York CEO William Derby on a legacy racing needs to cherish

Highlight: staging Royal Ascot at York in 2005 “was quite some undertaking and involved a huge amount of planning and effort by everyone involved”. Photo: York Racecourse

William Derby is one of the longest-serving and most successful racecourse CEOs in the world. He has been at the helm of York Racecourse, one of the most prestigious tracks in Europe, since 2002, as both Chief Executive and Clerk of the Course. It’s been a period of huge achievement for York, which has been voted Britain’s Racecourse of the Year by the Racegoers Club for the last two years, and eight times in all, and which stood in for Royal Ascot in 2005 while that racecourse was closed for redevelopment.

Derby (pictured below), a qualified chartered accountant and former Commercial Director at Ascot, whose education included a condensed MBA at Harvard Business School, oversees one of the most important meetings of the year in Britain - the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival in August - as well as a host of other big occasions, including the Dante Festival in May and the John Smith’s Magnet Cup Meeting this Friday and Saturday.


Who do you think is the greatest historical figure in international racing history?

I guess you should start at the very beginning and look to the three English gentlemen who shipped those three Arabian stallions back to England in the early 18th century.  They became known as the foundation stallions as they stand at the head of the bloodline of every Thoroughbred bred since then. The Darley Arabian and Byerley Turk both stood at stud in Yorkshire within 20 miles of York Racecourse, with the Godolphin Arabian a little further away in Derbyshire. Their owner-breeders, Thomas Darley, Captain Byerley and Edward Coke respectively, created the gene pool for what, to my mind, is the most perfect, beautiful and exhilarating creature in the world.

Which is your favourite venue and race?

Indulge me - I would have to say the Group 1 Juddmonte International here at York Racecourse. In 2015, this was rated the top race in the world by the IFHA [International Federation of Horseracing Authorities] and it has a long track record of attracting the very best middle-distance horses from across the generations, so every year seems to be a cracker.  

Frankel (see video above), Sea The Stars, Australia and Authorized are just some of the recent winners of this £1m contest. The atmosphere on the Knavesmire, the parkland site of York Racecourse close to the historic city of York, is very special, particularly on the day when the track is buzzing about these top horses. Add in a touch of glamour with the high society fashion and you create a real sporting and social occasion.

What is your fondest memory in racing?

Staging Royal Ascot at York Racecourse in 2005 while its Berkshire home was being redeveloped was a very special occasion in the history of both racecourses. The relocated meeting - some 200 miles north for the only time in its near 300 year history - was quite some undertaking and involved a huge amount of planning and effort by everyone involved.  

The memories of five days of tremendous racing action, in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen, and in front of sell-out enthusiastic crowds, live long in the memory. Seeing Cape Of Good Hope from Hong Kong blitz down the track in the Group 1 Golden Jubilee Stakes on the final day under glorious sunshine after such a fantastic and memorable week, I remember thinking “blimey, we’ve done this!”

People still talk about that week in such positive terms.

What do you see as the biggest challenge racing faces today?

As a bedrock, the sport needs to continue to adhere to the highest standards of both integrity and equine welfare to continue to receive the trust and support of horse lovers, punters and the wider population.

To succeed in the future, racing needs to continue to work hard to stay relevant and accessible in today’s sporting and entertainment landscape. Whether as a sporting event, betting medium or venue for a great day out, racing needs to ensure it promotes and delivers an experience that is fun, engaging and welcoming, be it to the novice or the committed follower.  

If you could change one thing in racing, what would it be?

Racing is in the entertainment game. Whether for the owner of the horse, the person going to the track or the punter having a bet, all participants need to work together to promote the sport, innovate and engage. Those three gentlemen, Darley, Byerley and Coke, gave us a legacy we need to cherish and nurture to ensure racing flourishes for centuries to come.

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