Over the stable door: Racing really needs injection of new blood

Trainer Paul Nicholls got just one phone call in response to an advert.  Picture: David Davies/PA
Trainer Paul Nicholls got just one phone call in response to an advert. Picture: David Davies/PA
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IT DOESN’T take long for things to return to normal. As work takes priority and my boyfriend’s stress levels rocket, the idyllic relaxation we found in the silent hills of Italy is a vague memory.

Most of my racehorses are on a holiday with few National Hunt meetings in August. I have two young school kids who help out in the holidays and prove more reliable than teenagers - after a few mornings they’re never to be seen again.

This week the media’s been full of the staff crisis facing the racing industry. There are 1,000 job vacancies in racing, where the shortage of skilled or motivated staff is proving serious. A situation highlighted when top trainer Paul Nicholls advertised in the Racing Post recently. He asked for full or part-timers to ride out offering “an excellent package including accommodation, pension, bonuses” and received one phone call.

Hours can be unsociable with races to attend when your horses run. It’s usual to work one in three weekends with a day-and-a-half off per week. Accommodation is usually included. Wages in big training centres like Middleham or Newmarket average £300-£500pw. Perks include ‘pool money’, paid to staff every quarter from horses winnings, bumping up a wage by a few thousand per annum.

Most of the larger racing yards have managed to deal with the applicant shortage by sponsoring skilled migrant riders from outside the EU. They arrive with track experience glad of a decent job.

Crisis point came when a Home Office ruling prevented foreign riders obtaining work permits recently. The consequences of which hadn’t fully been realised by the racing industry which budgeted £43,000 for recruitment. Flat yards have been crying out for help ever since; horses can be left on the walker with too few staff to ride out. Those working in these yards are having to take on more to cover the staff shortage. It’s a vicious circle.

Roger Charlton, who trains 90 flat horses found advertising nationally a waste of time so relied upon overseas staff to fill 15 vacant positions from 23. His secretary explained: “It is a great job, we have top class horses racing at the best tracks in the world. The wage is better than any yard I have worked in, still we can’t seem to find people.”

Working in the industry is physically demanding. Rarely is an overweight stable lad or lass spotted, unless new to the job. Most of my friends who train started at the bottom. All were keen to learn the trade. I was so desperate to learn to ride racehorses I rode out for six months before getting paid a penny. For all of us it became a life-consuming passion. The involvement and the friends made are permanent.

As with many skilled industries, hands-on experience counts. The shortage maybe down to a few simple oversights - how many school leavers realise there’s a big yearning gap to fill? That you don’t need to know a thing about horses to get in at racing college?

On leaving school I had no idea how to break into the racing industry, I didn’t even know who to ask.

Through pure luck I met someone who pointed me in the right direction two years later.

Racing college prospectuses need to be put in every school and pony club so kids and teachers see it as a viable option. Applicants can gain their NVQ levels on the job and get paid. The racing industry has rested on its laurels for 20 years too long.