21st April 2024

Wherever I have been in the British Isles in the last few months, from the Highlands of Scotland to the south of England and the west of Ireland, everyone has agreed that it has been one of the wettest winters that they can remember. There is standing water where there has never been water before, farmers have been unable to get machinery onto the land, and many turf race meetings have been abandoned.

Everywhere is saturated and we are all sick of the rain except, it would seem, if you live in or around Windsor. Windsor racecourse are watering for their meeting tomorrow. I find it impossible to believe that it is necessary. Actually, I am fairly certain that it is not necessary as the going is described as “Good to Firm, Good” with “a chance of a light shower”. Clearly this clerk of the course is ignoring BHA instructions to aim for Good to Firm ground for flat racing but there is nothing new in that, the vast majority ignore that instruction with impunity.

14th November 2023

A few days ago the headline on the front page of the Racing Post screamed ‘This is why we love the jumps’ under a picture of Paul Nicholls, Gordon Elliot and three horses which I later, with some help from Charlie, identified as Frodon, Gerri Colombe and Nassalam. It was a very promising headline and I expected there to be further detail beneath or on the next page  but all there was was a subheading which stated, ‘The rescheduled Champion Chase spearheads a magical day featuring old friends and exciting youngsters at Down Royal, Wincanton and Aintree’. I was left to speculate as to why it is that jump racing seems now to be so much more popular than the flat, in the eyes of  Racing Post journalists at least.

Rightly or wrongly, my take on this was that it is largely about the fact that the top horses are around for longer and the public can get to know them. A narrative can be built around them. And yet, one of the Racing Post’s top, and in my opinion best, journalists said of the Flat staying division that watching horses like Subjectivist and Stradivarius was like watching bicycles with flat tyres or glorified point-to-points. On the flat it is the stayers that tend to be around longest and it is them that the public are most likely to identify with and the best ones  go a lot faster than the chasers or even the hurdlers.

So why is it that so many in the media see the jumps as so much more engaging. ‘Exciting youngsters’? Surely not. Or is it the trainers and the jockeys that are more interesting personalities. Maybe.

I was drawn to think about it all again by another article in the Racing Post. Today, Sam Hendry suggests that we should be doing more to ‘tap into Japan’s ocean of racing-mad fans’. He seems to be saying that our product – and he is talking about flat, not jumps – is better than Japanese racing and so we should be doing more to sell it to Japanese racing fans. ‘The first step’, he says, ‘would be to entice more Japanese runners to Royal Ascot, the key arena in advertising European racing worldwide’. Note, he doesn’t say Wincanton, Down Royal, Aintree or even Cheltenham.

I think he is missing the point. The Japanese racing fans are fans of the sport, first and foremost. Sure, they bet, collectively and probably individually, more than British racing’s punters but racing in Japan is marketed as a sport and the leading participants, human and equine, are afforded celebrity status. The Japan Racing Association are primarily focused on the sport of horseracing and the furtherance of the Japanese thoroughbred. The head of the JRA in the UK told me that ‘in Japan the racing is for the breeding’. I fear that, if we asked the head of the BHA, she would say, ‘in Britain, the racing is for the betting’. That is the difference between Japan and the UK.

There is a huge amount we could learn from Japan about all aspects of marketing our sport and, if we waken up and start learning quickly, we can maybe encourage more people to follow British racing and/or covert some current followers into true fans. But we are light years away from attracting Japan’s ocean of racing-mad fans. That will never happen so long as the Racing Post and most other media organisations covering racing portray it and market it purely as another betting medium.

5th May 2023

Something urgently needs to be done to address the blatant disregard, by racecourses, for the rules of racing appertaining to the management of ground and the racing surface. I have, for a long time, expressed sympathy for Clerks of Courses who aim to produce ground softer than the optimum, Good to Firm, preferred by the BHA as they know from experience that there will be less non-runners on Good than on Good to Firm but, nonetheless, their breaches of the rules should not just be ignored. I think that Good to Firm ground is the ideal surface for flat racing, although I do feel that renaming the optimum surface condition or moving the scale might solve the problem, but if the majority disagree with me and can justify their beliefs then the rules should be changed. If the rule is wrong, change it. If it is right, enforce it.

