7th February – 2021
It was a bit sad to see one of the great characters of British racing, Milton Bradley, retiring, albeit at the age of 86, especially as he felt it had been forced upon him by a lack of opportunities to run his horses. It was, however, the first time that I had heard a trainer complaining that the official handicapper drops horses too quickly. The main complaint about handicappers is invariably the opposite: that they are far too quick to put horses up and it takes far too many unplaced runs to get them back down again.
The complaint that there is a lack of opportunities for low grade horses or that it is difficult to get a run for the very lowest rated horses, on the other hand, is a common one despite the fact that we have massively more low grade races in Britain than ever before. While foreign investment from the biggest owners has kept the quality of Britain’s best racehorses at, or above, the highest standards in the world, the bottom end is choked with low-grade horses looking for opportunities to run and owners who not only think these horses should be given the opportunity to run but think they should be given the opportunity to win.
What it tells me is that, at all levels, the handicap system is failing British racing. I have asked the question before and never had an answer, so I’ll ask it again: who, apart from the betting industry, benefits from the handicap system? The benefit to the betting industry is even debateable. Sure, their margins on handicaps are higher but, with nine of the top ten betting turnover races being non-handicaps, you will never convince me that punters prefer handicaps.
Is it really beyond the wit of man to devise a graded race system in which horses move up the grades according to what they have won and move down the grades when they fail to earn any prize-money for a period of time? It is how it works in most professional sport.
It tells us today in the Racing Post that Josh Apiafi has appointed former senior Cheltenham racecourse executive Lee Moulton ‘to develop plans to make non-riding jobs more attractive to a wider pool of the public’. It isn’t clear to me, in what capacity, Apiafi has employed Moulson. Will he be working for Apiafi personally, will he be working for his company Rewards4Racing, or has he appointed him on behalf of some other racing body?
I am also a little unsure about how many non-riding vacancies there are in racing. For as long as I have been a trainer, and probably for a long time before that, there has been a shortage of light-weight riders in racing and the situation is getting worse. I was one of the first, if not the first, to separate roles in my racing yard to optimise the use of available skills and use different people for riding and yard work. That is common practice now but it hasn’t solved the problem.
We are inundated with applicants for non-riding jobs and so, as the other great barrier to employing staff in areas like Middleham is a shortage of housing and accommodation, we now largely limit our intake of non-riders to local people who will not require us to provide accommodation. And yet it seems that much of the emphasis on recruitment and retention of staff in racing is focussed on non-riders and available off-the-job training is often aimed at preparing our existing riders for non-riding positions. We’re barking up the wrong tree.