Meeting the RCA’s new Racing Director – Andy Clifton

ANDY CLIFTON’S arrival at the Racecourse Association head office in Ascot as its new racing director marks the end of 20 years spent largely in PR and communications roles, but in more senses than one it means his career has come full circle.

His first job in racing, in 1988, a few months after he graduated from the University of Birmingham with a degree in commerce, was as deputy manager of the Jockey Club’s race-planning department in Portman Square. His most recent job, as head of communications at Newbury racecourse, also included managing the course’s race-planning programme.

Clifton fell in love with racing after leaving school, gaining first-hand experience of the betting world when he joined colleagues at the local bookmakers in their lunchtime break while on a year’s work experience with his sponsor Austin Rover at its Longbridge factory. He used to go racing at least twice a week while at university, where he was probably the only student to have the Sporting Life delivered to the halls of residence and chose courses where lectures took place mainly in the morning.

“I wrote more than 100 letters to anyone in racing I could think of.”

But his first attempts to break into the world of racing administration were less than encouraging.

He recalls: “Towards the end of my final year I wrote more than 100 letters to anyone in racing I could think of, and got lots of nice replies but no offers, so I took a job as a trainee distribution manager with Rank Hovis McDougall. I spent two six-week spells at flour mills in Felixstowe and Hull, and was due for a similar stint in Edinburgh when I saw an advert in the racing trade papers for deputy race-planning manager at the Jockey Club.

“The ad made it sound as if you needed to be 30 years old and a computer expert. Well, I was 22 and just about knew how to turn on a computer, but I thought I’d apply anyway.

“I got an interview, conducted by Paul Greeves and John Smee, and I remember the killer question was, ‘Your four-year-old hurdler has just won the Triumph and you’re going to campaign him towards the Champion Hurdle, what would your programme be?’ I said you’d probably go for the Gerry Feilden first, because it’s open only to four- and five-year-olds, and then the obvious races.

“Apparently, everyone else they interviewed, who were 30-year-old computer experts, asked, ‘What’s the Triumph Hurdle?’ So, it was more by luck than judgement that I got taken on.”

That first experience in Portman Square continues to resonate as Clifton takes up his RCA position. The Jockey Club vacancy occurred because Andrew Cooper, now head of racing and clerk of the course at Epsom and Sandown, had left to become a United Racecourses’ trainee.

David Bradshaw, now racing controller at SIS, was in charge of Flat programming; Simon Claisse, now clerk at Cheltenham, was on the staff, and one of the first people whom Smee and Clifton interviewed to join the team was Ruth Quinn, now director of international racing and racing development at the BHA, who recently nominated Clifton as a member of the Flat Pattern Committee. And just down the corridor was Caroline Davies, now Racecourse Services Director at the RCA.

Clifton’s responsibilities soon expanded to become secretary of the newly-formed Jump Pattern Committee and also included a spell on administrative work for the European Pattern Committee – both of which were later to throw up examples of racing’s ‘small world’ environment.

“There was an amusing reminder of my time at the Jockey Club when Bobs Worth won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2013,” Clifton recalls. “I was communications manager at the racecourse and met one of his owners, Malcom Kimmins, after racing, when he was looking for the trophy. I collected it for him and said, ‘It’s bizarre to think nearly 30 years ago you were chairman of the jump pattern committee and I was secretary, and here I am, handing over the trophy that every jumping owner wants to win.’ Funny old world …

“Then, while I was involved with the EPC, the annual meeting rotated among countries and the year it was in Germany I sat next to the boss of the German Jockey Club, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, at a dinner. I thought he was a bright guy and followed his career. Years later, when I was offered the position as executive manager for public affairs at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, I was interviewed by the directors over a period of five days and the prize for getting through that was meeting the chief executive, Winfried.

“As I walked into his office, his first words were, ‘I think we sat next to each other at dinner in Germany in the late-80s,’ so I knew I’d got the job.”

Between working for the Jockey Clubs in Britain and Hong Kong, Clifton’s career took a number of turns, including a spell out of racing. “I loved working in race planning in Portman Square, because you were at the sharp end,” he says, “but I wasn’t sure about the next step, and eventually took the view that I should get some hard-nosed commercial experience away from racing, which would stand me in good stead in the long term.”

He spent two years with Citibank in London, one year as head of equine insurance at Petplan and two years at Ford Credit as an area manager, but, he says: “It was always my plan to get back into racing.”

“It felt like a great opportunity to take a broader industrywide role.”

The opportunity came in 1997, when he succeeded Simon Clare as PR manager at Ladbrokes, where he stayed for five years, followed by two years as PR director at the Tote and a similar spell as managing director of Favourites Racing, before he answered a call from Edward Gillespie to take up a new post as communications manager at Cheltenham.

Clifton recalls: “Edward had convinced the board that they should have someone as the point of contact with the media, and I went there in January 2007. The wisdom of the decision to create the position was borne out the following year, when we had to cancel a day at the Festival because of high winds.

“That was one of the most satisfying days of my working life, on the basis that at the end of the day I knew I wouldn’t have done anything differently. It was a massive team effort to get the races re-programmed. Equally, my last Cheltenham Festival in 2013 included the worst day of my professional life, when JT McNamara had his fall. And somewhere in the middle I managed to get kicked in the parade ring by a horse called Lightning Strike!”

After six years at Cheltenham, the call came from Hong Kong, where Clifton says: “I was flattered to be approached and had a brilliant year there, made many contacts, learned a lot and got a different perspective on several different aspects of the racing industry.”

For personal reasons he returned to the UK after a year, just as Newbury chief executive Julian Thick was reorganising the management team and looking to fill the new role of head of communications.

“I’d worked with and for Julian at the Grand National during the five years he was at Aintree, and we’d kept in contact,” Clifton explains. “I was fortunate that the position became available at the right time. It’s been a brilliant experience, especially since it enabled me to manage Newbury’s race planning.

“I’m particularly proud that we were able to schedule a jumps meeting before what is now the Ladbrokes Winter Carnival meeting in December by moving the Thursday of that meeting back three weeks and leaving a really big fixture on the Friday and Saturday, where we also moved the long-distance hurdle to become the feature on the Friday. The reaction from everyone in 2016 was overwhelmingly positive and we had the best long-distance hurdle for years, as well as an excellent Saturday fixture.”

Now, Clifton has moved from the specific to the general, with race planning and programming for all RCA members as his brief.

“Several things attracted me to the RCA job,” he says. “There aren’t many people who’ve done the variety of jobs in racing and betting as I have, or have the contacts in both areas whose brains I can pick, which gives me the opportunity to take a rounded view of the industry.

“It felt like a great opportunity at the right time to take a broader industrywide role. What’s more, I can hit the ground running, so there’s lots of aspects that makes this the perfect job.”