Newmarket: High achiever Amy Starkey takes the reins

AMY Starkey is the new managing director at Newmarket Racecourses, but she once seemed destined for a career in a very different sport. She talks about her rapid career progress to Jayne Lindill.

THE appointment of Amy Starkey as managing director at Newmarket, the home of horseracing, has attracted considerable attention, not least because of her relative youth.

Yet her age is far less remarkable than her impressive track record. She might be only 30, but she’s already proved herself in roles with the Racecourse Association (the trade organisation of Britain’s racecourses), and with one of the largest racecourse groups, Northern Racing, at Sedgefield Racecourse. Aged 24 she was head-hunted by Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR) to take charge of Huntingdon making her the youngest managing director of a racecourse in the history of British racing. She headed up Kempton Park in 2008, before arriving at Newmarket this year.

In 2006 Buckingham Palace named her an Achiever of the Year (she has lunched privately with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh) and she was shortlisted for Sportswoman of the Year. In recent weeks she has been appointed JCR’s regional director for the east, with responsibility for Huntingdon, Market Rasen and Nottingham as well as Newmarket. In racing terms, she’s off to a flying start.

Racing is in Amy’s blood, although not because she or her family actually rode horses. Her father worked for bookmakers William Hill and her grandfather passed on a love of the sport. A typical family day out was spent at the races.

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“We always went racing as a family,” she recalls. “There are memories of my dad sitting me down one day and teaching me how to set a round robin, which is an incredibly complicated bet.”

The very young Amy Starkey, however, was destined for an altogether different career. A talented gymnast, with an iron clad determination, she had her sights set on going all the way to the Olympics.

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But at the age of 10, disaster struck when she returned from training in Russia and smashed her elbow in an accident on the asymmetric bars.

“I still remember the pain,” she says. Despite being told her arm wouldn’t heal properly and she would never compete again, Amy was determined to carry on.

“I have that thing in me that says ‘I will prove you wrong’,” she says. “I don’t know where it comes from. I think my family have worked incredibly hard, particularly my parents, who have always instilled in me a strong work ethic.”

But by the time she reached her mid teens Amy realised she wouldn’t go much further in competitive gymnastics.

“I started coaching gymnastics and trampoline and went through a stage of wanting to be a sports physiotherapist. But all the time my interest in horse racing was growing.” At 18, she began working for William Hill and later, armed with a business studies degree from Leeds University, got a job with Skybet.

“I thought I wanted to go into bookmaking but I heard about the graduate programme run by the British Horseracing Association and thought I would love the opportunity to go for that.”

She secured a place on the programme in 2002, which involved a work placement at Newmarket. It was enough to tell Amy that what she really wanted was to turn her passion and her hobby into a career as a racecourse manager. The rest, as they say, is history.

“When I look back I think I was young,” she says, “but I’ve had a lot of experience and I’ve been very lucky – I’ve had incredible support from a lot of people, particularly the board at Sedgefield. It ensured I had a very good understanding of running a racecourse and equipped me with those skills.”

Amy will need all her skills at Newmarket where attendance figures have been under scrutiny. Driving them up is a top priority.

“The challenges of running a racecourse are the same as any other leisure business would face,” says Amy. “We have to make sure we’re maximising incomes and controlling costs. We’re looking to deliver the best customer experience and the best racing.”

Newmarket offers more than just racing, of course, and maximising incomes is about making sure the Jockey Club’s precious asset works hard. As well as spring, summer and autumn racing programmes on its two courses – the July and the Rowley Mile – there are Newmarket Nights, popular summer concerts featuring some of the country’s biggest names – this season Van Morrison, Tom Jones and Jesse J.

Situated as it is in the historic home of horse racing, Newmarket can also join up with the National Stud, the National Horseracing Museum and the many yards based in and around the town to offer a complete visitor experience.

For Amy this diversity is one of Newmarket’s biggest advantages and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job.

“I can work with other organisations in the town to create packages that appeal to a broad audience,” she says. Indeed, addressing the current image of horseracing, breaking down barriers and making it more accessible to more people are chief concerns of the new MD.

“I want to broaden the appeal of racing to a wider audience,” she says.

Amy believes Newmarket is in a good position to grow its audience because it already has a broad offer. The Guineas Festival in May on the Rowley Mile, for example, is a great day out, offering the best racing for true enthusiasts. Meanwhile, Newmarket Nights, which combine racing and entertainment, are bringing in potential new race-goers – in the case of the sell-out Jesse J, that’s 22,000 people who could return.

Amy will achieve her ambitions with the help of her Newmarket team, without whom, she says, she is nothing. She loves Suffolk and has happily relocated to the county, which, despite her Yorkshire origins, she now regards as home.

“If it wasn’t for the experiences I’ve had and the people who’ve helped me I wouldn’t be here now.

“As far as ambitions go, at this stage they lie within Newmarket. There are things I want to achieve and I see my future here.”

: : This interview first appeared in the September edition of Suffolk magazine.

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