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Second CEO exits SVL horse racing company after five months

Published:Friday | March 8, 2019 | 12:00 AMNeville Graham - Business Reporter
Solomon Sharpe, chairman of Supreme Ventures Racing and Entertainment Limited.

In a matter of months, Supreme Ventures Racing and Entertainment Limited, SVREL, has gone through two CEOs in a tangible sign that the nascent company is still experiencing teething pains.

In the rough and tumble world of horse racing, SVREL, which operates the Caymanas Park racing track, also recently picked a new governing head of the company, who enters the scene while the operation is in flux.

SVREL is the operating subsidiary for Caymanas Park, which Supreme Ventures Limited acquired from the Jamaican Government two years ago in February 2017.

“I’m about fixing the fundamentals right now and once we do that, we can take it from there,” said Chairman Solomon Sharpe, when asked about the sudden departure of Major Hugh Blake, which was announced after market close last Friday.

Blake was only appointed to the job last September to replace Brando Hayden, whose departure four months prior, while sudden, came after rising whispers that the riding fraternity saw him as an industry outsider and lacked their confidence, even after a year and a half in the job.

Hayden’s core competence is in investment and finance. Blake’s track record was in sugar marketing and automotives.

“When you look at a place like Caymanas Park, I think it’s best that we fix the fundamentals first and once we’ve done that, we can begin to look outside,” Sharpe said.

That comment signals to the racing industry that he is focused on the core job, even while his track record is more aligned with the ‘entertainment’ side of the SVREL name as a principal owner and CEO of Main Event Entertainment Group.

“Everybody knows me as a party man, so to speak, and I firmly believe that the track isn’t ready for that sort of effort right now, and that there are lots of other things that we need to fix first before we look in that area,” Sharpe said.

Parent company SVL has tapped its chief financial officer, Dennis Chung, as interim manager for SVREL while the hunt begins anew for another CEO.

Asked whether the sudden departures of two bosses in less than a year was due to the industry’s hostile reception to non-racing managers, Sharpe denied it with explanation.

“No, no,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that, but just like with anything, there are some who come in an environment and there are questions of fitting in and being effective in the space when such an individual decides to make changes,” he said, especially regarding Blake’s sudden departure.

SVREL’s first chairman, Michael Bernard, a retired businessman and member of the horse racing fraternity, was always expected to hold the position for a short term. Sharpe, who comes from a horse racing family, was appointed to replace him in January.

“The truth is that we’re in a dynamic world and we no longer have a CEO for 30-40-50 years. Plus, they have options which they will exercise when it’s not working out for them,” said the new chairman.

As for Major Brown, whose tenure ran from September 10, 2018, to February 28, 2019: “I’d imagine that just at the time he was getting his feet wet, he decided that it wasn’t the best for him and decided to move in a different direction,” said the chairman, who reached for a racing analogy to cement his point.

“Remember, there are ‘horses for courses and courses for horses, jockeys for horses and horses for jockeys’. You may not be getting the results with a top-class rider like ‘Bimbo’ Rodriques, but you go with a (Winston) ‘Fanna’ Griffiths and you get a different result,” he said.

Still, Blake’s departure happened in a week when horse trainers and owners were restive and threatening to revolt. Sharpe, himself an owner, trainer and breeder, insisted that trainers had the survival of the industry at heart.

“I don’t know that the trainers were trying to shut down racing, but certainly they were trying to make the strong point that the business of racing was headed in the wrong direction, and instead of it getting out of hand and potentially going back to pre-SVREL days, they had to voice their concerns,” he said.

SVL acquired Caymanas Park as a loss-making venture, and is still seeking to turn the operation around after two years in its private control.

Sharpe says the losses are contracting, but acknowledged that there was a lot of work to be done.

“When you look at a company that one year lost $300-plus millions and then we lost $200-and-something million, that tells me we are headed in the right direction,” he told the Financial Gleaner.

“Mind you, a loss of more than $200 million does not necessarily inspire all the confidence in the world, but we’re working to fix the product,” he said.