Royal Ascot could not hide racing’s problems – Lord Mandelson may be the solution

Queen Camilla during the winners presentation for the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes
Queen Camilla during the winners' presentation for the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes - PA/Yui Mok

A young fella called Eddie Hills was the stand-out star of Royal Ascot this year after his father Charlie trained Khaadem to back-to-back Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes wins.

The manner in which he expressed unbridled joy, passion and emotion brought tears to my eyes. His joyous broad smile on the winners’ podium talking to the Queen, with his grandfather’s top hat on at a jaunty angle and his shirt hanging out, was fantastic. And the Queen would not have given a damn, because in those few minutes he reminded everyone why horse racing is the best sport in the world.

But Royal Ascot is also serious business and one glance around the paddock was all it took to remind oneself what incredible soft power and influence horse racing gives the UK.

There are still a few things the UK does really well. Our schools and universities, our theatres and our cultural tolerance are good reasons for international allies to patronise our shores.

But last week pretty much anyone “in town” was there to enjoy Royal Ascot, and that is as good a place as any to welcome our geopolitical allies from around the world and smooth over differences.

There was, however, one glaring absentee. There was no sign of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who has created more jobs in the equine world than any man in history.

The sheikh is rightly revered in racing circles for his generosity and support of myriad good causes. There are apparently some diplomatic stresses between the UK and the United Arab Emirates right now. But it should not be forgotten that he is a great ally of our nation and his absence from Ascot diminishes both countries.

There will always be some cultural differences between Western Europe and Middle Eastern countries. But, as respectful hosts, we should no more assume to project our culture on to them as they do not expect us to adopt their customs.

The importance of these relationships cannot be overestimated. All may have looked magnificent, fine and dandy as the crowds flocked back to Ascot last week in hugely encouraging numbers, but British horse racing is facing devastating financial headwinds.

Such is the splendour and magnificence of Royal Ascot, it is hard to fathom why the Derby is on its knees as far as attracting a crowd is concerned. And it certainly begs the question, if the Royal meeting can work during the week, why could a Thursday or Friday Derby not attract the number of buses that poured into Ascot?

The main topic of conversation last week was who might take the vacant jobs at the top of the Jockey Club, which manages racecourses, and the British Horseracing Authority, which tries to pull the various factions of the industry together.

Whoever takes up these roles will be charged with stopping the talent drain of horses going abroad. And the only way to do that will be to get more money into the sport.

Getting a better deal from the bookmakers is the obvious starting point, but the real low-hanging fruit would be to get rid of the serious revenue leak that is the Racecourse Media Group, which sells the Jockey Club’s media rights. Any new Jockey Club chief executive should be able to bring that function in-house, in turn saving millions of pounds.

Lord Mandelson was the most interesting suggestion as to who should become the next chairman of the BHA. The former European Commissioner for Trade and Labour Party grandee would be a politically smart play by racing.

What would be fundamentally unwise would be to appoint anyone with links to the Tory party to head up the BHA in the face of a Labour government with a likely super-majority.

Mandelson would be incredibly effective at the job and he also knows more about racing than one might imagine.

The late owner-breeder Serena Rothschild was a great friend of his and, indeed, named Trade Commissioner and The Third Man, out of her mare Spinning Queen, after him. But whether he would get out of bed for £100,000 for a two-day week to chair a board desperately in need of restructuring is another matter.