Tuesday 15 August 2017

On Apprentices, their Earnings and Expenses: Speaking Up for Both Trainers and Trainees in an Unfortunate Public Disagreement, Stirred up by the Racing Post

Two personal observations before getting into the debate on apprentices, their earnings and expenses. It’s very noticeable that all the Owners for Owners trainers – Karl Burke, Philip Hobbs, Anthony Honeyball, Martin Keighley, Charlie Longsdon and Jamie Snowden – are not just great trainers of horses but great trainers of people as well, whether their riding staff, conditionals or apprentices. They have helped many a young rider get on to the ladder and then go right to the top. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but it is all part of their ethos and approach, which is why they are training our horses. The second observation only happened yesterday, when one of our trainers shook hands with a youngster who is going to join the yard as a 7lb claimer, obviously able to claim 10lbs on occasion when he rides for the yard. What really impressed though was the look of real pleasure on the faces of both of them. The lad has ridden out at the yard and can’t wait to join the team, all of whom like him, so he will fit in well and is a really hard worker. The yard has a number of top riders working for them as well as an excellent jockey coach, so the lad is bound to get a tremendous amount of help, support and encouragement. The trainer involved knows what a good young rider he is taking on, and has already had excellent feedback from owners who are keen for him to ride their horse whenever appropriate. A classic win-win, and great to see.

However, Lee Mottershead triggered an unpleasant spat when he wrote an accusatory article in the Racing Post on 10th July pointing out: “the scandal involving Flat trainers knowingly exploiting apprentices attached to their yards”, which he saw as “a pretty appalling state of affairs”. Paul Struthers, CEO of the Professional Jockeys Association, strongly backed Mr. Mottershead, stating that “too many Flat trainers, and almost certainly the majority, are happy to take a share of their apprentice’s earnings …. without paying the expenses that the Rules of Racing require” (my italics). No-one was named, and Mr. Struthers indicated that the force of his statement was based on “anecdotal evidence”.

Hardly surprisingly, a number of trainers were upset by all of this, notably Richard Hannon, Andrew Balding and Karl Burke. I know the operation at Karl’s extremely well, and have had a lot of his young riders on board our horses over the years, often with great success. Indeed only last year, Clifford Lee (who was flagged up in the Racing Post articles because of his excellent and valuable winning ride for David Barron on Above The Rest in the Bunbury Cup) rode both Timeless Art and the late, lamented Lord Ben Stack to victory. Karl wrote a very detailed response that was published in the paper, and I heartily agree with the sentiments he expressed, not least that “trainers use (apprentices and conditionals) because of the value of their claim, not any financial gain (to the trainer). That is secondary.”

So what is the position, and the rights and wrongs of the current arrangement? Trainers pay the apprentice wages and reimburse them for equipment together with half their expenses while their allowance is at 7lbs or 5lbs including 22.5p per mile driven. There are clearly costs involved in training them, and as they become more experienced and take on external rides, they are not available to work for the trainer even though they are still being paid. In exchange, Flat trainers take a share of the apprentice’s earnings: 50% of any prize-money and between 50% and 20% of their riding fee, depending on their claim.

That system clearly can work well, provided that the trainer who receives the percentages of the apprentice’s earnings is properly paying the expenses. Messrs. Mottershead and Struthers assert that this is not the case, although no evidence was presented and there was no “naming and shaming”.

Personally, I would have thought that this whole issue could be resolved very quickly by a BHA working party to bring together the National Trainers Federation and the Professional Jockeys Association with a clear remit to “examine the nature and working practice of the training and commercial relationship between trainers and apprentices / conditional riders and, where appropriate, thoroughly modernise that relationship so that it demonstrably works well for both parties while encouraging young people to enter and remain in the sport”.

Doubtless there are some trainers who are exploiting the relationship and where the apprentices involved are too frightened to do anything about it for fear of losing rides. All yards have an annual BHA inspection, so why couldn’t the inspector ask to see evidence that expenses have been submitted and paid? Encouragingly there are many trainers who don’t want or earn anything from the apprentices, Paul Nicholls being a notable example. Finally a number of contractual frameworks and models are available that can be evaluated with improvements made where necessary. So for example changes could be adopted along clearer sliding scales whereby as the young rider loses some of the claim, so they retain a greater percentage of the prize-money.

The biggest risk must be one of unintended consequences whereby trainers decide it is too much hassle to take on and train youngsters, which would be a great loss to the sport. Less tangibly, it could also have a lifelong impact on the young people concerned. For apprentices in the right relationship with the right trainer, it can be a life-changing experience, not just about learning to ride, but how to handle themselves properly and professionally with a wide range of people. Alastair Down always said of David “The Duke” Nicholson that he was a “maker of riders; maker of men”. Many trainers across the country can hold their heads high as they shape the lives of a large number of young men and women. Improve the relationship where needed, but here’s hoping that it remains a productive and constructive one for the future.

