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Alastair Down on Friday: Dome chief James could prove ideal for racing.

Byline: Alastair Down

FEW have emerged with reputations enhanced from the slow-burn to unlamented oblivion of the Millennium Dome. Botch-launched on to a tide of public doubt, it has suffered death by a thousand cuts from a basely hostile press.

The ebullient French showman Pierre Yves Gerbeau managed third in the Today programme's Hero of the Year poll, but the man of the hour has undoubtedly been the Dome's executive chairman, David James.

On the day of his appointment in September he appeared on Newsnight, and was asked whether it was true he had been given 20 minutes to accept the job or the Dome would shut that night. Expecting a bland reply, the interrogator nearly fell off his perch when James confirmed that this was indeed the case.

James is a man of dominant intelligence, zero tolerance for what the Irish call eejits and has an abiding passion for racing. A banker by trade-I am indebted to him for the discovery that the collective noun for bankers is a `wunch'-he races an astonishing 75-80 days a year and has had "a once-in-a-lifetime experience" as a member of the syndicate which owns the triple Group 1-winning filly Petrushka.

At the weekend, he was quoted in the Guardian to the effect that Petrushka had proved rather more reliable than the other women in his life, and this did not go down particularly well with one of his admirers. James says: "There was a message on my answerphone which said succinctly `I've read the Guardian-and don't bother to ring back, you bastard!'"

His sojourn at the Dome-which still has time to run-has been described as "too damned long with your balls in the mangle". You may think these are James's words. I could not possibly comment.

The only clue that there may be something mildly unhinged about this senior statesmen among company doctors/pathologists/ undertakers is that he does the Dome job for nothing.

He says: "I'm entitled to a salary of pounds 537,000 but have given it back to the Government. In fact, today I should have been banking a cheque for pounds 350,000 and the fact I haven't done so has been the subject of repeated sore comment since first thing this morning from my personal assistant Linda Thomas, who would be getting a share of it.

"She joined me 17 years ago and has been completely corrupted, even to the extent of my interest in racing. She regards the failure to take a salary as having a 33-1 winner disqualified for failing to weigh in."

James is that rare combination -part boffin, part Bond. His involvement in the Iraqi `supergun' affair was typical. He says: "I had to steal files from my own company, whip them down to MI6 in a nearby motel for photographing and get them back into the office before they had been missed in the morning."

The tale of his famous bet on Sucaryl in the 1967 News Of The World Handicap at Goodwood is testament to James's sheer nerve. He says: "I was engaged at the time to a wonderful girl, a fantastic blonde vision, but she bounced me about two weeks before the wedding.

"I was on pounds 1,000 a year with Ford at the time and had saved pounds 600 towards a flat. In the aftermath of the blonde, I decided to test God's will by having the whole lot on one horse in one race."

James realised after watching the Irish Derby that the runner-up, Sucaryl, was around 21lb well-in for the News Of The World Handicap at Goodwood and "had only to stay alive to win".

He immediately had his full credit line of pounds 75 at 16-1 with Guntrips, pounds 50 with William Hill at 12-1 and pounds 50 with Ladbrokes at 8-1. He then spent all of the Monday getting the rest on around London betting shops until he stood to win pounds 4,400.

Over three weeks, Sucaryl's price plummeted to around evens. Two days before the race his Lewes neighbour, Towser Gosden, offered to buy the bet out at a profit to James of pounds 1,800. However, he would not budge, because that would mean God's will remaining untested.

JAMES remembers: "It was a hideously hot day and when Sucaryl came into the paddock it looked like someone had poured a bucket of detergent over him. I was sweating rather more than the horse when George Moore took him to post. He was never in the slightest danger and won hard-held.

"I spent the next Monday and Tuesday picking up money and it was ten years before I had another bet of more than a fiver."

Last season he saw all Petrushka's Group 1 wins and made a day-trip to Kentucky to see her run in the Breeders' Cup. So does retirement beckon, providing more time for his beloved and highly lucrative spread-betting habit?

He says: "I'll give up when I cease to enjoy the bad days-any fool can enjoy the good ones. The trouble with the intensity of this job is that I have neglected the form book since September, and you can't get away with that."

James's name has been associated with that sharpest bed of nails-Railtrack-though he says he has had no official approach. After Railtrack, perhaps he could turn his hand to the BHB, which is in desperate need of talent forged in the real world.

He says: "Racing has a wonderful, wonderful opportunity, but I have an abiding fear that it will be messed up by the end."

James is unimpressed by many of racing's leaders and, as the outstanding rescue and remedy man of his generation, he would surely be eminently suited to ending the sport's tradition of lions being led by donkeys.

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David James: has a share in the triple Group 1-winning filly Petrushka
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jan 5, 2001
Words:981
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