Sport may well be ‘the great triviality’ as Timeform founder Phil Bull once put it, and racing as trivial as any. But many thousands of jobs depend on it. To get an idea of the impact the pandemic is having on the 550 licensed training yards in Britain, I called up my friend Simon Dow at his Epsom yard. Back at Clear Height stables, where he has had his greatest successes with horses such as Young Ern and Chief’s Song, Simon has around 30 horses. Typically, the first thoughts of this articulate workaholic were with those living in the London tower blocks visible on clear days from the Epsom gallops. ‘We have to remember how lucky we are by comparison. We have so much freedom.’
First problem in a lockdown, of course, is how to keep revved-up racehorses fit and healthy while obeying the rules for his five full-time staff and five part-time work riders. No galloping upsides, I guess. Some yards have turned out inmates into fields while they await news on any resumption of racing but Simon hasn’t got the grass to do that. Luckily, he says, the two-year-olds were already well on with developing their cardiovascular capacity. He is keeping them ticking over while resting ten of his older horses who have run on the all-weather through the winter. ‘With some creativity it’s not that difficult to keep up the social distancing.’ So far, none of the Dow team has had to self-isolate.
Are owners facing business losses starting to cut back? At least one, with a fellow Epsom trainer, has warned that he can’t continue on the same scale. But the life of small trainers is never easy. ‘We’re used to operating in a tunnel without much light at the end. Even if you win 20 races in a year and £200,000 of prize money, when it sounds like you are doing okay it is really tough to get a decent living. It’s a question of what will be left — will it be a matter of clinging on in some sort of recovery or will the whole thing be a completely different game for the rest of my lifetime? Small businesses go through so much you have to believe that you are invincible.’
Simon charges £46 a day per horse but since the lockdown has reduced that by 15 per cent. For horses resting or out of training he charges less. ‘I’ve mostly got mature owners because I’ve been doing it for a long time. We’re an extended family who are all in it together but I have to recognise that they are doing it out of taxed income and a lot of them are in businesses that are reliant on leisure and high-end income.’ He has a good credit rating with the bank but wouldn’t go on for ever on borrowed money in a deteriorating situation. ‘I would take a decision before being forced to.’ His income derives from prize money and the small percentage he charges for himself and his staff taking the horses to the races. ‘Normally I get a living from that but at the moment I am standing still. I’m not getting any wages.’
Having no sales for untried horses will be a big issue for racing, says Simon. ‘The secondhand market, meanwhile, will fall apart. Although there are still people in the Middle East who will be willing to give you half-price for cheap horses, it is difficult to move them.’
He thinks small trainers who are used to the on-the-edge living of ‘one week is good, the next week is bad’ may have a better chance of survival than the giants but says much will depend on the next phase, which he imagines will at best be the resumption of some racing behind closed doors. The key is: ‘Are people going to want to spend a significant amount of money on leisure if they have been involved in catastrophe and tragedy on a scale they’ve never before experienced?’
Too early yet, he reckons, for big decisions, but if owners begin running up the white flag following business losses or personal tragedies, then everyone will be at risk. Resilience, though, is the first quality required in a racehorse trainer and the man who has done more than anyone else to keep Epsom on the map as a training centre points out that all the town’s trainers are small scale and that if racing returns behind closed doors, then much of it is likely to be at Lingfield, the all-weather track nearby.
An old racing saying insists that no racehorse trainer ever retires when he’s got a good two-year-old in his barn and even in these grim times there was no doubting the excitement in Simon’s tone when he talked about a scopey Kodiac two-year-old owned by his biggest backer, Robert Moss, called Pablo del Pueblo. I can only hope I will see them in a winners’ enclosure before too long.
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