John Stuart’s introduction to horse racing came at an early age. His father was a keen punter and a friend of the late trainer Des Rich. John’s career path started in accounting and in 1979 he joined the then TAB Natal as an internal auditor. His path led him to join Phumelela where he worked for the late Derrick Wiid who had a big influence on him. He credits Derrick with being the man who hatched the idea of televising and betting on much of the overseas racing we see on our screens today. His interest in racing extends beyond his accounting and auditing duties to owning and punting horses. He admits in an honest and forthright manner that the levels of customer service must be raised and that ‘the good’ news about racing must be brought to the public’s attention in a positive manner. Right now he freely admits that all stakeholders need to be informed and a change in the media strategy should help fix this. Racing in general can only benefit from the enthusiasm, and love of the game, that John has for the racing business.
What is your name and age? John Stuart (56).
What is your star sign and birthdate? Cancer–17/07/56.
Where were you born? Eshowe in KZN.
Where do you live? Bryanston, Johannesburg.
Tell us about your family? I am married to Sandy and have a stepson Dean (20) and daughters Abbey (12), Hayley (11) and Cailin (11.)
Do you have a ‘nickname’? JS.
Favourite food? Peri Peri chicken (hot).
Favourite drink? Windhoek lager or a nice crispy sauvignon blanc.
Favourite music? ABBA.
Favourite sport? I follow all sports but cricket and golf would be my favourites.
Favourite soccer teams? Orlando Pirates and Liverpool.
What is your favourite holiday destination? Anywhere in the bush that is close to a golf course.
How did you first get involved in horse racing? When I was growing up we lived in Ladysmith and my late dad was mates with the late Dessie Rich and my dad would look after Dessies’s stud farm in Mooi River whenever he went on holiday. My dad also loved to punt and I can still remember listening to the July Handicap when Colorado King won in 1963. Sadly my dad backed a horse called Ptolemy, which ran third.
What was your first vacancy into the sport? I joined what was then known as TAB Natal in 1979 as Internal Auditor!
You currently hold the position of International Executive Director of Phumelela. Tell us what this job entails? While I work for Phumelela I represent the JV and Phumelela Gold Enterprises. The International team is responsible for our Isle of Man hub operation-the importing of racing into SA to supplement the local racing schedule and the exporting of SA racing to the world. In addition to the Isle Of Man I have representatives in the UK, Germany, Senegal and a local staff compliment of 7. Currently we import racing from 14 different countries and export to around 25 (and growing!). Just to set the record straight the importing of racing every 10 minutes, whether it is from Kenya or harness racing from Sweden it does bring in additional turnover which benefits the sport of horse racing in SA-regardless of what we may think as individuals. People in racing have many diverse and sometimes unfounded opinions. Around 80% of our betting turnover comes from the betting shops! The majority of the customers in these shops have never seen a race course and just want to have a bet!
Just a few years ago South Africans were restricted to punting on local racing, but many have really taken a liking to the international race meetings. How instrumental were you in bringing more overseas racing to our shores? I cannot lay claim to one of the great successes in our business. It was Brian Mehl, and the late Derrick Wiid, who hatched the idea. I was, however, working for Derrick at the time who was so intimately involved in the process.
We have covered most of the globe’s racing. Which country’s racing is next on the agenda? Our schedule is full between 10.15 in the morning to around 18.00 in the evening but where the UK race at night we do bring that product in and turnovers on it have been growing nicely. You would have also noticed that we have recently started importing racing from the USA as well. Ultimately we would like to have racing 24/7. We get a lot of flak for bringing in harness racing but there is no other flat product in those time zones. While turnover on harness racing is less than what would be achieved on flat racing it will surprise many that South Africans still bet R180m a year on this Australian product.
Phumelela is a listed company. How is the company performing on the JSE and what are its associate companies? The share price has been flat lining for the last four years, in line with turnovers in SA. We are busy working on a number of initiatives which will hopefully change this position, not only for Phumelela but also for sport as the trust owns 35% of the company. Phumelela also owns 100% of Betting World, around 10% of ASL (one of the totes in Mauritius). PGE owns 50% of Premier Gateway International, the Isle of Man hub.
