Horse Racing: HARD WORKER HARD MAN; Interview Paul Dixon The new president of the Racehorse Owners' Association is on a mission to bring racing's self-interested factions into line for the common good. Peter Thomas talks to Paul Dixon, the industry's enthusiastic enforcer.
IF YOU are a dedicated follower of racing politics, it is likely that at some stage in the past five years you will have lost the will to live while reading a report of the latest wrangle between rival turf factions. You'll have sighed forlornly and said, in response to the interminable and pointless bickering: "Why doesn't somebody just go in there and bang a few heads together?"
Well, don't get your hopes up too high, but somebody has been drafted in to do just that. It's Paul Dixon. He's the new president of the Racehorse Owners' Association and chairman of the recently instituted Horsemen's Group, and as such he is the man charged with turning a gaggle of self-interested and disparate forces into an alpha male in the bear pit of racing politics and finance.
People have tried and failed in the past, but as he bowls into the ROA's London offices, 48-year-old Dixon certainly looks capable of the necessary persuasion. He has the stamp of a modern-day prop forward: six-foot plus; built, as they say in polite circles, like a brick outhouse; neck as thick as a railway sleeper; hair functionally short.
His smart navy pinstripe suit bears the creases of another long commute from his Nottinghamshire estate, and a gentle sweat trickles from his pink cheeks into his white collar. Off comes the jacket, and the only surprise is that he doesn't roll up his sleeves before attacking the problem of marshalling his formerly ill-disciplined troops.
"I'm nobody's fool," he says, not inviting contradiction, "and I think a lot of people overcomplicate racing's issues. There are smokescreens all over the place, when there are fairly simple answers to many of the questions.
"I'm a self-made businessman, I know how to strike a deal and I can be stubborn. If I believe in something, I won't be steamrollered. You're always going to get an element of factional interest and suspicion, but that's what the Horsemen's Group is for, to argue these things out in our own forum without having to have protracted negotiations outside that. An association where we're all pulling together for the same thing gives us a lot more power than we've ever had before."
Dixon is very plainly the embodiment of the new breed of racing politician. His spoon is stainless steel rather than silver. His dad was a salesman and a keen punter, his mum a school cook. He was raised in Worksop, cut his teeth as an under-age punter at Doncaster and Yarmouth, began his career working for Rank Xerox and finished up with his own IT company, a racing stable, stud farm and 40 horses in training. His knowledge of 'the industry' is first-hand and comprehensive, from foaling to funding, from grass roots to Group 1s, and few would question his credentials.
Why, though, you may ask, with a company to run, horses to watch, a single-figure golf handicap to resurrect and three teenage kids, does he need the extra aggro of the ROA and the HG, and by extension the NTF, TBA, JAGB, REL and SLA? And the Levy Board. Surely he can't need the money?
No, he doesn't, which is just as well, because there isn't any. It may sound corny in this day and age, but he views the posts as a privilege. He gets his expenses paid, but he's glad to give freely of his time. His ROA colleague Michael Harris calls him the hardest-working man in the world.
Hard work, indeed. Dixon may have his wife, Yvette, to run his stud and Alan McCabe to run his public training yard at home in Babworth, but he has come to power at a time when the sport is facing some of its most pivotal challenges. The issue of Turf TV rears up frighteningly in the foreground, to the extent that some might believe it was Dixon's comrades who took a step backwards rather than the man himself volunteering for active duty.
Not a bit of it, he says, as he gets his teeth into the betting shop pictures issue with plain relish. He wouldn't want to appear antagonistic, of course, but he has a businessman's belief that racing has long allowed itself to be divided, ruled and undervalued by the big bookmakers, and he is adamant those days are over.
"My analogy," he says, "is that you go to the newsagent primarily for your newspapers, and then you buy a Mars bar or a packet of cigarettes while you're in there.
"People go into the bookies to bet on British racing, then they might use a FOBT machine or have a bet on a greyhound or a cartoon race. They certainly haven't walked in off the street to have a bet at Portman Park.
"Bookmakers have undersold racing for years, but I've always found it to be a very good and effective medium for promoting my own business, and that was one of the main reasons for me getting into the sport.
"The Tote has taken Turf TV on purely commercial terms and all the bookmakers will have to take it sooner or later, because punters want it, and then obviously we'll have the argument about their ability to pay through the levy.
"I see David Harding of William Hill has said they've declared war on racing. That'll be interesting, won't it?"
Dixon is not one to shy away from conflict or direct action. As an owner, he took umbrage four years ago at the scrapping of minimum prize-money values by the Levy Board, blaming the bookmakers and calling for an owners' boycott of a meeting at Wolverhampton. Some trainers and jockeys alleged coercion and intimidation; Dixon remembers it as "an overwhelming swell of opinion through the industry and a good example of how something can be done if we stick together".
HE HAS wrangled publicly, although only through correspondence, with Northern Racing's Rod Street, again over prize-money values. Some saw an unseemly row, but Dixon regards it as "publicity that worked because Northern are now increasing their sponsorship contributions . . . and I have good relationships with the racecourses these days!"
But above it all, Dixon is simply a man who wears his love of racing on his sleeve, and probably has the initials ROA tattooed on his substantial bicep. At heart he is an enthusiastic racehorse owner, and he wants that enthusiasm to be shared by people who may previously have felt left out, by the young and by the man with a 200th share as much as by the 50-year-old ROA member with 40 horses.
What he really wants to share is the thrill of a Milk It Mick, his home-bred horse who spiked the big guns, won a Dewhurst and bagged almost pounds 400,000 in prize-money. Mick went on to Grade 1 success in the US and is currently looking for a place at stud in Blighty. "I'd love to bring him back," says Dixon. "The home is far more important to me than the money, and I'd virtually give him to somebody who would stand him and promote him."
That's Paul Dixon: big and a bit bolshy, but a good man to have on your side, whether you're Milk It Mick or just a staunch supporter of Racing United. He aims to look after his own, and the biggest threat to them, he says, is lack of funds.
"Pressure from bookmakers and courses has meant we're spreading our quality too thinly," explains Dixon. "It amazes me that we put on 70-odd extra fixtures but we're not offered another penny in levy. Why not? Next year they'll want even more fixtures without an offer of any more levy. You can only go on for so long.
"I like watching my horses go from being foaled right through to running on the racetrack - it's like watching your kids run on sports day and I love it. It's about the future, and part of my job is trying to secure that future, because if we keep spreading this sport thinner and thinner, soon all we'll be running for is a little trophy and a red rosette."
ROA president Paul Dixon: "It's about the future, and part of my job is trying to secure that future" EDWARD WHITAKER
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Jun 8, 2007|
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