3 Results Found For: January 2019

21st January 2019

I wasn’t sure what had prompted the Racing Post to focus on racing’s staff shortage for a few days earlier in the month, or what had suddenly caused Nicky Henderson and Dan Skelton to come out with their prophecies of doom and gloom. I thought maybe it was just a slow news day but now, having looked back in more detail at the coverage, I realise that it was in response to a survey conducted by the BHA and ITV which concluded that racing needs 1,000 new staff.

A few days later, trainer Evan Williams hit back with what I believe was a much more considered and balanced view. For a start he pointed out that it is not a problem unique to racing and all rural industries have difficulties with recruitment and retention despite mechanisation having greatly reduced the number of staff required on farms. We find it almost as difficult to recruit suitable staff for the ‘estate’ (gallop and paddock maintenance, haylage production, etc.) side of our business as we do riders and, of course, in that department there is no requirement to be considerably smaller and lighter than the average Brit. And then Stuart Williams – as ever an independent thinker and no relation to Evan, as far as I am aware – explained the set of circumstances that has brought the situation to a head. The vast increase in the number of horses in training in Britain and the amount of racing has coincided with a reduction in immigrant workers from Ireland and, more recently, Asia and South America. And I would add that the growth of racing in Australia and Dubai has drawn some of our home grown staff to spend, at least, part of their year abroad. British staff seem to have no difficulty in obtaining work in Australia – presumably with a valid visa or work permit – but we cannot get work permits to enable Australian riders to come here.

Most other trainers seemed to use the results of this survey as an excuse to call for more prize-money but that does nothing but encourage the media to portray work in racing as underpaid. Certainly we need more prize-money but that is principally because we need more owners. The gulf between cost and return for owners never narrows and it is increasing difficult to sell the idea of ownership to anyone other than the mega-rich. And, as Stuart Williams pointed out, it is not a lack of money that demotivates our workforce, it is a lack of free time.

I have long recognised the negative impact on recruitment and retention of the traditional 13 working day fortnight (a ‘weekend’ off meaning Saturday afternoon and Sunday) but, with the unavoidable requirement to care for our animals 24/7 and an ever increasing emphasis on Saturday and evening fixtures, it has been one area of traditional working practice that I haven’t changed. I always knew that, like others in the service and leisure industries, we have to work weekends and at times when most people are free to enjoy racing but I could see that there are no end of industries that have to operate over far longer hours than us and they do it by use of an appropriate shift system. But it is a ‘chicken and egg’ dilema – to reduce hours and provide more time off we need more people, and to get more people we need to offer reduced hours and more time off. Unless, of course, you are willing to see the horses ridden for less time. I have never  been willing to accept that as an option.

In the end we have had to take the plunge and, from 4th February, all our riding and yard staff will have a reduction of  5% to their hours with no reduction in wages and they will now get, at least, one full day off in every calendar week. We hope it will attract more people into, and back into, racing. It isn’t quite a 9 – 5, Monday to Friday, job but who would want it to be?

So, if you want to work in what we at Johnston Racing would like to think is still, after more than 30 years, the most progressive and forward-thinking team in racing, see www.johnston.racing/jobs

13th January 2019

It only happens to the good ones. So says the old racing cliche which is usually used when a horse gets injured or, almost as commonly, when one gets loose and arrives home unscathed after running through fences and dodging traffic on the main road.

I have always thought that there might be a grain of truth in it as the best horses probably have higher pain thresholds and will maintain their flight path and speed regardless of obstacles or changes in terrain. That’s my theory anyway, but I have never thought there could be any logic to this phrase when applied to horses which have succumbed to disease.  Disease, surely, couldn’t differentiate between horses on the grounds of ability. Of course it couldn’t but Accordance’s death gave me cause for thought on the subject.

