JONATHAN QUAYLE HIGGINS ON THURSDAYS

Recent statistics from various racing jurisdictions show that racehorse trainers are leaving the sport at a concerning rate, and there are no signs of stopping either. Horse racing’s loss of trainers has been a slow process, dropping a few percentage points every year until the problem reached its current state.

While there have been significant losses in the last year due to extended economic ramifications of Covid-19, the exiting of trainers started as far back as 2000, with increased numbers leaving over the last 10 years.

US racing shows the highest figures, with approximately 45% of trainers having handed in their licences since 2011. Equibase reflects that there were 7,184 licenced trainers in 2011 as opposed to 3967 in 2021.

France is next best, or next worst if you want, with a 30% leaving rate of trainers since 2011 (1265 vs 860 today), followed by Australia at 25% (4782 vs 3600).

In the UK and South Africa, we looked at available statistics for the last six years, which shows the UK with a loss-of-trainer rate of 17% (717 in 2016 vs 600 today) and South Africa at a surprisingly low 13%, though their trainer population went from a low 140 in 2015 to the current 120 – perhaps a suggestion that those trainers are really just hanging on for dear life because there are simply no other jobs to go to.

There are basic arguments here that the general state of worldwide racing is in decline and that the figures quoted above simply reflect natural economic factors and the increased competition with which racing is faced.

But the problem is that the spiral is continuing downward with no sign of slowing down.

Horseracing Nation reports that the bigger loss of trainers in the US comes mostly from the smaller stables, and this holds true, also, for the other jurisdictions. Trainers who don’t have 30 or 40 horses or more (depending on jurisdiction) face different challenges, some of which stem from a change in the face of horse ownership.

They listed a few possible reasons:

-The drop in horse population, a result of economics and breeders retiring or giving up, means that there are fewer horses to sell and race.

-With more fractional partnerships bringing more new owners into the game, horses have been consolidated into larger stables. Greg Harbut, a longtime bloodstock agent and buyer of horses, said it is easy for owners to overlook small trainers. “Unfortunately, a lot of these individuals get lost in the shuffle and have been lost,” Harbut said, “as you see the last couple years with a lot of these mega-trainers getting a lot of the 2-year-old crop every year.”

– Several trainers pointed to an increased emphasis on win percentage among owners as one of the top reasons for the decline in their numbers and one small trainer in South Africa said: “I have 25 runners of which perhaps 20 are moderate, bread-and-butter horses. I have to race them more often than I would race a strong handicapper on the up, so my winning strike rate is lower that the guy who trains the better quality horses.

“The owners like to go to the trainers who are in the news and get the big wins. But we, the small stables, don’t get opportunities and this creates an imbalance. The two or three big stables in our Western Cape, for example, completely dominate the ranks. There is a major imbalance and I’m not sure how long the situation can continue.”

-Drop in field sizes means that betting turnover goes down and this has an effect on the whole game.

-Reduction in prize money: This has happened after the Covid-outbreak because racing operators have had to tighten their belts and sponsors have pulled out for lack of exposure to the crowds. The recovery has been slow.

-Labour problems: The lack of affordable employees to help trainers is another one of the main factors that could be causing the drop in trainer numbers. The bigger stables get more horses and more money, the small ones battle to afford the best labour and are not able to use more experienced horsemen- and woman in their yards.

-Rising feed prices: This is a major problem cited all over the world. Training fees cannot be adjusted all the time to keep up with the rising costs of feed.

US trainer Ron Moquett gave some views to Horse Racing Nation which arguably holds true for most racing jurisdictions: “The way to reverse the trend is to re-educate the horse-racing public, especially owners and fans, on the value of horsemanship as opposed to pure numbers.” In his opinion, the way racing is presented does not generate lasting interest beyond the win percentage and gambling payouts.

“We introduce our industry based on gambling,” Moquett said. “If you go back and watch whenever everyone had 30 or 40 horses, the TV presentation was a very different kind of show. They focused mainly on the stories.”

South African racing fan Billy Tredoux agreed, saying: “All our racing channel is about is tipping and it’s generally just a waste of time. We have hardly any focus on colourful, feel-good stories. Tipping, that’s it.”

Moquett also suggested the industry should find a way to reward trainers who demonstrate exceptional horsemanship and the ability to develop horses regardless of level.

Other countries, particularly Japan, have horse limits in place that distribute horses more evenly among trainers. But regulations like these won’t be easy to employ elsewhere since they’d be deemed unfair or even unconstitutional.

Recently retired trainer “Buff” Bradley said: “If you’re the kind of person who wants that many horses, then good for you. I’m not saying anything bad about the mega-stables, but that’s what hurts us, the smaller ones. Until we find a way to assist the smaller stables, the trend will continue.”

It does seem that, within the next decade, with no action taken to protect or help small stables, most racing centres will consist of a handful of mega-stables racing against each other with their own, home-bred runners for prize money (in essence) generated by themselves for themselves.

Some will say, ‘as long as we can have a bet, who cares?’

Others will hang their heads in despair. Why has it come to this?

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Sources: Equibase, France-Galop, BHA (UK), NHRA (South Africa), National Industry Insights (AUS)

 

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