn’t specifically from racing, but we had point-to-pointers at home and I rode about 20 winners in point-to-points and hunter chases. We always had horses and were involved in the Pony Club and things like that. We always knew a lot of people in racing but were never practically involved. My parents would go to Cheltenham and I used to get annoyed because my brother, who was older than me, would go but I didn’t. I even remember him backing a winner, although he shouldn’t have at the age of eight! At my prep school we used to have sweepstakes in sweets and I drew Wyndburgh, who finished second to Sundew in the 1957 Grand National. So I made a lot of sweets!
What were you doing before you went into racecourse management?
I trained as a lawyer, worked in marine insurance in London and then worked for a ship owner in Liverpool. Racing came up by chance. I was thinking about a change of career and was told by a firm of headhunters to look at the job they were advertising as Chief Executive of Haydock, and that’s what I did. Haydock Park Leisure Company had just been created in a joint venture with Burtonwood Brewery and Philip Arkwright was Clerk of the Course.
Having taken the role as acting Chief Executive at Aintree, your first experience of the Grand National was the 1993 void race and widespread negative publicity that followed. Did you think your racing career was over at that point?
After John Parrett died I moved across from Haydock to Aintree to fill his position in an acting management role and Rod Fabricius came as well as acting Clerk of the Course. In no way did I think the void race was the end of everything. Of course it was a dramatic time and extremely difficult to handle immediately after the event as far as customer engagement was concerned. As the race unfolded we didn’t know what was going on and nor did the customers who were understandably rather fed up. Yes, we had a complicated time dealing with disappointed customers and making sure we got through the rest of the card. But the overall aftermath of the void race, involving a detailed inquiry, was out of our hands.
What are your main memories of the 1997 ‘bomb scare’ renewal, when the entire course was evacuated?
The first phone call that came through during the running of the Aintree Hurdle and which suggested there was a bomb threat was obviously a matter of considerable concern. Once we got into action ordering the evacuation of the course, there was so much to do we didn’t have much time to think about anything. The next two days were taken up with planning what to do next and we had some quite pertinent times trying to persuade the police that we wanted to run the race on the Monday. That was quite an interesting meeting.
Once it was decided to go ahead we had to try to clear the site in preparation for the Monday National. We had to get everyone’s personal belongings out and even managed to water the course, because it was drying out and the police wouldn’t allow us on to the course until late on the Sunday evening. There were people wanting to get their dogs out of their cars but the police wouldn’t let them in the car parks until the Sunday. There were some very tricky situations. It was a long 48 hours but rewarding in the end in that we managed to run the race with a satisfactory result, Lord Gyllene winning in front of a massive television audience.
Would you say that rescheduling the race for the following Monday, with all the work that involved, was your finest professional achievement?
I suppose people would think of it in those terms because it was so high profile around the world with people watching the turn of events throughout the weekend. In a personal sense I don’t see it that way, really. I consider the whole change at Aintree since 1983 and, in a way the changes at Haydock before that, as all part of important progress made in racecourse management at a time when racecourses were starting to employ executives from a variety of different professions.
After Royal Ascot you are standing down, having been in charge of two national institutions: the Grand National for 15 years and Royal Ascot for eight. How do the two events compare?
They are not dissimilar, though you do have a different audience for both. They are both major national and international events and very high profile. The Liverpool audience is rather special in a number of ways and jump racing audiences do tend to be very different from the cross- section of people who come to Royal Ascot. One of the charms of the industry is that racing attracts a complete cross-section of society, from the Queen and dukes down to dustmen.
You were brought into Ascot in 2007 to iron out the numerous teething problems associated with the new £230 million grandstand. Was it a baptism of fire?
I don’t think I was necessarily brought in to iron out those problems. I only went there in May 2007 and part of a tricky process was to re-engage with the customers who had been disappointed with the Ascot experience in 2006. Trying to get people to understand the grandstand, how it worked, make the necessary changes and help that whole process. Like many new grandstands it is being improved all the time, and I think it has been working well.
