Friday, October 26, 2018
Sometimes what you hear on the grapevine proves to be correct. Sometimes it proves to be rubbish. In recent days I've heard rumours that Sunday evening racing is being talked about in some quarters as a possible option for some point in the future. I really hope that turns out to be rubbish.
I have discussed the industry's staffing crisis before and make no apologies for doing so again given how important it is and how severe it has become.
Those of us who run racing stables are stretched beyond belief, especially at the weekends, when our problems become most evident.
More and more racing employees are coming and going. There are so few people available to do the job that trainers are hiring people we normally wouldn't have on our books. We're doing that in an attempt to ease the workload off our excellent existing staff.
Sometimes you hire someone who stays for only a couple of weeks before moving on to the next yard. In your heart of hearts you probably know some people will do exactly that when you sign them up - and you might even be warned about them by other trainers - but you take them on because you feel you have to do it.
The reason you feel that is the knowledge that your existing staff are working their guts out for you.
At Weathercock House we have 20 full-time staff. On a midweek day when we don't have any runners that's more than enough. However, at the weekend, when half the staff are off, we're down to ten people and it's a struggle.
If we have five runners on a Saturday or Sunday that means we lose five people from the yard and have only five people to look after 80 horses. You therefore have to ask those men and women who already work one in every two weekends to give up their thoroughly-deserved day off and go racing instead. Last Monday morning four people didn't come in to work. As each of those people looks after four horses, it meant we had 16 extra horses to ride out. That's a big increase to a heavy workload.
I have a concrete example for how difficult things are right now.
I have been advertising for a second travelling person for six weeks. In all that time I have had only one application from an individual who was not suitable for the job. One application. I find that frightening, but not surprising, as other trainers are in similar situations.
In a good week a person doing my vacant travelling job would be taking home £500 to £600 a week, so the money available is far from bad. It's true the person would have to work hard for that wage and would often be on duty well into the night but it's also an excellent role that offers tremendous job satisfaction.
Frankie Amatt, my number-one travelling head girl, is worth her weight in gold. People doing her job are sitting in racecourse canteens moaning amongst themselves, asking colleagues how bad it is for them and then taking some comfort from the fact they're not alone. I don't blame them at all.
When I first came to Britain in 1994 I remember there was a football game between British and Irish staff. You couldn't easily do that now because so few Irish people work in British yards. There is tremendous competition for staff in Ireland, just as there is in Britain, so the home-grown staff have gone back home. You even see Aidan O'Brien and Gordon Elliott advertising every week. That tells you all you need to know.
I love training racehorses but I do feel guilty about what I have to ask of my staff. The horses remain extremely well looked after because everyone in the team here goes the extra mile. However, as the boss you feel terrible when asking people to work on their weekend off. It breaks my heart.
One of the few available slots for new race-meetings would be Sunday evenings. It must never happen. Were it ever introduced it would show a total disregard for stable staff. It would also be the straw that breaks the camel's back - although that wouldn't apply to us as I would boycott the meetings. I reckon others would do the same.
Something that happened at Wolverhampton last Saturday evening has left me feeling uneasy.
It was a busy day for us with six runners spread across three meetings. One of the two horses we ran at Chelmsford was Gold Filigree, who was ridden by our apprentice Nicola Currie. That particular contest was due off at 3.25pm. I would also have used Nicola on our Wolverhampton seller runner Saedi Shaahd, but that race was scheduled for 6.15pm and I didn't think she would completed her journey from Chelmsford before the point when she would have needed to have weighed out.
For that reason I booked another of our apprentices, Stephen Cummins. However, Nicola still ended up being declared to take part in the race as her agent booked her for another horse.
The BHA sets out how long they think it should take a jockey to travel from any one racecourse to another. According to its calculations, Nicola was always odds against reaching Wolverhampton in time. Nicola was therefore taking a risk, but it's one that jockeys take all the time, even knowing failure to arrive at the second track in time will result in a fine. It was a risk I sometimes took myself when my agent Tony Hind and I fancied the chances of both horses.