Did you make a conscious decision in your career to become specifically involved in the horse racing business? No, not really. I was busy doing an audit at TAB Natal when the position of Internal Auditor came up and it excited me.
Who are the people you are most associated with at Phumelela? I have to work very closely with Vee Moodley on the import product, Ken Rutherford on the export side (we produce and export 3 different channels, including one with Chinese graphics and previews) and Patrick Davis on the timing of the races. On the strategic side I spend a lot of time discussing things with Rian du Plessis. I also work very closely with Graeme Hawkins from Gold Circle on the timing of their races.
From a personal perspective what are some of the ideas you have to revitalize interest in the game? We have to raise our levels of customer service while the on course experience, including catering has to be mind blowing. We have to change our media strategy and get all the good news into the public eye and embrace the social media. This will help bring in corporate sponsorships which in itself will help drive interest. Unfortunately all of the negative nonsense we see does not help these initiatives.
What are the major changes you have seen during your time in this sport? There have been many changes in the last 20 years. It is not only the introduction of casinos in 1997 that impacted on the sport. We also had SA’s reintroduction to International sport in 1992, the introduction of the National Lottery in 2000(I think!), the legalization of the open bet in 2005 and the worldwide economic meltdown. It shows how resilient this business is that we are still around. It was the casinos however who did the most damage (they now represent 90% of the betting pie in SA). Before the snipers have a go the Singapore Turf Club has experienced exactly the same since the opening of two casinos there recently. As a result in the late 1990’s the business was essentially bankrupt and this led to rationalization and in our provinces corporatization as well. Regardless of what people think the betting landscape has changed forever and we are just a small player in it now – I think tote betting now only represents about 2.8% of the betting pie.
Do you own any horses? No-until about a year ago I was involved in a syndicate that raced about 4 horses. I also put together an International syndicate and we had two horses in training. One raced 4 times but was a bleeder and the other never saw the race course!
How much interest do you take in the racing side of the game? Do you have a flutter on the horses and if so, what is your strike rate? I do follow it, no matter where I am in the world. Being proudly South African I champion our racing around the world whenever I get the opportunity. I love to have a punt but wish I didn’t!
Do you think it would be a good idea to have an annual, or semi-annual, meeting where representatives from the race clubs, racing media, owners associations, trainers associations, breeders and jockeys and even grooms could get together to discuss ways in which horse racing in South Africa can be improved? No I attend these gatherings around the world and they have been talking about the same thing for the last seven years and I guess will still be doing so in the next seven. Having said that, we do have regular Industry Liaison meetings in Phumelela country where various issues are discussed and I think that is important. It also gives us an opportunity to explain our role with all of the stakeholders. From a marketing perspective we should have customer forums and listen to what they have to say.
How important is it for you to socialize with owners, trainers, jockeys and the racing media? I think, in all honestly, this is one area where we have failed. We need a closer relationship and we need to keep these stakeholders informed. We also don’t do a good job of sharing the good news and a change in our media strategy should help fix this.
Do you have a favourite horse which you follow? Not really, I appreciate the performances of all good horses. To me there is nothing more courageous than to see a horse dig down deep to come back and win. Having worked with the late Derrick Wiid I have a soft spot for his son Lance’s stable and follow his horses closely.
What other major changes would you like to see happen for South African racing in order to ensure the future well-being of racing? We need to get our own house in order in terms of customer service. I know that Clyde Basel (on course experience) and Vee Moodley (retail and betting) have started the process but this will take time particularly when it was neglected for so long. Now that we have racing and betting people in charge at Tellytrack we have seen a change there but Ken Rutherford will still regard it as work in progress. I have also spoken about a revised media strategy and this too will be implemented shortly.This is stuff that we can fix now and will result in increase in turnover but it won’t change the under-funding of the sport. We simply have to get a far bigger contribution from the bookmaking fraternity.
