Talking Horses: electing Dido Harding just another win for the chumocracy

<span>Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA</span>
Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

For the first time since its foundation in 1750 in a London pub, and about 60 years since it conceded, pretty much on the steps of the high court, that women should be allowed to hold a full trainer’s licence, the Jockey Club is apparently poised to appoint its first female senior steward when it holds elections later this month.

Sky News reported last week that Dido Harding, aka Baroness Harding of Winscombe, is expected to succeed Sandy Dudgeon, the current senior steward, from July 2024. Given that the Jockey Club was exclusively male for well over 200 years, before electing three women to its ranks in 1977, it could be seen as a sign that the pace of change at the Rooms in Newmarket is accelerating.

It is not necessary to scratch too far below the surface, however, to sense that it is all as pickled in aspic as ever.

In almost every respect apart from her gender, Harding is an identikit senior steward, the latest in a long line of blue-blooded, privately educated individuals, mostly from the landed aristocracy, to be appointed as the (unpaid) chair of one of the most exclusive private members’ clubs in the country.

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It is a club, what’s more, with considerable clout in an industry which counts its turnover in billions and keeps tens of thousands of people in employment. Its subsidiary, Jockey Club Racecourses, owns and operates many of the most significant tracks in the country, including Cheltenham, Aintree, Epsom, Newmarket and Sandown. As such, the Jockey Club is British racing’s largest employer, with annual turnover of more than £200m.

Like every senior steward since 1970, Harding will also operate with very little oversight, since the Royal Charter granted to the Jockey Club by Queen Elizabeth II more than 50 years ago in effect assumes that its stewards will always act in the best interests of racing as a whole, and should be left alone to get on with it. The Club might argue, with some justification, that this was an asset when, for instance, it moved to secure the future of Aintree in the mid-1970s. Detractors, though, could point to the plan in 2017 to sell Kempton Park for housing and build an all-weather track in its Newmarket home instead.

Harding is best-known within racing as the owner of Cool Dawn, the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, and also as a former amateur jockey with a couple of dozen wins to her name. She is also – for the moment, at least – very well connected in the corridors of power. She has been a friend of David Cameron, the new foreign secretary, since university and been one of the Lords’ more active and engaged peers since her elevation in 2014, while her husband is John Penrose MP, one of the few Tories whose majority looks fairly impregnable.

Unlike most prospective senior stewards, however, Harding also has a wider public profile. Her business career included seven years at the telecoms firm TalkTalk, during which a data leak compromised the details of 4m customers, before being appointed by Matt Hancock, the health secretary at the time and also the MP for Newmarket, to head up the government’s £37bn test-andtrace programme during the Covid pandemic. Its effectiveness remains very much a matter of debate.

Lingfield Park 12.00 Always Fearless 12.30 Rich Harry 1.00 Dashing Darcey 1.30 Via Blanc 2.05 Blue Universe (nap) 2.35 Star Of St Louis 3.05 Fair Dinkum 3.35 Nordic Glory

Southwell 12.15 Sageburg County 12.45 Presenting Nelly 1.15 Howyouplaythegame 1.50 A Pro Po 2.20 Smurfette 2.50 Classic Concorde 3.20 Annie Day

Wolverhampton 5.00 Hard Solution 5.30 Amroon 6.00 Agostino 6.30 Galloping On 7.00 Talis Evolvere (nb) 7.30 Whatwouldyouknow 8.00 Min Till 8.30 Trusty Scout

No one should be in any doubt about Harding’s passion for the sport of horse racing or, for that matter, her bravery and resilience under pressure.

That was more than evident at Wincanton racecourse a quarter of a century ago, when Harding rode Cool Dawn in a Grade Two event just six months after his Gold Cup success. Cool Dawn went over backwards as they left the paddock and landed on top of his owner-rider, but she picked herself up and carried on regardless.

Whether that should entitle her to walk into one of the sport’s most powerful roles is another question. The death of Queen Elizabeth II might have been the right time to review the Club’s royal charter, but instead it seems to be business – or chumocracy – as usual, and while the Jockey Club electing its first female senior steward might look like a 21st-century move, in many ways it is really just more of the mid-19th.

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