The Peaky Blinder saving lives at Santa Anita
Third-generation Birmingham bookie is working to cut fatalities at the Breeders’ Cup, writes Marcus Armytage
‘Foremost, we have to make this place as safe as humanly and animally possible’
Tonight and tomorrow Santa Anita, one of the world’s most iconic racecourses, with art deco grandstands set against the backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains, will host the 36th Breeders’ Cup; 14 races worth $30million (£23million) and billed as horse racing’s world championships.
But there is trouble in paradise. After a spike in racehorse fatalities at the track during the spring, Santa Anita has become a focus of racehorse welfare way beyond the boroughs that make up Los Angeles.
Indeed, given the international nature of this fixture – it has attracted 33 runners from Europe – the scrutiny this weekend will extend way beyond North America.
A lot of people will be looking, and there is such a palpable sense of nervousness that, at the moment, the only measure of success will be a zero against the fatality column.
Outwardly, the calmest person there is the British man recently entrusted with turning round the fortunes of the “great race place’.’ But that, said Aidan Butler, 43, is an illusion.
“You wouldn’t want my sleep patterns at the moment,” he said. “It’s an important time in horse racing, to get everything right, let alone hosting what is pretty much the biggest race meeting in the world.
“We know the changes we have made will pay dividends, but in a high-speed sport like this, you can also get unlucky.”
At first glance, the third-generation bookmaker from Birmingham, who was once married to the model Jodie Kidd, might seem an unlikely white knight for one of the great racecourses, whose current problems run deeper than a high fatality rate.
But Butler has charisma, is intelligent and matey, and coming in as an outsider to United States racing means he is seeing the wood for the trees.
His journey from Peaky Blinder to acting executive director of
California racing for the Stronach Group – a job title, he joked, which requires outsize business cards – would make a pretty good script for Tinseltown, a 40-minute drive away.
His grandfather, who traded as Earnest Fletcher, ran racecourse pitches in the inter-war years during which Peaky Blinders is set.
His father and uncle, Don and Phil Butler, had more than 30 pitches and 11 shops, and by the age of 18, Butler was not only fluent in tic-tac and bookie’s slang, but was already representing his father at places such as Exeter and Worcester.
At 21, he was the youngest licensed bookmaker in Britain, but at 24, with the advent of betting exchanges and a paradigm shift in bookmaking, he got into betting in running.
“We licked our chops,” he said. “If you knew form and could read a race, it was a good way of making a lot of money. But only for a short while.”
After his divorce from Kidd, with whom he remains on good terms, he set off to make his fortune in the new world and headed for Canada. There he took up a strategy role with law firms, was sent to open an office in New York, started a few businesses – some of which were successful, some less so.
“I love the fact that in America, you can change the stars if you put the work in,” he said.
He was then asked by the Stronach Group, which owns a number of courses, to come in as a consultant on sports wagering. After six months, he became the group’s strategy officer, and with his wife and bulldog headed to Florida.
He had barely unpacked when the call came from California. The Breeders’ Cup is, he says, sucking every ounce of energy. But from Monday he will concentrate on trying to grow Santa Anita’s horse population, one of its other problems.
“There’s so much we can do,” he said. “But first and foremost we have to make this place as safe as humanly and animally possible.”
In charge: Aidan Butler has taken over at Santa Anita