William Derby, clerk of York Racecourse talks to Yorkshire Life

PUBLISHED: 23:58 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013

William Derby

William Derby

He's faced fire, flood and now a barrage of silly questions. William Derby, clerk of York Racecourse, has had to cope with an awful lot. Tony Greenway meets him on the eve of the world famous Ebor Festival.

So there you are, hysterically busy with barely enough time in your day, when - whoosh! - something goes unexpectedly and horribly wrong and the needle on the pressure gauge spins round to 'danger level'.

William Derby, chief executive and clerk of York Racecourse, knows this feeling only too well. Last year, as he was gearing up for his busiest time of the season,William and his team experienced fire and flood at the racecourse.Would Pestilence, Famine,War and Death be riding close behind? Don't get us wrong: it's nice to see famous horsemen on the Knavesmire - but we really do draw the line at this particular grisly quartet.

Record rainfall in 2007 meant that York Racecourse was swimming in H2O and sank York's two-day June meeting (the first time it had ever been abandoned); and then, a few weeks' later, a fire broke out in the multi-million pound Ebor Stand. Luckily, the damage the fire did was relatively small, although it was a race against time to replace equipment in an important control room so that the course could open for the July 2007 meeting. Phew.

On the plus side, there have been no nasty surprises (at the time of writing) in the run-up to the 2008 season.

If anyone can deal with disaster though it's the unflappable William. Born in Sussex, he was educated at London University and became a chartered accountant with Price Waterhouse Coopers in Cambridge. After five years as commercial director at Ascot, he moved to Yorkshire in 2003, and now lives in Helmsley with his wife, Polly, and their two daughters (three years and eight months respectively).

Q: What did you think of Yorkshire when you first came here?

A: I love its diversity: moors, dales and coast. And I love the fact that people are so engaged with racing. It's an enjoyable and beautiful place to live, so we've made Yorkshire our home and we absolutely adore it.We live in Helmsley and think it's very beautiful.

Q: In 2007, you had to contend with fire and flood at the racecourse. Was that your worst year so far?

A: It was certainly challenging... and abandoning the June meeting last year was hugely disappointing. But we had a deluge - the most amount of rainfall that York had experienced since records began.We'd just about mopped up when the fire broke out in the Ebor Stand, doing a massive amount of damage to the back of house. It just shows you can plan everything to the enth degree, but that the elements can conspire against you. It was very humbling actually. Then again, we had six record-attended race days during the rest of the year, and it was a world-class spectacle. So 2007 was full of peaks and troughs.

Q: Did it make things insanely pressurised?

A: There were moments when the pressure was on. Abandoning the June 2007 meeting was an easy decision to make because we were slopping around in water everywhere. In terms of the fire, the most important thing was that there were no human casualties - it was just kit that was damaged.

Q: Have things been quieter this year?

A: It's been busy actually because our next project is to upgrade the racing surface. For the first time ever, since we started racing here in 1731, we're putting in a comprehensive drainage scheme under the Knavesmire; we're putting in a new irrigation system; we're widening the south bend by 10 metres and building a service road around the inside of the course.

Q: Right. When will all this be ready?

A: As the last horse of Ebor Festival finishes, we're planning to start on the drainage. We're not having racing in September and October, so we'll work in the autumn and be ready to race in May 2009. It's costing 2.5 million. A significant investment.

Q: Has the racing surface been a problem in the past?

A:Well, it's a mire. The Knavesmire is a traditionally boggy part of the city...

Q: Yes. Silly question. The clue is in the name, isn't it? You started off as a chartered accountant. Isn't it quite a big leap from Price Waterhouse Coopers to running one of the best racecourses in the country?

A: I'd always been interested in racing and horses and got the opportunity to work at Ascot. I thoroughly enjoyed that and then the position at York came up. I've been lucky to make a hobby and interest my profession. Part of my role involves walking the course with my dog. That's what I do as my job, and then I think back to sitting at a desk, auditing...

Q: So there's no question mark over what you'd prefer to do?

A:No. Having said that, I'm glad I've got an accountancy background. Figures don't faze me, and I enjoy looking at statistics, be they financial or to do with racing. That's the way my mind works.

Q: You're not a Yorkshireman: did the die-hard Yorkshire crowd say anything when - whisper it quietly - a southerner took over at York Racecourse?

A:Not to my face.Whether they've thought it or not is another matter.What the Yorkshire crowd are interested in is the quality of the racing and the facilities. They're very enthusiastic about it and the course, and very knowledgeable. And they love a good day out.

Q: What do you like about racing?

A: It's a democratic experience. You can be young, old, wealthy or not-so-wealthy. A family can enjoy a picnic and one of the best views in British racing opposite the main stand for four or five quid - and children are free. Then you can walk through the grandstand and paddock area where people are trying to pick a winner, have a drink with friends or are on a hen or stag party. Or you can be in the County Stand where people are really dressed up and it's about fashion and - very reasonably priced - champagne. I like the fact that it embraces everyone.

Q: The Juddmonte International is a huge global event. Do you think Yorkshire people really recognise it as such an important occasion?

A: Good question. The Juddmonte is our biggest flagship race, worth over one million dollars and it's one of the top 10- rated races in the world. At the racecourse, we need to work harder on explaining that this is the very best of the best on our doorstop.We've completed an economic impact assessment with York University and the results are interesting. In 2007, the racecourse generated 44 million to York as a city. There were 347,000 visitors to the course, representing eight per cent of the total inflow to the city, and 15 per cent of city spending. This year, the Ebor Festival will run over four days for the first time.

Q: Do you have a favourite place in Yorkshire?

A: Helmsley. It's where we live, where we do our shopping and where we eat out. It's an undiscovered gem and a wonderful place for our children to grow up.

Q: Do you have a favourite restaurant where you and your family like to eat?

A: The Black Swan in Helmsley. They've got a new chef and new owners and they're really taking it forward. It's a real treat to go there. It's reasonably child-friendly, but we always try to get a babysitter.

Q: Is there anything you don't like about Yorkshire?

A: Er... no. Not really. The traffic can be a pain in York and on the motorways of Yorkshire. But that's no different to anywhere else.

Q: Go on. Can you give us a tip on a sure-fire nag this year?

A: Um, not really. I can tell you that 13 winners of the Great Votigeur have gone on to win the Doncaster St Ledger. So whatever horse wins the Great Votigeur is a white rose banker, I guess you could say.

Thanks, William. Last question. Which way is the bookies?

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