Accordance joins Mister Baileys, Branston Abby and Attraction’s winning first foal, Elation, as the only horses which, as far as I am aware, have contracted Grass Sickness after leaving our yard. Mister Baileys and Branton Abby had only recently retired to stud in Newmarket, Elation was having a break at her owner’s Floors Stud in Kelso after winning on her second and last outing as a two-year-old, and Accordance was, similarly, having a short spell on her owner’s farm. They were all well above average in terms of racing ability and very valuable breeding prospects as was the mighty Dubai Millenium who died of Grass Sickness at the beginning of his stud career.

How could it be that such a disease could only affect elite performers. I’m sure that can’t be the case. It is far more likely that there are many more horses which were trained at Kingsley Park and contracted Grass Sickness after retirement but I have never been told. As the name implies, this disease affects grazing horses and it is particularly prevalent in Scotland and the horse centres  of England (e.g. Newmarket). So, perhaps, it is the better horses that are likely to retire to stud in a centre like Newmarket but I still think it is most likely that there are more cases which we haven’t been made aware of.

12th January 2019

We have an owner, Chris Greensit, a farmer from near Thirsk, who has been with us since soon after we moved to Middleham. He, together with his late brother Will, has had at least one horse with us every year since we moved to the Dales and they bred every one of them themselves. Now he is onto his last, Final.

Chris and Will never had any racing channels on their television and preferred not to travel outside Yorkshire to see their horses run. They liked to pop into Thirsk and watch it in the bookies – Chris still does – and I know to allow twenty minutes before phoning with a post-race report. No mobiles for Chris.

Those telephone conversations are always pleasant and, thankfully, I have had the pleasure of reporting on countless places and wins: the Greensits have been remarkably successful breeders considering that they have only, as far as I am aware, had two mares and, like their owners, they preferred not to travel too far from home to visit the stallion. Up the road to Andrew Spalding’s was the most common route.

Visits to the yard are fairly infrequent and most discussions about the horses have been over the telephone – we all know we can catch Chris at lunchtime when he is in from the fields. And, as with the reports from the races, those calls are always a pleasure: short but sweet. Chris takes all news, good and bad, with equanimity and, at the worst of times, he has reassured me with, ‘aye lad, where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock’. And, make no mistake, that was not a callous man talking. That is wisdom from a long lifetime of working with, and caring for, animals.

I was reminded of Chris’s words recently when, on Hogmanay, Kirsten Rausing sent an e mail to say that her very useful filly, Accordance, on a winter break at her owner’s stud in Newmarket, had been found refluxing stomach contents and had been admitted to Newmarket Equine Hospital with suspected Grass Sickness. We all immediately knew what the most likely outcome would be and, despite having been rushed into intensive care at the first signs, Accordance died a few days later. Kirsten was devastated. We all were. It is such a shock when a racehorse, in its prime, having run five times as a 2yo in 2018, winning and placed at Pattern level, dies when it is having a break in the lowest risk conditions of all – grazing in the safest of paddocks. But it happens, it is not unusual, and Chris Greensit would simply accept it, when it came, as the one inevitability that goes with living.

We could, and should, all learn from people like Chris Greensit. We are being bombarded, of late, with discussions in the media, and even in parliament, about racehorse welfare. We are told we must change the way we treat horses because the public don’t like it. Many amongst those that govern our sport openly say that public perception of horse welfare is more important, because it is a bigger threat to our industry, than horse welfare itself. And yet they will be the first to admit that that public is more removed from life with horses, and life with animals in general, than man has ever been. The majority do not want to see horses get injured on the racetrack, and they certainly don’t  want to see them dying, but they haven’t even considered the possibility of them dying as poor Accordance died, at less than three years of age. Their’s is what I like to call ‘the Paul McCartney attitude to animal welfare’ – they sing songs about lambs playing in fields but refuse to consider that, if nobody eats them, they won’t be there at all. I cannot accept racing’s current approach to this issue. These people need a sharp lesson in reality, a lesson on the facts of life and death.


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