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Looking back at the Tote bid

It was a busy old week last week, so any plans I might have had to give an immediate reaction to the news about the Tote bid fell by the wayside. It’s probably no bad thing. Plenty of people have written plenty of stuff about it all, and I am not sure my own views are either very enlightening or, I suspect, surprising. If Paul Roy genuinely thinks that only James Given has a view about his having Played 2, Lost 2, then he clearly isn’t in touch with his constituents in a way that people on the Racing Forum are, but that’s his and their issue rather than mine. At least the BHA isn’t the only governing body in sport currently leaving many outsiders shaking their heads in bewilderment, although I must confess to being amused by the Twitter ribbing received by one defender of the Authority, who only a week ago had been commenting on the debacle that is FIFA with the thought that it is strange that they should have someone so unaccountable and autocratic in charge just on the basis that he can deny the existence of any opposition.

Arguably, it matters a lot less who is Chairman of the BHA anyway now, given that Fred Done’s first interview following his victory made the very public pronouncement that both the BHA and the Horseman’s Group have nothing to sell, so will have no part, as far as he is concerned, in the way he runs his new business. The shift in power to the racecourses – long mooted, clearly inevitable – has been given an almighty catalyst. I suspect that the landscape will never be the same again.

From my perspective, having an involvement in the process of the Tote’s sale was one of the most challenging and enjoyable things I have done in a long time. I got to work with a terrific group of high-calibre people, with each bringing his own expertise and strong opinion to the debating table; we all knew we were working towards the same clearly-defined goal, so there was no concern about offending people by expressing an off-beat view; in Fred, we had a figurehead who knew his business like the back of his hand, but also knew what his weaknesses were and was happy to take straight advice; and ultimately, by the final round we had the confidence that comes from feeling we were better and thought we were going to win. In many ways it reminded me of the early days of Betfair.

It was funny, then, to wake up last Friday to find that all the news bulletins on every major network were leading with the story of our victory, because that, too, was an echo (you might say a trumping) of the past:  the day, back in 2005, that the story leaked that we were to get the Australian licence I had been involved in fighting for over eighteen months, the ABC’s lead story was that the Australian servicemen killed in Indonesia were to be re-patriated; but “Betfair gets a foothold in Australia” pipped some news about global warming to second place. I’ve always said that if I ever write a book about Betfair, I’ll call it ‘Sea Levels Rising’, in memory of the third headline about potentially cataclysmic news apparently deemed less of a threat to the antipodean shores than our imminent arrival on them.

I must say that I really didn’t think I would take as much pleasure from the Betfred win as I felt when I was woken by the dulcets of Nicky Campbell telling it to the world;  but the final few weeks, as things went to the wire and people started to take public sides based, as I saw it, on one of very little knowledge, a desire for control over all else, or something bordering on prejudice, focused the mind somewhat. And then, it wasn’t a big win just for Fred and his other advisors, but a first success of note for my new company, too.

Camberton had been going for a matter of weeks when I got a call back in October from John Sunnucks at Tulchan, one of the country’s leading PR firms, to say that they were pitching for Betfred’s business in connection with their bid for the Tote, but that they felt they needed political input and expertise which they didn’t think they had. Would I, he asked, be prepared to do a joint pitch? It didn’t take long to make that decision, given that they are a top-tier firm with a host of FTSE-100 clients and we were nobodies with a track record of about six weeks! Unfortunately, I had two problems.

The first was considering whether, despite the Tote bid fairly obviously being a discrete project within racing and bookmaking, I had a conflict with Betfair as a client. Thankfully, when the Tote’s sale was mooted back in 2007, I had been very keen that Betfair should buy it, and had pushed the idea as hard as I could without success; so I thought it was unlikely to be a problem unless they had had a big change of heart. A quick call to their legal director Martin Cruddace confirmed that they hadn’t: I just asked the question whether they were going to bid, and he confirmed that they weren’t.

The second was, on the face of it, rather more problematic: I wasn’t going to be around on the day of the pitch. The date clashed with the only commitment that had been in my diary for a decade, coming as it did on my tenth wedding anniversary, and I had long ago been scheduled to be in New York. I told John that I would send him Katie Fuller, who runs Camberton’s Public Affairs, and he sounded sceptical. I told him we didn’t have any choice.

Obviously, I wasn’t there to witness how she did, but I have heard about it since from everyone who was in the room. As I knew she would, Katie knocked their socks off. We were invited back for a second round, because Fred said he needed to meet me before he made any decision about our being involved, and he told me some months later, as we walked from his fabulous London house to a meeting in Westminster, that he had been more than suspicious of me. “When my advisors first suggested I hire you, I was incredulous,” he told me. “I said to them, ‘what would I want to hire him for? He’s been the bane of my life and my industry for the last ten years!’ And when you walked in to our meeting,” he added, “I wasn’t sure about you at all.” I’m glad he changed his mind. You might argue it’s a good thing Katie went in first to soften him up.

We spent the next 20 weeks telling people the outline, but (under the terms of an NDA with the government, never the detail) of our bid. Then, after the FT ran a story about racing backing SIP two days after we had presented to a number of people representing racing’s interests, we asked for the NDA to be lifted so that we could go public with what we had, and let people make up their own minds.

The next three weeks were manic, not least because the deadline kept being moved back. I remember from my coxing days how my crews used to tell me that the worst thing I could ever do was tell them there was a set number of strokes to go, only to get to the end of those strokes and tell them that actually, there might be more left after all; and that is exactly what this was like. I played every card I had in expectation of the finish line being in one place, only to get there and find that it had moved. Three times!

I heard we had won through a phone-call on Thursday as I left a delightful lunch with Bell Pottinger’s Group Business Development Director Patsy Baker on Bruton Lane. All of our team was sworn to secrecy until the signing the following day (on pain of it all falling apart), but somehow, by evening, the news was already starting to leak, and the stone-walling we were attempting from our side was having no effect. Mark Kleinman ran a cleverly-worded piece that said everything and nothing, and suddenly everyone was trying to get the news. One correspondent phoned my mobile 6 times in 4 minutes as I walked out of the pub at 11pm. By morning, it was everywhere, surprising me as top story. Only then did I really realise quite what a big deal it all was.

I now owe dinner to the would-have-been-CEO-under-SIP, John O’Reilly, after he mailed me a month before the end of the process and suggested a ‘winner buys’ hedge; and I’m owed lunch by someone who told me, with what was meant to be 24 hours (but proved to be a fortnight) left, that Sir Martin had reportedly never been as confident that he would win anything as he was that he was going to win this one.  I’m looking forward to both. They’ll be fitting ends to a fabulous six months (and particularly last six weeks) of fun.


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