“The best job I ever had was managing my first betting shop. I got to talk about football and racing all day, I got to know all the regulars, made the teas and the place had the feel of a social club. It didn’t feel like work.”
There is something refreshingly uncomplicated about the man who is now the single biggest greyhound stadium controller in Britain.
The merger between Coral and Ladbrokes means that Ian Smyth controls four of the 22 stadia, though the size of the task facing him will be no surprise to greyhound aficionados.
While the Ladbrokes tracks have always hummed away like a couple of smooth Rolls Royce engines, the Corals tracks. . . .not so much.
For many years, the Corals board appear to have had a less energised approach to track ownership.
For two decades, the late great Peter Shotton hammered on boardroom tables fighting the greyhound corner, but with his retirement, the two venues became temporary stopovers for senior Corals management looking to wind down at the end of their careers.
To compound the issue, management restructuring left neither Romford or Hove with a GM. The net result was minimal investment and forward planning.
When an asbestos problem was discovered at Romford leading to the track’s suspension of racing last autumn, many regulars feared that the track’s racing days were numbered.
Although racing resumed, it did so virtually as a private members club with a crowd limit of 250.
Confusion and uncertainty reigned. Communication was sadly lacking as wary greyhound owners and trainers anticipated the site being sized up for housing.
Instead, the new parent company opted for a more progressive view. At the same time, one of its operations directors fancied a new challenge.
So instead of a boss with one eye on his gold watch, staff have welcomed a 47 year old with the drive ambition that comes with a deliberate and calculated career change.
Why would a regional director managing approximately 500 shops in the south of England take a sideways career path to run four greyhound tracks?
The clues are all in the first paragraph.
“I love being around people” Smyth confesses. “My job was becoming more and more about figures and taking me further and further away from that everyday working environment that appealed to me.”
Leaving Richard Brankley – who he got to know when the Welshman took over the Ladbrokes tracks – to keep a watching brief over Crayford and Monmore, has enabled Smyth to put all his energies into the two Coral tracks – with Romford a necessary priority.
So – what’s the plan?
He said: “Starting in July, we will be erecting a 25 foot by nine foot marquee between the Pavilion and the Millennium Grandstand. It will take 200 people, which added to the Pavilion means we can cater for 300 people, which is fifty more than we can at the moment.
“Work will then start on demolishing the main grandstand which will be levelled. It will eventually become the main car park, enabling us to sell the one on the other side of the road. We are currently working with the planners to allow access to the new car park.
“By September we will be ready to take the roof off the Millennium Grandstand which will be completely refurbished to include a 180 seat restaurant. We will also be rebuilding the kennels with an extra 30 kennels, which means we can continue to race.
“That work will take place between September and depending on progress, we expect to be able to flip the track by February 2019.
“At this stage we are hoping, because we plan to keep the same distance, just literally move the traps from one side to the other, so hopefully the dogs won’t need to be re-trialled. It is something we are talking to GBGB about.
“However, it will give us a chance to replace the inside rail, re-measure and do any more work on the track that’s needed.”
The new facility will have a capacity of 1,500, plus, if desired, the option of keeping the marquee in situ to increase crowd numbers by another 200. The whole project has been budgeted at in excess of £7m, which by any standards is a significant commitment to Romford racing.
But work won’t stop there. It is symptomatic of the lack of investment in the facility that the track’s two tractors are 30 and 32 years old.
Smyth said: “The place is tatty. The regulars know it and I can see it. I have spent a lot of time wandering around the stadium taking it all in. It will be a long term project, painting, replacing and refreshing. I won’t be happy until I can walk around the place and see no peeling paint or cracked fascias.
“But those are material things. From the moment I walked in, I could feel that the place has a great family atmosphere about it. Everybody is so friendly. Much of that is down to the staff I have inherited. Despite the problems, there seems a really good vibe.”
But what about Hove?
“Hove is due a major refurbishment of the restaurant starting in June. Beyond that, most of the work involves a bit of ‘TLC’. Like Romford, things have been allowed to get a bit shabby.
“I was able to get some senior management along for the Regency Final with a view that they could see why the place needed some money spent on it.
“We are also understaffed in the racing office which I am looking to address. That will be resolved as soon as possible.”
Smyth has made an instant favourable impression with the Romford and Hove staff and it would be embarrassing to quote them with their views of their new boss.
Although the tracks will remain under their separate Coral/Ladbrokes branding, customers should expect to see all four reaching a similar standard.
In short – the approachable, down-to-earth South Londoner could be the best thing that has happened for bookmaker owned tracks in a very long time.