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'The stand? It looks the part and it's a big statement' The Duke of Devonshire steps down as Majesty's Representative at Ascot thisHer year. He talks to Peter Thomas about some of the momentous changes he has overseen.

Byline: Peter Thomas

WITH a name like Peregrine Andrew Morny Cavendish, the Earl of Burlington was never a chap born to man the barricades or haul the tumbrel, even before he became the Marquess of Hartington, the 12th Duke of Devonshire and a KCVO, CBE. At Eton, social dissidents have always been a bit thin on the ground, while Exeter College, Oxford is known to favour a rigorous game of croquet over outright revolution as a means of resolving disputes, so it comes as some surprise to hear Her Majesty's Representative at Ascot holding court on the democratisation of the royal meeting.

True, the 11th duke had defected from Margaret Thatcher's Tories to the SDP, supported Derby County and once gave the V-sign to a crowd of booing Frenchies at Longchamp, following the defeat of his mare Park Top in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, so there is some family history of rebellion, but none so shocking in its classlessness as that of 'Stoker', the man who let the hoi polloi into the inner sanctum of the aristocracy without so much as a 'now, look here'.

"That's pretty unattractive snobbery and unpleasant and I wouldn't bother too much about those comments because they don't really amount to anything," he retorts, mildly enough, when reminded of the 'Invasion of the chavs' headlines that accompanied the admittance of new money into the royal enclosure a few seasons ago. Quite apart from the equality and the democracy, there were the racecourse finances to think about, and the liberal lord is nothing if not fair and practical.

By then, the man who recently declared the aristocracy to be dead was used to momentous social upheaval, having overseen the bloodless overthrow of the Jockey Club in his days as its senior steward. He had felt the wind shifting, whether anybody liked it or not, and was happy to follow the prevailing public mood.

"I like the idea of change," says the man who this year will surrender his long-held roles at Ascot, "although sometimes it's a bit uncomfortable. I don't like doing things simply because they've always been done a certain way, although often one must pay respect to tradition, and I wouldn't, for example, want to tamper with the dress code in the royal enclosure - it's what people want to do, it's a bit mad, but it's been there for a long time and it looks fantastic and I love it. You don't want to change everything, but at Chatsworth, here at Ascot and in the Jockey Club, a bit of questioning why we do things is no bad thing."

At Chatsworth, the Cavendish's family seat since 1549, the embrace of change has been as necessary as it has been successful, turning the 1,000-acre Peak District millstone into England's 'best large visitor attraction'. At Ascot, the need for reform was no less acute, but His Grace didn't need to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. Now, pounds 210 million, one new grandstand and a top-hatful of discontent later, the building side of the project is complete, but the business is, in common with every class of racecourse, having to re-examine its financial plan almost by the week.

Freshly returned from the Venice Biennale - one of Stoker's many cultural diversions and responsibilities, which include a love of contemporary art and chancellorship of the University of Derby - the duke, tall, imposing and frank, harks back to the tumultuous reception granted the stand's unveiling in 2006.

"The stand? It had its moments, definitely, but it was basically very exciting, as it still is. My time here has been a game of two halves, before and after the new stand, but when I go there now, I'm thrilled by what I see. It looks the part and it's a big statement and people are now responding in a really positive way.

"The trouble is, when people talk about the old stand, they've probably forgotten that tunnel, which was worse than disappointing, it was completely unacceptable, even then, and now it would obviously be out of the question.

"There is still more to be done and there will be for ten years, and in 15 to 20 years, they'll start thinking about the next one. Stadiums should only last for 40 or 50 years because people's requirements change so much."

By comparison, the matter of handing over the powers of the Jockey Club to a new, more accountable body, in 1993, after more than 250 years of uninterrupted service, was a straightforward affair, a simple acknowledgement that a modern sport had different needs and requirements to the one that existed in the 18th century. Of course, there was a financial element to this necessity, as well, and nobody was better qualified than Stoker to recognise that.

