17th December 2019
On thursday of last week, according to the Racing Post, Paul Struthers of the Professional Jockeys Association felt compelled to break silence on the row over apprentice jockey terms and conditions. It didn’t seem to me that he or his association had ever been silent on the issue but now, following letters from ill-informed members of the public in Sunday’s Racing Post, the BHA’s new chairman Annamarie Phelps joining the debate, and comments from trainer Mick Appleby in this morning’s Racing Post (their bias in covering this issue has been shocking), I feel compelled to break silence.
For a start, while this is all portrayed as being about failure of some trainers to pay their share of apprentices’ travelling expenses and this has been deemed to constitute abuse of vulnerable people by the BHA and the Racing Post, this has only demonstrated to me, Andrew Balding, Richard Fahey and a host of others that the BHA, the PJA and Lee Mottershead of the Racing Post have no conception of the economics of starting an apprentice jockey or of the costs of running racehorses.
The BHA’s method for calculating the average expenses per ride was seriously flawed. They based it on an analysis of 6 appentices having had 899 rides between them and, although they assumed zero expenses for rides for the employer or at meetings where the employer had a runner, it didn’t, amazingly, occur to them that apprentices with an average of 150 rides per annum were not typical. Yes, their method of calculating the average cost of getting to the races was reasonable, but to then assume that this average cost was incurred by all apprentice jockeys on the same proportion of rides was a nonsense. Two of my apprentices last year and this year were too young to drive when they started. Their expenses were zero. We had to get them to the races and that, on occasions, involved sending a vehicle and paying the driver.
I freely admit that I am one of the trainers whose apprentices have not been submitting claims for half of their travelling expenses when going racing. We have always worked on the principle that, when we are responsible for the transport, we pay 100% and,when they have to get themselves there, they should try to travel with a senior jockey or someone else that is going (we have runners at most meetings) or, if they choose to drive themselves, they pay themselves. I think this generally works well. The inexperienced riders don’t need to incurr any expenses and, for the succesful apprentices, it isn’t uncommon for me to fly them to, and between, meetings. I wouldn’t dream of asking them to contribute towards that.
But, as I said at the outset, this is not really about travelling expenses. It seems that many, including those that wrote to the Racing Post and, most surprisingly, Mick Appleby, assume that apprentice jockeys are paid less than other members of staff of similar age and experience. I would argue that they are usually paid more and they get their wages, and all bonuses, whether they are at work or away at the races and also being paid to ride. This means that, in my yard, the lowest paid, 16-year-old, apprentice jockey, would be paid £42 per day ‘worked’ (before bonuses) whether that day was spent at my yard or travelling to and from the races. The BHA say they took this into account but it is hard to see that they have.
They freely admit that they did not take into account the cost of providing horses for apprentices to ride. Keith Dalgleish is the only apprentice that I can remember having his first ride on a horse I didn’t own. He was the only one that I considered to have the skill and experience to do justice to an owner’s horse and give it a fair chance.
In November 2017 I bought Ravenhoe from a group of my owners, albeit for just 5,000 gns, and in the next 18 months he ran 31 times. always ridden by our own apprentices or amateur jockey. He wasn’t the only horse I kept for the purpose. One of our apprentices who started in 2018 had a tremendous year and ended up with 89 rides. 48 of those rides came on horses I trained but, much more significantly, 23 of the rides, the ones to get him started, came on horses I owned. I generally say that, on average, a run costs an owner £3,000 in training and running costs. I accept that the type of horse we keep for apprentices runs far more than average and surely averages out at less per run so it might be reasonable to suggest that keeping and running a horse for apprentices to ride might cost, at least, £1,000 per run. Some – including, perhaps, the BHA, PJA, and Racing Post – won’t even accept that and seem to think that trainers can keep and train horses for free so, maybe, just for them, it might be worth pointing out that, for those 23 specific rides given to that apprentice in 2018, the travelling expenses and overtime (not including any normal wages) paid to the grooms leading up totalled £2,548. The horse transport costs, again just for those 23 rides alone, were £7,536 (I’ll wait for the claims, no doubt from someone that doesn’t own a horse, that it doesn’t cost me that). Of course, I haven’t accounted for prize-money won but nor have I accounted for the cost of training, entries or even the jockey at 50% of the riding fee. I hope all reasonably objective people can see that this is a huge expense in comparison to any possible return.
Of course, that apprentice was not typical. This year, with our two mainstay apprentice horses having serious issues and being retired during the season, our two new apprentices got just ten and seven rides respectively. One had his first five rides and only winner on horses we owned. The other had five of of his seven rides on horses we owned and all of his rides on horses I trained.
It is little wonder to me that some trainers are so upset at the suggestion that they have been profiting from having apprentices and, in particular, the suggestion that there has been abuse of young people by employers. If the apprentice system has been abused it has been by those that make promises [of rides] that they cannot, or will not, keep in order to get staff. I am also aware of a number of apprentices who are operating as ‘apprenticed’ to a trainer but who are not employed, or paid a full time wage, by that trainer. I suspect that a similar situation may exist with Conditional jockeys, who get 100% of their riding fees and prize-money. I would be most surprised if they are being paid a full wage when not at work for the trainer holding the licence.