Do you believe that racing in this country should be controlled by one body and if so, list a few of the major benefits thereof? Absolutely, we are small in the overall betting market so a merger would make sense in a lot of respects. From a marketing perspective to have one company, one brand, one call centre, one website, one customer care number would make a big difference. Rationalisation will result in significant savings in head office costs. From a regulatory point of view we could approach government with one voice rather than the fragmented approach now. Similarly we are chasing the same players in the sponsorship market which just creates confusion. Already the most successful part of our business, which is the exporting of South African product for betting purposes, is a joint venture. There are already other areas of collaboration like Tellytrack, Publishing, Saftote and the National Racing Bureau which is all good for the business. To complete the set would make so much sense and I cannot understand why it hasn’t happened.
Do you have any thoughts as to what could, or should, be done about the import-export controls now in place with regard to sending SA racehorses abroad? I’m not really involved enough to comment but from the little I do understand I think the current situation is outrageous.
The annual Citizen International Jockeys Challenge has been well-received by the racing public. What are your thoughts on the event and are there any new innovations in the pipeline? I think it is great for the racing public to see these international stars pitting their skills against our stars. Sadly even this does not get the people to the track.
Of the big racing provinces, Gauteng continues to struggle to attract crowds to their big race meetings, despite introducing new concepts for the day. What do you attribute this failure to? Never mess with tradition. The Summer Cup used to be the biggest event in SA, then it was moved to Autumn, its name was changed as were the conditions of the race….killed it. I do however believe that Clyde Basel is on the right track, no pun intended, as the big days are getting crowds in excess of fifteen thousand now.
Klawervlei has sponsored a wonderful prize of R250 000 for the seasons champion jockey which has created a keen interest in the title. What do you think of the initiative? It is great and we should get more sponsors involved and have a monthly Champion owner, trainer and jockey awards.
This year’s championship looks a three-way tussle between Gavin Lerena, Anthony Delpech and reigning champion Anton Marcus. With betting freely available at HOLLYWOODBETS.NET and other bookmakers, who do you think will claim the title? Difficult to call at this stage and will depend on who does best during the KZN winter season.
Do you take an interest in the breeding side of the game and if so, who is your favourite stallion? Through my late dad I used to take a keen interest and at one stage had a collection of SA Race Horse magazines going back many years. I don’t have much time to follow it now though.
What are your passions outside of racing? My family are trying to improve what has proved to be very elusive up until now…my golf handicap.
Do you think racing is well-policed? Again I’m not really involved so could not comment with any degree of authority. My sense is that it is but I think that there is room for improvement with communication and transparency with the customer. What I do see however, is that the jockeys in SA have a far bigger influence than anywhere else in the world and this relationship needs to be realigned.
What are your short & long-term ambitions as the International Executive Director of Phumelela? From a Phumelela perspective to help my fellow Execs to grow the business locally….betting on football is one example and we will be looking to grow on these successes and also introduce other sports pools. Sadly while we have been very successful in selling our racing internationally only 15 % of this business is commingled…can you imagine the size of the pools if it was all commingled? This is why we have positioned the Isle Of Man hub as being the worldwide commingling enabler and are looking for international partners and customers for that operation. Happily we already have TabCorp as a partner and are in final discussions with a number of major international organisations. Of course there are still many opportunities for us to sell our product around the world and we still see big upside for the business there.
The Dubai Carnival creates huge interest for obvious reasons among South Africans and the big jackpot pool with the World Cup as the final leg confirmed this. Were you at the World Cup? How instrumental were you in bringing this event into our country? No, I wasn’t at the Dubai World Cup….my travelling schedule is such that I would rather get home for weekends. I did go three years ago though…it was the strangest thing not seeing a tote board. In terms of getting the event here and hosting the International pools this was again the work of those, sadly much maligned pioneers, Brian Mehl and the late Derrick Wiid. We are nevertheless immensely proud of hosting these pools which in terms of commingled turnover is second only to the Breeders’ Cup and while we can only speculate maybe even first in terms of the number of incoming hubs.