Have all the problems with regard to viewing from ground level been successfully resolved?
There was a big change made before 2007 and that sorted out a lot of the problems. People are enjoying and appreciating the stand more and more; they know where to meet their friends, understand how it works and how to get from one place to another. It’s a pretty impressive and spectacular building.
What has been the most rewarding moment during your time at Ascot?
A successful Royal Ascot is very, very important. And I suppose one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is when racegoers go home happy, having enjoyed a good experience.
And what has been your biggest disappointment?
I was disappointed that we were not able to persuade the BBC to get engaged in the last round of media rights talks. They had been interested a bit with Aintree but not Ascot. But as it has turned out we are very pleased with Channel 4, who have done a great job.
Do you consider the switch last year from BBC coverage to Channel 4 to have been a success? What effect has it had on the Royal meeting and Ascot in general?
Yes, it has been a success. They have given us more continuity, though they have a lot of work to do in production and viewing audience terms. Having said that, viewing figures for sporting events on all channels are in decline and we have to accept that; we are never going to see the numbers we did five or ten years ago. It is important that we keep an eye on that and make sure we are being watched by as many as possible.
Initially we did have some concerns having a commercial broadcaster for Royal Ascot, but actually Channel 4 produced a very good programme last year and we were extremely pleased.
Why was the decision taken to change the running order for some of this year’s races at Royal Ascot?
In the old days BBC1 used to do the first three races before switching to BBC2 and as we wanted the biggest viewing audience watching our main race, it was normally the third on the card. So with Channel 4 covering all six races it didn’t make much difference when your big race was, though we didn’t want it too late. The general focus is on having your feature race later on so we build up to it. We have changed it to race four, with a big handicap immediately afterwards.
What has been your favourite Royal Ascot moment, and why?
The Queen winning the Gold Cup with Estimate last year and, outside the Royal meeting, Frankel winning the Champion Stakes. It is wonderful for us how much the Queen and the Royal family enjoy their racing here.
QIPCO will be the first commercial partner at Royal Ascot on the first day. Have you found commercial partners for the other four days and how will Ascot benefit from having these relationships?
We haven’t for 2014 but we are working with a number of different brands at the moment and hope to conclude arrangements for 2015. It is another source of income that is designed to help with prize-money as much as anything else. The partners will get publicity and we will hopefully earn additional revenue, which will help to boost prize-money and improve facilities.
What does the future hold for British Champions’ Day and can it really challenge the Arc meeting or Breeders’ Cup as an end-of-year championship?
I cannot stress enough just how important a day this is to British racing. I remember very well in 2008 after Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator had taken each other on several times in the UK, we were then deprived of seeing them at the end of the season because they went to the Breeders’ Cup. I thought to myself this is madness, the two top milers in the country going somewhere else to complete their ‘grand finale’.
We had been talking for some time about trying to create a big meeting at the end of the season. We have now achieved that; it’s definitely got its place in the calendar and I believe it will grow and grow in importance. I don’t think it is a challenge to the Arc meeting and we don’t intend it to be. The Arc is a mile and a half, as opposed to the mile and a quarter Champion Stakes. Our aim is to attract British and international horses to come and run here at the end of the season. We were fortunate to have Frankel for the first two runnings and I believe there will be years when we do better than the Arc and years when we don’t; that is just the way of the world in international racing.
Can you name one change that would benefit the whole industry?
The biggest change has got to be right at the top, getting engagement across the industry on all the major decisions that are going to be made in the next three or four years. Racecourses and horsemen are working much closer together and we have all got a much better relationship with the bookmakers. We are beginning to pull together and it is vital that we continue to do so more and more.
Finally, what would be your one piece of advice to your successor at Ascot racecourse?
Be sure Royal Ascot maintains its status as the most important race meeting in the world and as an extremely precious jewel in British racing.