As THE first woman to be chief executive of a Scottish football club, Vivien Kyles attracted a lot of attention when she took over at Livingston FC back in 2004, some of it frankly sexist, centring on her blonde good looks rather than her stellar career in business.
She saw the club through traumatic times including the Hassan Kachoul scandal and the departure of manager Paul Lambert, before leaving to become the chief executive of Hamilton Park racecourse, a job in which she has thrived – put it this way, she doesn’t miss football too much.
“This will be my fifth season here so I have lasted longer in racing than I did in football,” said Kyles,
“The horses don’t answer back as much so it is not so fretful, and I don’t have to deal with football agents.”
Kyles did not shirk from arguments at Livingston and she is not afraid to broach a possibly controversial subject in these interesting times for Scotland. First Minister Alex Salmond is well known as a racing fan and Kyles admits that his love of the sport has perhaps led to early questions being posed about the future of racing in an independent Scotland. “Scottish racing does punch above its weight,” said Kyles, “because on occasion we pool together and manage to get more than we deserve, or so some would argue, because we are not five Newmarkets or Ascots, we are five aspiring courses that are just trying to do the best that we can.
“We have Bill Farnsworth of Musselburgh on the British Horseracing Authority and I am on the board of the Racecourse Association (she is vice-chair) so we are plugged into what goes on in the industry generally.
“We are getting asked what would happen to racing in Scotland if independence goes ahead.
“I have spoken to the BHA about that and generally saying you just have to look at Ireland where north and south of the border it is governed by one body.
“There is so much to be gained from us being in the BHA and RCA as two organisations running things north and south of the border.”
Tomorrow sees the start of the 2013 season at Hamilton Park with the Cancer Research UK Family Day expected to draw a crowd of several thousand to the Lanarkshire track.
Hamilton is the only one of Scotland’s five racecourses which races exclusively on the Flat in what is laughingly called the ‘summer’ months, and normally it would not have frequent abandonments the way that winter jumps meetings do. Last year, however, Hamilton suffered traumatically at the hands of the weather gods, losing four out of 18 planned fixtures to rain-induced ground problems, and Kyles has consequently become an expert on such matters as drainage.
“It was painful weather-wise,” said Kyles. “Losing four meetings meant we had the highest percentage of abandonments in the country and we didn’t even get to close off the season because the last fixture on 1 October was abandoned – that’s the last time we’ll be trying to race in October.
“So getting started can’t come fast enough and in the last few years we have been blessed with reasonable weather to bring in a crowd on opening day. We will be supporting a very good cause tomorrow and it’s a time full of optimism.
“We have spent about £150,000 this year to re-do connection draining and making sure that water will drain away along the length of the track.
“The pull-up area has been totally dug up and re-done and there’s a new surface between the pull-up area and the parade ring, so there’s been a lot of visible changes.
“We are confident that we have done as much as we possibly can – I have never learned so much about grass surfaces. I thought I knew a lot about surfaces due to undersoil heating in football, but it’s a whole new ball game here.”
Kyles selected a couple of meetings to look out for this season. Braveheart Night on 17 May will see the running of the Listed Braveheart Stakes with the Red Hot Chilli Pipers providing their particular blend of Scottish entertainment, and the Ladbrokes Lanark Silver Bell race night on Friday 23 August will be another highlight.
Kyles said: “Last year we commissioned a silver piece to be presented to the winning connections because the Bell itself is priceless and can’t go anywhere, so that new trophy will be up for grabs again and will help emphasise the rich heritage of racing at Hamilton.
“A lot of people say that Hamilton perhaps doesn’t attract the top jockeys and we don’t have a race as big as the Scottish Grand National, but we have changed our racing calendar so that we have a couple of big racing occasions, such as the John Smith’s Mid-Fair Friday on 19 July when we will have the Listed Glasgow Stakes and the John Smith’s Scottish Stewards Cup – it will be the richest race meeting we have had in years in terms of prize money.
“Racing is very much at the core of what we offer, but we do have meetings that are recognised as social events, such as Ladies Night on the first Saturday of August and the Saints and Sinners meeting on 27 June.”
The weather forecast is for a reasonably dry weekend, so Hamilton should start its season in good order tomorrow when an extra race has been added to the card, making eight in all with doors open at 12.15pm and the first race off at 1.40pm.