The most extreme example we have seen this season was for last Sunday’s meeting at Musselburgh where the Clerk of the Course was watering on ground he described as ‘Good’ in the run up to the meeting. The forecast rain came and the meeting was run on soft ground.

Today, on the first day of the Guineas meeting at Newmarket, the ground is described as Good to Firm, Good in Places (watered). Rain is forecast on all three days. I find it hard to believe that they were aiming to produce Good to Firm ground when they watered.

5th January – 2023

Happy New Year!

On Tuesday I received two e mails from stableemployees@weatherbys.co.uk. The first came with a BHA heading and told me that they had recently been informed that I am now employed on a full-time basis as an Assistant Trainer by Charlie Johnston as of 1st January 2023. That, of course, isn’t strictly true as I am employed by the limited company now known as Johnston Racing Ltd., in which Deirdre and I are now the only share holders, and have been since 1989. Charlie is employed by the same company and has been for seven years. The e mail went on to tell me about my obligations to abide by the rules of racing with a particular emphasis on ‘safeguarding’ and ‘inside information’,  two of the BHA’s favourite subjects.

The second e mail, from the same source, told me all about the Careers In Racing website, just in case I wanted to change my job having had it for two days.

To be fair, both the BHA’s licencing department and Weatherbys have been super efficient in handling the transfer of our licence from Charlie and Mark Johnston to Charlie alone. It couldn’t have been handled better but the e mails are examples of the unwieldy, and often downright illogical, rules and systems that we are all working under. The rules on licensing seem to take little or no account of the fact that many training businesses will operate as limited companies rather than as individual sole traders and that the licence holder will often be an employee rather than an employer.

It makes me wonder just how many training businesses are now limited companies or partnerships rather than sole traders, who was the first trainer to operate as a limited company, and when that was?

A much more pertinent example of the mess our rules of racing are in is the recent U-turn by the BHA on the rules relating to use of the crop (if the BHA are so concerned about public perception, why do they persist in calling this instrument a ‘whip’?). It beggars belief.  Was the review worth the 95 sheets of paper it was written on? Clearly not and that is hardly a surprise as the regulator’s approach to this issue has been flawed for decades. But what of the Professional Jockeys Association’s involvement in the review itself, their agreement with the back-hand proposal, and now their own U-turn when it turns out, yet again, that they are totally unrepresentative of the views of working jockeys? It is only a few months since we had a similar situation over weights carried and allowances for equipment that would not be included in the published weight. That was another mess and it has left us with a situation in which many racing professionals, let alone the public, are unsure about the actual weight the horses are carrying ( I believe it is now 4lbs more than published). And don’t get me started on the the changes to the rules on the employment of apprentice jockeys – also pushed through to placate the PJA against the advice of trainers – which have resulted in greatly reduced opportunities for young people to get started especially with those trainers who have proved best at nurturing talent.

Why do the BHA rely so heavily on input from the PJA when they repeatedly demonstrate their lack of understanding of so many issues and, worst of all, their apparent inability to canvas the views of their members and, in particular, their more influential members? Is it simply that the BHA lack the expertise and confidence whenever it comes to anything relating specifically to the participants?

Anyway, back to the crop and the new rules. The specifics of the rule changes are, for me, almost irrelevant. It seems that most now agree that this is principally about public perception rather than horse welfare and, to my mind, no organisation has done more harm to the public perception of the use of the riding crop in racing than the BHA (and BHB and Jockey Club before them). Every time we ban and/or penalise a jockey for his use of the crop, the public perceive, quite understandably, that a horse has been abused and its welfare has been compromised. This has been the case since they started counting strokes of the crop and dished out bans to the first three jockeys home in the thrilling 1996 2000 Guineas and that perception will be re-enforced and amplified when they increase the penalties, start banning jockeys for longer periods for the same ‘offence’, and start disqualifying winners.

We should never have gone down the route of counting strokes as there is little or no correlation between the number of strokes and the incidence of abuse. It was far better when the rules were geared to punishing any abuse of horses rather than principally being concerned with public perception. Apparently the BHA were in part swayed by the argument that back-hand use is more likely to result in horse being hit in the wrong place but the same applies to the, now long- standing, rule preventing use of the crop above shoulder height and yet the regulators are still very hot on that issue. Again, the rules are not about horse welfare.