"The Jockey Club was actually pretty easy," he says. "There were one or two members who weren't sure it was the right time, but the Conservative government of the day said if you want more money for racing, you've got to democratise yourself, and as the Jockey Club existed for the benefit of racing, it was a bit of a no-brainer.

"The new format certainly hasn't made it any easier, and I think the Jockey Club did a good job, but you can't have a self-electing body running a sport, in my view, and the government thought so, too, so that was the end of that.

"The Jockey Club saw, as clear as day, the benefits to racing, so it was game over."

Amid all the upheaval, however, there was one area in which Stoker steadfastly demonstrated that, although he was in favour of change as a rule, he was also a staunch supporter of any tradition that could prove its continued worth. As Her Majesty's representative at Ascot since 1997, he has acted as a link between the monarch and the racing world, helping to maintain the Sport of Kings in a form that has been recognisable for generations. It hasn't always been an easy task, but it is one the unconventional aristocrat has evidently performed to the monarch's satisfaction, judging by the title of Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order she personally bestowed upon him in 2009.

"Her Majesty is the most wonderful person to work for," he suggests, loyally. "She's in a way very undemanding, but she does ask a lot of questions. I remember when I started in the role, I'd spend my whole day saying 'I don't know, I'll find out'. You have to be quite well briefed, but that's good because it keeps you on your toes.

"She has such an eye for detail. I remember her suggesting, one year, on the Tuesday of the royal meeting, that the bushes on the heath were too high and that people standing on the lawns probably couldn't see the runners going round Swinley Bottom. That was dealt with overnight. She could see fine from the royal box but was concerned about other racegoers.

"She realises how much people love Ascot and her enthusiasm rubs off on everybody."

THE 12th duke takes his official leave of Ascot after this year's meeting, standing down as Her Majesty's Representative and senior trustee, intending to return from time to time, hopefully when one of his broodmares produces a horse good enough. He leaves behind him a legacy of modernisation that has challenged in no small measure but has formed a solid foundation for a bright commercial future.

His departure means that present chairman Johnny Weatherby will take over as the Queen's wing man, and will also face even more flak than before over the latest racing revolution, the birth of Qipco British Champions Day and the relocation of the Champion Stakes from Newmarket to Ascot, a subject on which Stoker has strong, if typically relaxed, views.

"It's not that big a change," he shrugs. "It's like moving the furniture really - you can always move it back again. People do get excited about things like that, but it's not as if you're knocking the house down.

"It's disappointing, but not surprising, that quite a few people who should know better were knocking it without putting up any sort of suggestion of what else they might do to get more new people interested in racing, but luckily the people for change have won the day."

And with that, the unlikely revolutionary left horseracing in a very different, more modern, almost certainly better, state than that in which he found it.

The duke on ...

The size issue We're all getting a lot fatter and we need more room to sit down, something like 30-40 per cent more space required per person between this stand and the 1964 one. One element is that we are physically getting bigger, sometimes grossly so, and the other is that we expect more of what I believe is called 'personal space'. Remember what it was like to go and watch a football match, you were absolutely squashed, and people don't want that any more, they don't like being too close together. Space is a luxury that's expected now.

Ascot highlights I thought Harbinger (pictured) last year in the King George was pretty exciting, bookending with my father's horse Park Top when she won the King George back in 1969, having been last into the straight. And who could ever forget Yeats, particularly the last time, or Frankie's seven winners. We're spoilt for choice.

The age-old problem The levy has been our bread and butter and if there's no way we can significantly increase that, the racing industry is going to have to look for other sources of income or lower its sights, and I hope it will be the former rather than the latter. But it was ever thus. I don't think anybody at the sharp end has ever found it easy and people's expectations are always rising, which is good, but it means that delivery is more difficult. We were lucky to have Douglas Erskine-Crum come out of the army and take Ascot by the scruff of the neck.


Changing man: The Duke of Devonshire oversaw the bloodless overthrow of the Jockey Club; below, dealing with the press as Ascot unveiled its new stand
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jun 12, 2011
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