BRIDGET GUERIN is renowned for being first past the post at York Racecourse which remains so integral to her life in the sport.
She and her husband Benoit were the first couple to be married at the track, the civil ceremony taking place in July 1999
She was the first woman to join the revered York Race Committee which presides over the Knavesmire’s world-class Flat racing.
Now, a decade later, she today hosts her first fixture – the prestigious Dante Festival – as chairman of a course which has become her second home.
Yet, while crowds are still not permitted to attend, Guerin is able to welcome owners, and the ITV Racing team, this week.
And they, too, will be able to share her lifelong passion of racing as a child, student, betting shop employee, City high-flier, racecourse executive – and owner.
In her first interview about her new role, she’s talking about York while her horse Showalong, who she co-owns with her husband and friend Kevin Hart, is winning at Chester for trainer Tim Easterby.
Nerves mean she’d rather be at York before David Allen’s mount closes remorselessly on the pacesetters. “Come on, Showalong,” she implores the TV.
“Go, Showalong. Go on, Showalong. Yes. That’s great. Well done, Showalong.” And Guerin then turns to me and says: “Phew!”
It meant that much for someone born into racing – her father John Cleverly was the much respected chief executive and clerk of the course at Beverley as well as running Redcar, Thirsk and Sedgefield.
Her earliest memories of racing are days out, as an eight-year-old, with her brothers at Beverley where the Westwood is common land. “We used to shovel the cow s*** off the course,” says Guerin who has always adopted a hands-on approach.
However her first trip to York was serendipitous – she loved the racing but was heartbroken when the great champion Brigadier Gerard was defeated by Roberto in the 1972 inaugural running of the International which now, under the Juddmonte banner, is officially rated the world’s best Flat race.
Even Guerin’s summer job was at York working behind a Tote betting booth, helping the clerks calculate the odds and deal with punters when ever exchange was undertaken manually. “It was fascinating. It was in the day when you had to punch out the numbers. It was hard work,” she recalled.
And even though a degree in economics – mental arithmetic behind the Tote windows certainly helped – and history at Cambridge University was the precursor to a very successful City career in finance, racing took precedence.
Day trips to Newmarket and Huntingdon took precedence over her studies and she became a successful racing correspondent – and tipster – for the university’s newspaper Stop Press.
Even her thesis, a history of social participation in turf racing from 1750, helped secure her first job with Mecca Bookmakers where she worked in betting shops in London before taking on roles with sponsorship and marketing – including the Dante.
And while her illustrious career included 12 years at global investors Schroders and 10 years as MD of Matrix Money Management, she’s combined this with her passion for racing.
She’s been a steward for 20 years at Ripon, Thirsk and Beverley, overseeing the integrity of the sport, and remains on the board of the Westwood track – though clearing cow mess is, thankfully, no longer in the job description.
Yet it is her six-year stint as York’s chairman, and which began on New Year’s Day, which clearly means the most to Guerin who succeeds the avuncular Lord Teddy Grimthorpe, the longstanding racing manager to the late Prince Khalid Abdullah whose equine greats included the incomparable Frankel.
Her committee also includes Nicholas Wrigley, another past chairman, while Lord Halifax, who has also held the prestigious role, is life president. “Very illustrious footsteps,” she says. “I feel they are big shoes to fill and they have all left behind a positive legacy provided that I don’t mess up – that will be an achievement!
“I’m excited about taking it on. I am quite confident I have the skills to do a good job. Throughout my life, I have been quite a good delegator and the committee is full of people with fantastic racing connections.”
The immediate challenge is Covid – Guerin describes the collective sigh of relief after York’s last meeting of 2020 that the team, headed by chief executive William Derby, will never again have to stage behind-closed-doors racing.
Little did they realise that such optimism would be premature – albeit by a matter of days as Covid restrictions ease again next Monday just over 48 hours after the three-day Dante meeting ends.
Yet the early signs are encouraging, Prize money for the Dante, and flagship Group One races at the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival in August, will be back to pre-Covid levels in order to attract the very best horses.
And while she promises a relentless focus on the quality of service offered to racegoers and guests, there’s a realisation that York’s magnificent facilities need to be utilised 365 days a year in a post-pandemic economy.
This means hiring out hospitality boxes to companies for staff meetings to the sale of bedding plants – York prides itself on being a kalieodscope of colour – and allowing tourists to stay at the newly-renovated Stableside facilities on non-racedays.
This has been a major undertaking. “I did a bit of flooring and William (Derby) did a bit of tiling,” says Guerin who says the space used by stable staff will, for example, be made available for camping as another revenue stream.
“I was good on the saw. Believe it or not, I did enjoy it. It was a great way to get to know the team. What we really do need to do is maximise the use of our facilities – even leasing out the weighing room to physios.
“We have a green agenda too. Solar panels on the building and land – we’re looking at all the options. It’s a challenge – but it’s good to have a challenge because it allows to be innovative.”
It helps that Guerin is, first and foremost, a racing devotee. Watching her red and white colours being carried to victory at York by Excessable in 2017 was, she says, “the greatest thrill of my life”.
With four horses in training, she’d love another winner on the Knavesmire because it is such a special place to win. “I like the idea of owning horses – but I get nervous watching the races,” she adds before heading off to walk the track with her faithful labradors.
“However you can’t live with out it. It’s addictive.” Just like York.
A racing woman in a man’s world
THERE IS no question of Bridget Guerin deferring to modern trends when it comes to her new job title.
Chairman? Chairwoman? Chair? It’s no contest.
“I’d like to be known as ‘chairman’ because that’s how it has always been,” says the successful City executive.
“I have been a woman in a man’s world from the time I left university.
“I’m probably most excited to be chairman of York of anything I have done.
“I’ve lived in Ryedale for virtually my entire life and I’m honoured to be doing this job and what is my home track.
“I can’t wait for the return of crowds. After all, racing needs crowds for the atmosphere they bring to the course and the sport.”
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