By Will Hayler at York Racecourse
The need to bring racing’s often-antiquated staffing practices into the modern world in preparation for the changing shape of the sport may inevitably lead to “consolidation” of the more than 500 British training yards, British Horseracing Authority chief executive Nick Rust told some of the north’s leading owners and trainers on Monday.
Ongoing battles in filling staffing vacancies in stables and providing adequately for those who do want to work in the sport was one of the principal themes as the first of the 2018 British Racing Industry Roadshows was held at York Racecourse.
Similar sessions are already lined up later this week at Newbury, Newmarket and Musselburgh.
Rust took an unsurprisingly upbeat view on the progress made in the sport in 2017, highlighting the substantial increases in prize money that will kick in this year, particularly towards the middle and lower end of the ladder.
But while the number of horses in training has risen – another of Rust’s stated targets when coming to office two years ago – he conceded that it is largely at the top where the increase has been seen with the biggest owners expanding their teams._Rust says some consolidation needs to happen in the industry _(PA)
Alarmingly, according to the Racehorse Owners Association, British racing also still has more owners aged above 80 than under 40.
Rust also singled out the lack of diversity in the sport and the challenges it faces from Brexit as being other areas of focus.
However, it was the issue of employment and sport that seemed to provide most concern, with Rust saying that while more than 1300 people had successfully been recruited to the sport last year, more than 600 vacancies at training stables remained outstanding.
“We’re bringing them into the sport, but are we bringing in the right people and are we creating the right conditions for retaining them?” he asked.
“The challenge for us is not just recruitment and retention, but the wellbeing of the people who look after our horses from morning to night. It’s important we look after them, safeguard them and ensure that they have progressive career opportunities – so often that’s not been the case in the past.”
The difficulties in recruiting and retraining staff prepared to work the increasingly long hours over which racing takes place was highlighted by a couple of the trainers to speak.
But the input of Ronnie Whelan, trading director of Sky Bet and a guest speaker at the event, who explained that turnover on that day’s evening meeting at Wolverhampton would be 40 per cent greater than either of the afternoon fixtures due, in the main, to being staged in the evening and also to the larger field sizes making each-way betting more appealing, also helped to highlight that racing in the evenings remains a significant growth area in betting on the sport.
“We can’t ignore the fact that there is increasing demand for racing from betting at times that might once have been called or been regarded as unsociable hours,” Rust said, pledging to work towards the implementation of a ‘break period’ for Flat and Jumps racing into future fixture lists to allow for travelling staff to take some time off.
“Our industry is not just run for betting, but 45 per cent of our revenue comes from betting directly or indirectly,” he said.
“If we want to be able to race and support the industry at the size we are now, we need to look at this carefully. One are we are particularly focussing on this year is proper breaks for both codes and trying to build that in to the fixture list.
“We have a difficulty in enforcing it because of the belief that certain fixtures are owned by racecourses and that they have a right to race then. So we will need to work as an industry-wide effort at adjusting the fixture list and bringing in proper breaks.
“There are certainly some forward-looking training practices. But is a racehorse better being trained at 6.30am than 2pm? I don’t know, but if we end up moving to a situation where in 20 years’ time, everything is evening racing – and I’m not saying that is the case – our industry will have to adapt in order to supply it.
“If we can't afford a training yard to be able to pay for suitable breaks and staffing arrangements the industry has to be ready to say - as perhaps as we are seeing elsewhere - some efficiencies will have to come through.
“If that means that we can't put in place all of the right terms and conditions for our people, we can't make sure that they have proper breaks, if a trainer is unable to afford to be able to do that... then anyone who is paying for their yard and their staff cannot make their business work.
“There is some consolidation needs to happen in the industry, I believe, to ensure we can meet the right conditions for our people.
"I am sorry if that is not a popular thing to say but we cannot scrimp on providing the right working conditions for our people and the right pay and conditions to attract them."
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