Sometimes you can make up time on the road due to helpful traffic conditions and nimble cornering. Sometimes you can't. On this particular occasion Nicola couldn't and a fine was therefore triggered, perfectly fairly, as the BHA would argue the jockey was always facing a race against time. Nicola and her agent took a gamble and it didn't come off. That obviously came as no surprise to me, given I chose not to use her in the race. However, I was surprised when I was the one fined £140.
Let me stress I have no complaint whatsoever about the financial aspect. The relationship between trainers and their apprentices is such that we are entitled to take a chunk of their income. In return, we take on other financial commitments to them.
What worries me here is the idea I am ultimately responsible for all Nicola's bookings. That got me thinking.
Imagine there's a horse running somewhere next week who has unseated the rider on his previous two outings. If an apprentice is booked by their agent to ride that horse as an outside mount and ends up getting injured - even though it was obvious an apprentice was not a suitable partner for such a horse - then presumably the apprentice's trainer would be deemed responsible, including on legal grounds, for any injuries sustained?
Someone could, of course, say that it should be the licence-holding trainer's job to monitor and approve all outside bookings for their apprentices. Maybe so in an ideal world, but I can tell you for a fact that in the real world I don't have time to do that, and I doubt many other trainers do, either.
I go out of my way to help my apprentices by giving them rides, often on my own horses, talking them through the videos of their races and passing on any advice I can. I would consider that to be my responsibility. Surely, though, the jockey's agent should be deemed responsible for putting an apprentice on horses that aren't trained in the apprentice's main yard?
Scenarios and events often throw up problems with rules. Here, I believe, is a good example of that.
We've got an interest in two races today and both our runners have bright prospects.
Hollydaze takes her chance in Chester's 1m2f handicap (3.45) having been impressive at Brighton. She is a filly who is on the up, races handily and stays well, so you would have to think Chester will suit her. In normal circumstances a stall 11 draw might be seen as less suitable, but a wide berth from the 1m2f start isn't a big problem.
I think Hollydaze has a great chance and I also expect plenty from Winter Light, who runs in Newmarket's fillies' nursery (5.25).
She has never let us down and put in a belting run at Doncaster, finishing a close third to a rival she now meets on 4lb better terms. She is quite agile, as she showed by winning at Brighton, so I think she'll handle the dip.
It's Bet365 Cambridgeshire day, which reminds me of one of the finest handicap performances I was associated with as a jockey.
In 1995 I rode Cap Juluca to an all-the-way win in the race. To make every yard in the Cambridgeshire is hard enough - particularly as there were 39 runners that year - but his performance was all the more laudable as he was a three-year-old rated 107 and carrying topweight of 9st 10lb.
The top handicaps are very different now to then. In Cap Juluca's season the lowest-rated horse ran off a mark of just 72. The lowest-rated runner this season starts off 93. Often there is so little between the best and worst horses on the figures that the handicaps feel more like conditions events.
There is a 107-rated three-year-old in this year's race and I think the animal in question, the John Gosden-trained Wissahickon, is the one to beat.
For jockeys the Cambridgeshire isn't especially hard to ride in, although it often turns into two races and you can only hope you're taking part in the right one.
If there is indecision among the jockeys and there's no pace on your side, the other side can gain a big lead. Such a deficit can be extremely hard to pull back. In those circumstances the horses in the leading group haven't had to work hard to get that lead so they aren't likely to stop. It's much easier to claw back a deficit when horses on one of the two sides have pushed on too hard at halfway.
Only last Saturday we saw how dangerous it can be to give a horse a long and easy lead when Stars Over The Sea led from start to finish in the Cesarewitch Trial having been allowed a huge amount of daylight. By the time everybody else got organised the leader was gone.
The same thing happened to me once when I rode Persian Punch in the Jockey Club Cup. I was soon clear and allowed to open up an enormous lead without having to ask the old lad any serious questions.