Pip Kirkby: Racing to the top

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Pip Kirkby has been getting into the saddle since the age of four, but when it comes to horseriding she still doesn’t claim to have a “good seat”. However, when she slipped into her chair at Market Rasen Racecourse more than 16 years ago, it proved to be the perfect fit and it still feels great today. Pip is living her dream job.

As racecourse Managing Director, Pip Kirkby is as passionate about her role as the day she arrived as Commercial Manager on July 1, 1998. No wonder, it wasn’t long before promotion came along.

Pip, whose cute wire-haired daschund Fig is always close to heel, thrives on the sheer variety and pace of a job which involves the day-to-day management of the 114-acre racecourse and its team of twelve staff.

She loves spreading the word that this highly-prized venue has plenty to offer fledgling and seasoned racegoers and other leisure seekers, and is keen to dispel any suggestion that the sport of kings is the preserve of a niche market.

Under Pip’s leadership, this Jockey Club-owned course has diversified to boast a growing fixtures list. There are currently 21 race days a year, but the centre is open for business 364 days annually.

Events include quirky racing-plus-music nights, when people have flocked to cheer on their favourite horses before rocking to the likes of Wet Wet Wet, McFly and James Arthur. The racecourse also hosts weddings and conferences. And, if that wasn’t enough, Pip’s team also manages the adjacent caravan park and golf course.

Market Rasen Racecourse. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Market Rasen Racecourse. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Excitingly, The Jockey Club has backed an £800,000 expansion project and the race is on to get the work finished in time for Christmas. Further investment is planned for next year.

“Some people tend to over-complicate the world of racing, but I think we are really accessible to a wide range of people and, from a price perspective, unbeatable,” said Pip.

“The under-18s go free and our general admission prices start at £7.50, although you can pay £150 for a box and hospitality for your guests. Lots of people love dressing in their finery for special occasions, such as our popular Ladies Day, but we aim to offer something for everyone, including great family days out.”

Whilst a January Thursday can attract a crowd of 1,200 racegoers, that number explodes to more than 11,000 on Boxing Day or a racing-plus-music night.

The recent Harvest Festival Food and Drink Race Day, televised by Channel 4, attracted a record turnout. Families lapped-up a full-on day of racing, food, drink, demonstrations and competitions.

“Racing gives people the chance to get close-up to the stars of the sport. My team members worked their socks off. It was an amazing day, with attendance 30 percent up on a similar event the previous year.

“Afterwards, we just sat in the office and grinned at each other. The lovely thing is, everyone left smiling saying they’d had a great time,” said Pip.

“If you get the key things right and make people happy…win or lose on the horses, it’s a great day. If I achieve that, I feel I have done good.”

My first memory of Lincolnshire is moving into a village flat with my former dog Millie, having left Fulham where I shared a house with four other people.

Pip, was born in a military hospital in Aldershot. Her father served in the Royal Green Jackets for 24 years, so it is no surprise to learn that she had a peripatetic lifestyle and went to eleven schools.

Today her parents are settled in South Lincolnshire and her older brother, Mark, is an art dealer in London. Pip’s mum is Irish and as ardent supporters of racing, the family always visited courses near to where they were living – Sandown Park being a regular haunt.

Pip Kirkby, Managing Director of Market Rasen Racecourse. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Pip Kirkby, Managing Director of Market Rasen Racecourse. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

“I always wanted to work in racing, but having achieved a degree in politics from Durham University, and been a ski chalet girl in France, I decided it would be sensible to gain some experience in the commercial world,” said Pip.

“I headed for the City, joined the insurer Lloyds of London, then moved into the field of mergers and acquisitions. When I came to Market Rasen I joined an office of two people.

Pip’s all-consuming passion for racing and her determination to break into the industry, meant this was bound to happen sooner or later.

“Back then I was an avid reader of the Racing Post’s Saturday jobs page, I applied for anything vaguely relevant that would get me into racing. I was doing all right in London, so this was a big move. It was also a great one and the magic of the racing world is as strong as ever for me.”

Pip has also found love since arriving in Lincolnshire. Nine years ago she married Fred Kirkby (who works for Thompson & Richardson). The couple have a five-year old daughter, Lily, as well as another dog, Patterdale terrier Snaffles.

In 2006 Pip also became General Manager of Nottingham Racecourse, and found herself flitting between the two venues. In the process, she became intimately acquainted with the joys and frustrations of the dualling of the A46, but that period really boosted her experience.

“Both are very different. We have jump racing at Market Rasen and flat racing at Nottingham. One is in a rural setting, the other in the heart of the city. They have different fixture lists and differ in their appeal.”

Pip recently handed over the reins at Nottingham and is now ploughing all her energies into Market Rasen. “We aim to complete the exciting £800,000 expansion of our Tattersalls and Family Enclosures ahead of our Boxing Day meeting. Early 2015 will also see the further development of the County Enclosure.

What is great about Market Rasen is that it is a leader when it comes to Summer jumping, when we see our best quality racing. Most jump courses close at the end of May, but we are open year-round. I am thrilled at the prospect of offering year-round fixtures in the months ahead.

More fabulous racing-plus-music nights, now in their fourth year, are also being planned. “One of the best things about this job is making people happy. The worst aspects are the uncontrollable factors – such as having to abandon an event due to the weather,” Pip said.

This feature interview was first published in issue 4 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.