BILL FARNSWORTH is holding court, reminiscing about his early days as general manager of Musselburgh Racecourse. “I’m so bloody pleased I didn’t get the job,” he says. “Someone must’ve been looking over me that day.”
Farnsworth is referring to a point in time around the start of the noughties. He can’t quite pinpoint the date, but it was significant in his career at the East Lothian track. If the cards had landed differently, he would probably be in southern England rather than drinking coffee in the centre of Edinburgh.
“In the early days, I went to Musselburgh in 1998 and I could see that it had bags of potential,” he says. “But, soon after, I was asked to go for an interview to be the manager of Sandown.
“I hadn’t been at Musselburgh long, so I went to see my predecessor Mark Kershaw, who was at Newbury at that point, to ask him about the job. He said it might be a bit too big for me at that point and I might leave myself a bit exposed, but I went to the interview anyway for the experience.
“Sandown must’ve done a good job of selling to me because, after the first interview, I got really keen on the idea. I went for a second interview and they said, ‘we’ll let you know in a week’. I never heard from them and then a couple of weeks later I opened the Racing Post and read that Sandown had appointed a new manager. They never even told me. The guy they appointed was a bigwig from Starbucks. I thought, ‘good luck to the guy, but if it’s a big step up for me then it’s a flippin’ mountain for him’.
“He only lasted a year, if that, and the headhunters got back in touch with me asking if I’d be interested in going back in for the role. I’m not a rude man, but I said ‘I don’t want to talk to people like you’. They hadn’t even given me the courtesy of saying I hadn’t got the job the last time. I let my heart rule my head. I’ve never done anything like it since, but I don’t regret it.”
For Musselburgh, it’s a godsend that Farnsworth and Sandown didn’t work, because the place wouldn’t be where it is today. From the moment he set foot in the door as general manager in 1998, the racecourse has rattled up the inside rail and won numerous awards and plaudits to boot.
Musselburgh nearly went out of business in the 1990s, so for it to be recognised as the best small racecourse in Britain these days shows just how far it has come. Farnsworth, from Bridlington originally and with a farmer’s background, was appointed by then-East Lothian provost Pat O’Brien to come from Hamilton Racecourse, where he had his first job in the sport, and replace Kershaw with a remit of making the business break-even with the eventual goal of making it a course to be proud of.
Scroll through Farnsworth’s achievements at the track and you’ll be impressed. He’s transformed the place, building on a blueprint left to him by Kershaw. The Queen’s Stand and Champagne bar arrived under his watch. The course only had around 14 meetings back then compared to the 28 it has now. Prize money stands at well over £1 million and that’s just for the flat season. Channel 4 are regulars to the track, bringing in television revenue. In June, there’s the Edinburgh Cup on derby day and the Scottish Sprint Cup, a £100,000 race, held on Ladies Day, which is such a popular event in the Lothians calendar that it sells out every time. Footfall at the track has never been higher. The course even broke new ground last year when it held racing on Good Friday for the first time ever in British history. They reconvened again last week and it was, naturally, a success.
So where now for Farnsworth? After approaching 16 years in the job, you’d think the 46-year-old had done all he can at Musselburgh. Surely it can’t get any bigger? Farnsworth, however, has more grand plans.
“What slightly bothers me is the small bit,” he says when asked about the tag of best small racecourse in Britain. “We’re not a small racecourse anymore. We’ve got 28 fixtures, we’ve got prize money of nearly £2m. That isn’t small. I know that relative to York and Ascot that we are. Physically, we’re small, but I would liken us to a football club that has come up through the ranks. They might not have the history and the heritage and the size of Celtic or Manchester United, but they’re still a bloody good football team and they can still give Celtic a run for their money on their day, which we can. We’ve put Musselburgh in a really strong place.
“We’re not a ‘Premier League’ track but we are continuing to pull away from the rest of the pack. We’re making money, we are doing all the good things, and that in itself is quite exciting. But this year we’ve got a document called a Strategic Options Plan, which we’ve put together with [professionl services firm] Deloitte. It’s a pretty heavyweight piece of work and that sets out that we’ve got three strategic options.”
The trio consists of making further improvements to the racing surface, improving facilities for owners and trainers and, ultimately, building a new stand that could take Musselburgh’s capacity up to 15,000 from roughly 10,000, giving it the label of the north’s premier track.
“The options are all pretty exciting,” says Farnsworth. “What we can do by spending between £1-1.5m is improve the quality of racing by improving the quality of the track. But not just a little improvement, we are talking about a massive improvement. At the second level, it’s spending £3m on a new owners’ and trainers’ grandstand and restaurant, so that not only have we got the racetrack, but we can look after the owners and invest in prize money. With that, I’d like to think we can take on the Ayr Gold Cup. I think that’s a great race, don’t get me wrong, but I think the Scottish Sprint Cup should be Scotland’s premier sprint race. That’s where we want to be.
“Then there’s the third option, the new grandstand. To me, the footprint of Musselburgh is still small, relative even to Ayr and Newcastle. In order to give us that gravitas, so that when people come to Musselburgh and don’t think, ‘oh, this is a fantastic small racecourse’, we want them to say, ‘this is a good racecourse’.
“I don’t mind saying that our goal is to become the best track in the north. Anywhere north of York, because we’re not going to compete with them. The racecourses that are in our sights? They are Newcastle and Ayr. I’m not arrogant enough to say that we are going to knock them off their perch, but that’s what we’ve got in our sights. But I think we’ll do it. Have they seen us coming up the inside rail? I don’t know. “It’s not something you can do overnight, though.”
When asked to put a timescale on the changes Farnsworth wants to put on the improvements at Musselburgh, he pauses. A recent disagreement within the committee, which was sparked by the loss of the prestigious Investors In People (IIP) award and a schism between backers of councillor John Caldwell and Lothians Racing Syndicate chairman John Prideaux, has muddied the waters a little. “Good question,” he says. “We’ve got a few problems with the committee which is unfortunately holding us back at the moment. They need to sort themselves out and they need to stop fighting. They need to get back to the day-to-day running of the racecourse and they need to look at the strategic options and agree the way forward.
“As soon as we get to that point, I would see us start doing the track next year, so those improvements along could be in place in the next five years. As for the building work, that’ll take longer. My recommendation is that we go for options one and two and do that, get comfortable with that and then do option three. You’re probably talking 15 years in total, but I’ve been at Musselburgh for more than that and it’s flown by”
And will Farnsworth be there to see it through? More than likely. Bigger racecourses have come calling since Sandown, but he has remained unmoved.
“Jobs have come up at Goodwood, Newmarket, Ascot, Haydock, Aintree ... you get approached for these posts, but I’m happy here,” he says. “I’ve been for two interviews. I went for one at Aintree and one at Ascot. Both jobs were there for the taking, but I’d rather stay at Musselburgh. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, but I love it here.”