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Tuesday 1 August 2017

The Seven Sins of Racecourses and a Segway into Grass-Roots Owning Optimism

When preparing for this blog I had a think about the worst ownership experiences that I’ve endured. I remember back in management consulting days that for some unknown reason everyone talked about the “seven secrets of success”, so I thought I would build this blog around “seven sins of sloppy, surly service”. Regular readers of this blog will know that I suffer from the irritating habit of a love of alliteration – one of Hughes’ horrible habits. Maybe there should be an Owners for Owners award, and I’m definitely open to suggestions as to what the prize should be. I’ve done them in alphabetical sequence.

Catterick and its meal vouchers: on New Year’s Day my wife and I trekked all the way up to Catterick to watch Future Gilded win – which was fabulous. They had run out of meal vouchers. “Don’t worry”, they said at the O&T Desk, “they’ll see you right”. I went off to enjoy an exquisite Catterick lunch, queued for ages and then was refused service. Back to O&T desk. Still no vouchers and was told to go back and mention the name of the attendant. Back to the queue. Still a refusal to serve me. Sent off to “the Office”. They found me a voucher. Third time lucky, back to the queue. Bingo – served a beautiful, cold, gristly bap. A delightful owner experience.

Ludlow and its Owners’ & Trainers’ Admission: off to Ludlow for the first time and followed signs to the car park, then to the Owners’ & Trainers’ entrance on the inside of the track. Bounded in and presented my PASS card, they commented, “We don’t see many of them”. Told that I was at the wrong entrance – despite the sign. Equally told that I was in the wrong car park, and to get into the “right” one I’d have to drive back out again and proceed some distance to the other side of the course. However they relented and let me in. The first of our owners I bumped into on the course hadn’t been so lucky and had been asked to pay. Fortunately I had printed a copy of the email I had sent to the course listing the names of the owners who would be there. Again I was sent to “the Office” to clarify the situation. Their response was that they hadn’t received the email. Funny that. Every time I go to “the Office” brandishing an email, I’m told they hadn’t had it.

Plumpton and its Owners’ car park: arrived at the Sussex Riviera in a monsoon, tried to park the car, pointing to the ROA badge on the windscreen. The attendant refused to acknowledge it and wanted to see “the badge”. He made me get out of the car to find it in the boot. It wasn’t a badge but the PASS card he wanted. Allowed to park in the middle of a swamp. As with Ludlow I’d followed the signs correctly but arrived at the “wrong” car park.

Southwell and the winner’s room hospitality: half a dozen owners and friends travelled up to Southwell for the last race on the card. The horse won and we were taken to the winner’s room to celebrate with a glass of fizz. We were given the smallest quantity of champagne that I’ve ever received and, like Oliver Twist, I dared ask for more. After receiving another thimble full, the jobsworth then raised his arm, pointed to his watch and said, “Drink up, I’ve got a home to go to”. Charming.

Wincanton and prize-money: like many tracks, Wincanton is inclined to put the money into one or two races at the expense of the others, so the prize-money is derisory. Our horse came 4th in a really competitive, 17-runner handicap hurdle that will have driven a tremendous amount of Levy money. Our return? £238.

Wolverhampton and its lino: as far as I’m concerned, the least enjoyable race track in the world. To stand on its artificially surfaced paddock on a wet Wednesday evening in mid-winter is as dire as it gets.

Worcester and “family fun” days: what a dread phrase! Probably only rivalled by its “Ladies’ Day”, a term used extremely generously to describe the participants. A most awful experience.

And yet, despite all of this, I adore going racing and am still optimistic about the sport – which is where the segway comes in (or segue, as my wife would have it). There was a really encouraging announcement recently that grass-roots racing is going to receive an extra £9.7m in 2018 as the BHA tries to halt a decline in the number of horses taking part in races at Class 4-6 level. Richard Wayman, the Chief Operating Officer for the BHA, stated encouragingly that: “Although there has been growth in total prize-money in recent years, much of this has been at the top end. The returns to our sport’s participants further down the scale are simply not sufficient at present to be sustainable. Targeting grass roots with extra funding will help racing’s participants to maintain their involvement in the sport and keep more horses in training.” Hear, hear.

I’ll raise a glass of Champagne to this, while eating a pork bap on a family fun day on my next racecourse visit, once I’ve found the correct car park and been allowed on to the course. Champion!

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.