The Peaky Blinder sav­ing lives at Santa Anita

Third-gen­er­a­tion Birm­ing­ham bookie is work­ing to cut fa­tal­i­ties at the Breed­ers’ Cup, writes Mar­cus Army­tage

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Final Whistle -

‘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

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