Small racing yards need support

Great news to start my column this week. It’s raining. It’s very much anticlimactic rain. I’ve been getting weather warnings pinging up on my phone for 5 days now. Huge storms are coming, flash floods, prepare for disaster UK! – I was actually quite excited for a damn good thunderstorm. In reality, it’s been a grey, constant drizzle here for the last 48 hours.

ALTERNATE WEDNESDAYS, IRC

Of course, this is great news for racing. Especially for the yard. The ground is getting constant moisture and with any luck, it will stay this way for a good week or two. The paddocks certainly need it. The green, green grass of home has become a golden haze of rubbish-looking hay! The horses are also enjoying the milder conditions.

Two fabulous events happened last week.

I mentioned one of the former racehorses, Splodge, who was rehomed with a wonderful young woman called Ellie. The duo went out and did their first showjumping event and did fantastically with a 3rd and 4th. Splodge and Ellie are now well on their way to a new eventing career.

Ellie and Splodge

The yard yob, Gino, was retired from racing earlier this summer and one of the yard staff, Tracy, decided she had to have him. Tracy has worked with Gino since his arrival and despite his antisocial behaviour, she defied all logic and gave him a home for life. He’s been a different horse in his new role and this week he headed out to his first dressage test! He managed to complete the test, a miracle in itself, come home with a rosette (5th) and make us all proud.

One of the delights of a small yard is that stories like the above aren’t rare. The trainers can put in a far more personal touch when it comes to each horse. Treating them all, rightly so, as individuals. Racehorses are just like children. They all come with unique intricacies. They all have completely different personalities.

On a small yard like this, racehorses get a far better chance of showing their talent. They can be nurtured and their training/handling can be tweaked to ensure the best of them comes through. Here it’s great, trainer Noel Williams has ridden every horse we have in training. He has onboard knowledge of each one. Last weekend he spent Saturday with the team skipping out. He has a great relationship with Jeremy, my partner and his Head Lad, and every single horse is considered.

Horse wise, there are some blinders on the yard who are far easier to work with. There is also some incredible talent that has needed a little extra nurturing, those that would probably have been overlooked and dismissed by the larger yards.

It’s fairly regular to see new horses coming in that have been labelled as ‘tricky’ elsewhere. Last year a fantastically handsome gelding who was renowned for legging it – not on the racecourse, unfortunately, arrived. He would bolt with his riders in training and no one wanted to ride him. He came here and due to the relationship between Noel and Jeremy, and the respect they have for each other’s talent and technique, Jeremy was able to put the time into him. There were, of course, a few moments where a little dot of Jeremy could be seen galloping off-piste. However, after a few weeks, some huge changes were made and the horse’s natural ability started to shine.

Jeremy spent several months working out in Montana on an amazing ranch. It was a dream of his to be a cowboy. Had Covid not happened, he would be there and I would be single. I remember one day he picked up the phone and called his friend who ran the ranch. He spoke to him about the bolting racehorse. Getting some extra perspective and advice on a more holistic approach to training him.

It’s this type of attention to the individual animal that makes the small yards so special. Any yard with under 40 horses has the ability to do this. They have the time. Yards like this one also have the time to retrain their horses when things don’t work out. It’s done exceptionally well here as the results of Splodge and Gino highlight.

Gino has changed his attitude.

This is why it saddens me that the industry doesn’t do more to support small yards. Especially since Covid, and now with the cost of living crisis. Last time in my column, I spoke of a staff problem and this is just one tiny fraction of the issues that small yards have to face. Over the last month news of Lambourn-based trainer, Joe Tuite quitting the industry shocked, but didn’t surprise, many of us. Charlie Fellowes mentioned finding things tough when he was at Goodwood last week.

Certainly, there is a lot more the BHA could do to help trainers. I genuinely don’t think they are doing anywhere near enough. They need a more dynamic approach to solving an issue which is clearly present. In fact, I am currently working on a piece about this which, hopefully, you’ll all enjoy.

I also think that small trainers need to start working together a little more. Maybe a few of the bigger names in small yards could bring together smaller trainers and get them penning their ideas out to help kick the BHA up the backside to resolve some of the issues they have. I’ve heard some great suggestions on Twitter. I am amazed the BHA doesn’t use Twitter as a resource!

Of course, some great new trainers are bursting onto the scene with some success, which may lead people to have the opinion that there isn’t a problem with how the industry works, but how the yards work. The younger generation of trainers coming through now indeed have fresher eyes and perhaps a keener attitude (it’s easy to be keen when you’re only a few years into something!) but they also have something that the older (my generation) of trainers don’t always have. A real understanding of marketing, particularly digital marketing.

Attracting new owners is vital for any yard, the old-school way of doing this is networking, in person. At the sales, at the races, at the pub. Nowadays, social media is a super powerful tool. You can present your personality, your ethics, and your business culture. You can showcase your ability. You can do all this for free and I genuinely don’t believe enough smaller trainers are doing it.

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Marketing and sales are the backbones of any business, across any industry. The racing industry is no different. So, while I believe some huge changes need to be addressed by the BHA, I also think that smaller yards need to work on their marketing and sales strategy.

In my eyes, they should be promoting their strengths over the bigger yards. The ability to focus on the individual horse, in my mind gives them far more chance of success. They also can have a far more personal relationship with the owners. They can tailor their services to the owners’ needs and the horses’ needs.

Some great small trainers get this, one is Dylan Cunha. New to us in the UK, he had his first win last week with Mighty Mind! Not so new to racing fans in South Africa where he has had multiple group wins. Dylan is excellent at his digital marketing and every week he writes a blog about what’s been going on at his yard and in racing. A little while ago he wrote a great blog with his ideas on what needed to change in racing to help solve the low entry turnouts. I think if more trainers were bold enough to do this, then the solution to the problems would emerge naturally.

It’s tough, because when you are a small yard, like any small business you have to be so much more than just a trainer. You have to be an accountant, a human resources manager, a solicitor, a social media manager, a marketing expert, a commercial relationships manager, a logistics expert, a PR, and all the other jobs involved in keeping a yard going. It’s impossible to employ the team you need because you simply don’t have the funds. Trying to balance all that, while finding time to change the industry you love, and keep a functional home life, is almost impossible. Those who manage it, have extremely understanding families.

Right now, it’s vital we do something to protect the smaller yards in racing. For the good of the staff, the good of the trainers, their families, for the good of the horses and ultimately, for the good of the racing industry. -IRC.

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