THE battle over the future of Musselburgh Racecourse has taken a dramatic turn with the local council being accused of inventing a phantom investigation.
The former RAF pilot who represents the racing industry professionals at the course challenged the local authority’s claim that an official probe was being carried out into recent events there. John Prideaux, chairman of the Lothians Racing Syndicate (LRS), which runs the course in conjunction with East Lothian Council, said: “We were flabbergasted to read the response to our concerns issued by East Lothian Council.
“It was both inaccurate and illogical, and I have been in touch asking them to withdraw or correct their statement.”
The Evening News reported yesterday how flagship events including Ladies Day were at risk as staff threaten to strike over pay and grievances.
The council issued a statement saying that the concerns of the racing syndicate were being investigated by the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee, the not-for-profit entity set up by the council and the LRS to run the racecourse.
But relations between Councillor John Caldwell, who chairs the MJRC, and the three LRS members of the board have soured, with the syndicate accusing him of poor leadership, sapping staff morale.
Today Cllr Caldwell and Angela Leitch, East Lothian Council’s chief executive, both insisted that an investigation was under way and that it was inappropriate to comment further at this stage.
Despite the problems, business is booming at the course with a record 70,000 punters through the gates a year and a £6 million turnover. BBC Radio DJ Sara Cox has been confirmed as hosting the famed VIP after-party at The Edinburgh Cup in June.
Mr Prideaux, a former secretary at Muirfield, added: “Under the chairmanship of Councillor John Caldwell, the MJRC has become so dysfunctional that it has not even met for several months, far less launched any investigation into the issues raised by Lothians Racing Syndicate.”
He also criticised Ms Leitch for failing to acknowledge four e-mails sent this month seeking crisis talks.
Sport governing body the British Horseracing Authority has only granted Musselburgh a temporary licence until it gets reassurances on next year’s course budget.
Other issues at the course include a second vote of no confidence by staff in the leadership of the MJRC and a top independent lawyer finding grounds for staff grievances.
And in 2014, the course lost its Investors in People status, a nationally recognised standard in staff management.
Now the GMB union is considering balloting members at the course on strike action, with 15 full-time staff and hundreds more on race days.
“The MJRC has not even met in recent months, despite the repeated efforts of Lothians Racing Syndicate directors,” said Mr Prideaux.
He laid the blame for the “negative cycle” at the course with the council and Cllr Caldwell and said LRS members would only join “properly run” board meetings with advance agendas.
“We have seen increasingly devastated staff morale, staff grievances badly mishandled, an unprofessional and unacceptable approach to the proper governance of the racecourse through the MJRC and consequently a total lack of proper financial planning,” said Mr Prideaux.
Cllr Caldwell repeated his assertion that an investigation is under way at the course but refused to disclose any details.
He said allegations made by the LRS were designed to “discredit” him ahead of May’s local election when he will be standing again as an independent in Musselburgh East and Carberry.
“I’m not prepared to get into a war of words – it’s not professional, I’m a local councillor and I know better,” he added.
“This has been blown out of proportion. There are no big issues here. Mr Prideaux wants to run the racecourse.
“If there are issues, you get around the table and have a meeting. We’ve been trying to have meetings for the last few months but Mr Prideaux is refusing to attend unless his demands are met.”
Ms Leitch said: “East Lothian Council recognises the contribution Musselburgh Racecourse makes to the economy of East Lothian and it is unfortunate that complex and confidential business matters have been aired within the media.
“The council is aware of an investigation currently under way at Musselburgh Racecourse and remains of the opinion that it is inappropriate for any further comments to be made.”