Magazine article The Spectator

Under Starter's Orders

Magazine article The Spectator

Under Starter's Orders

Article excerpt

Forget Cheltenham. That was just a warm-up. The big meeting next week is at Newbury, and it will have everything -- fierce contests and driving finishes and bitter objections and stewards' inquiries and prize-money running well into eight figures -- everything, that is, except horses.

Trooping into Newbury Racecourse on Wednesday morning, its shareholders will find themselves invited to sack three directors: Nicholas Jones, Brian StewartBrown and Sir David Sieff, the chairman.

All three are boardroom heavyweights and two of them are members of the Jockey Club, but the Guinness Peat Group wants them out and wants one of its own directors, Richard Todd, in. With more than a quarter of the shares in its own hand, GPG has requisitioned a general meeting and will put its resolutions to the vote. In this race the prize, in all but name, is control.

No one objects to the racing at Newbury.

There are badly planned courses and badly run courses, but this is not one -- the Queen Mother always liked it -- and the most audible grumble before GPG's had to do with the siting of the water-jump.

The course itself was laid out a century ago to be handy for the training grounds at Lambourn and for the Great Western Railway. It still has its own station, just behind the paddock.

In those days Newbury was a market town. Nowadays it is Vodafone's company town, at the tip of the fertile crescent, stretching towards Heathrow, where modern businesses prefer to set up shop. In this crescent, property values have sprouted, and no wonder. Considered as a greenfield site, the racecourse, if planning permission ever came with it, would be worth a fortune.

Even the strip of land between the course and the railway, tucked away out of the racegoers' view, is a hidden treasure.

Newbury's board has a deal lined up with David Wilson Homes, which would build houses on this strip, on three sites which would add up to 40 acres and still leave room for a mid-sized hotel. Talks with the planners have been going on for 18 months, and the directors cautiously say that they expect permission to be granted. Money would have to be spent -- on a bridge over the railway, for instance -- to make the scheme work, but cash, in the end, would find its way back to the shareholders.

Its biggest shareholder, though, must have other ideas. Led by that wily New Zealand investor Sir Ron Brierley, GPG has been sitting patiently for years and is represented on Newbury's board, but last year its patience ran out. …

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