Monday 1 October 2018

Economic Sustainability of Trainers, Part 3: Does It Matter, and Should Anything Be Done About It?

In the last blog I developed a three-tier model based around trainers, owners and horses, and suggested that there was a Glamour Tier at the very top; then a Grassroots Tier, with the majority of trainers struggling to keep their heads above water; then a Graveyard Tier of trainers who are in effect dying on their feet through lack of horses, resources and finances. The key question is what percentage of the total UK trainer ranks (which I believe is somewhere between 600 and 800) are in effect technically insolvent, with income behind costs. Obviously there are quite a few trainers for whom their involvement is, in effect, a hobby interest rather than a business occupation, but it would still be very interesting to know the figure. Indeed I am pursuing that with the BHA, ROA and NTF to see if anyone has any meaningful insight into the extent and severity of the problem …. assuming that there is one, which I believe is the case.

Two races in September illustrated for me the differences that exist between the various tiers. At the St. Leger on 15th September, Kew Gardens won the race from Lah Ti Dar. No surprises who the trainers were – Aiden O’Brien (with five runners in the race), from John Gosden. Such is the glamour / platinum tier of racing with the increasing concentration of wealth, power and prestige at the very top of the sport. Hardly surprisingly, this is where the media focus the majority of their attention. I’ve always been a huge fan of the St. Leger, and it was the very first Classic that I saw when the wonderful Shergar was beaten, and then a similar defeat for Alleged. I’m not arguing against the glamorous tier, but am really trying to explore the economic reality lower down the ranks.

Another meeting that I really like is the Ayr Western Meeting which produced its first-ever Ayr Gold Cup dead heat on 22nd September between Son Of Rest from Fozzy Stack’s yard (and therefore the first winner for Ireland in this race) and Baron Bolt from Paul Cole’s. For quite a number of years I lived at the 3 furlong marker on his Woolly Down Gallops, so not surprisingly have always noted his runners. He came out with a lovely quote after the race: “How could you be more happy than to be involved in racing? There are fantastic people, it’s a great lifestyle and it has been all my life. To still be involved is fantastic.” This struck a chord with me, because I’m sure it is a sentiment expressed by every trainer in the land, even though for some of them their future involvement is almost certainly very fragile.

Although it is a subject for a future blog, it would be interesting to know whether the BHA has stress-tested racing and through that, the training profession in the event of any major financial shocks. Without being too gloomy, there are probably a number of these on the horizon, e.g. the effects of Brexit, the election of a Labour government that might take away the VAT concession for owners, an economic jolt with asset prices being corrected or natural blights such as atrocious weather or infections. I wonder how many trainers could survive such scenarios?

Some would argue that none of this matters and that some sort of trainer “Darwinism” should apply. The argument is that it is all about the economic survival of the fittest. If trainers can’t compete successfully or if they struggle to find owners and horses, then so be it. Just let them go to the wall so that other, more able and successful trainers can pick up the pieces and expand their own yards. Doubtless there are a number of trainers who probably should go under, but I don’t believe that sentiment applies to the vast majority who are incredibly hard-working, totally committed to British racing and provide much-needed rural employment at a time of major challenges in recruiting and retaining staff. Furthermore there is a local ecosystem of very close relationships between trainers, their families and the network of owners and their friends and families with whom they interact. There is often an intense loyalty and friendship in this network that binds the whole system together. If you take the focal point trainer away, then you may well find you lose the owner network, or at least reduce it.

So basically I believe that British Racing should have a focus on the economic sustainability of trainers, and that “something should be done about it”. I’ll return to potential recommendations in the fourth and final blog of this series.

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