I heard snippets of a conversation on one of the racing channels yesterday in which they were comparing our rules with those in Germany where  there are far greater restrictions on use of the crop and draconian penalties. I have also heard people, including fellow board members when I sat on the board of the BHA, cite Norway, where the use of the crop has been banned altogether, as a good example. Well, if we are aspiring to have  rapidly declining racing and breeding industries like Germany or low-grade racing as in Norway, that’s fine, put those nations on a pedestal. If you want an example of a nation whose quality of  racing  and breeding is rapidly improving, look no further than Japan.

22nd December 2022

I am long past being surprised by anything that Matt Chapman says but I cannot believe that no action is taken against him by the BHA when he blatantly brings racing into disrepute. Today on Sky Sports Racing before the 1.20pm race at Lingfield,  in which we were running Muir Wood and Demilion, he suggested that it is normal practice for horses to be prevented from running up to their best on their third start in order to obtain a favourable handicap rating. “Charlie and Mark Johnston aren’t stupid”, he said, “They know how the system works”. Afterwards he expressed surprise that the horses had  finished second and third, he speculated that they could be rated in the 80s, and he said of me and Charlie, “maybe they don’t care”. He is basically suggesting that Charlie and I and the jockeys riding for us should break the rules and cheat in order to obtain a lower handicap mark, unless we are stupid.

Sadly it is a widely held view that this is how ‘the system’ works and, with people in the media like Matt Chapman perpetuating this view, it is little wonder that so many people think racing is fixed and crooked. Unfortunately, it is likely that this view is shared by many officials and regulators and it has troubled me since I entered this industry that the regulators operate a handicap system and write rules which they themselves believe can reward cheating and then spend huge amounts of money policing the system and trying to catch the cheats – money which would be far better spent on prizes for those that are trying to win.

It is, frankly, sad that nobody has taken steps to alter the system if they are so convinced that cheating is endemic and inevitable.

Perhaps Matt Chapman should consider, before he accuses me of naivety or stupidity, that I have trained more winners than any other British trainer and, although I don’t know for sure, I think it is almost certain that I have trained more handicap winners than any other British trainer. I have built my business on the fact that the system does not work as Matt Chapman suggests. Horses get themselves beaten all too often without us helping them to do so.


1st September 2022

I am in Baden Baden, Germany, for the BBAG yearling sale and I have just returned from their eve-of-sale barbeque/party. Unlike any other sale company, they throw a little party for all vendors and their staff, buyers, and anyone else connected with the sale. The drink flows, the food is great and guess who was there, Elvis. He is alive, well, living near Baden Baden and he speaks remakeably good german inbetween banging out all his hits and familiar tunes. It was the second time I have seen Elvis perform at this sale and he didn’t disappoint. It was a great evening.

I flew here yesterday direct from Newmarket where we sold two horses at the August horses-in-training sale. Soapy Stevens was sold for 125,000 guineas and will go to Bahrain. It was a great result for his owner-breeder, Jim Duggan, but a sad day for us and for British racing. Another highly-rated horse gone from the UK. I wonder how many horses rated over 90 have left our shores from that sale alone.

23rd July 2022

Catherine MacRae gives us ‘Another View’ in the Racing Post today and tells us that she is frustrated by the lack of horses saddled in the saddling boxes at Sandown and that trainers, by choosing to saddle their horses in the stable yard, ‘shrouded in secrecy’, will not help people fall in love with the sport. I have heard similar views expressed in the Racing Post  before by people who, I would imagine, have never been in a saddling box with a horse. But, rather than assume the same about Catherine MacRae, I decided to try and determine what knowledge of the subject she might have. I ‘Googled’ her and found a LinkedIn page on which she describes herself as ‘a trainee journalist at the Racing Post’ with ‘a background in horseracing’ and she tells us that she worked for nine months as a barn manager for Lucinda Russell. She should know better.

She suggests that ‘Sandown’s shaded facilities [the pre-parade ring] offer an excellent opportunity for runners to acclimatise to the atmosphere before presenting them to the main paddock  – a significantly louder and more stimulating environment’, but this is race-day, not the time for training and education, especially when you are running a filly in a Listed race and looking for her to give 100%. Once a horse is upset, even slightly, it is quite difficult to get it to relax again, especially immediately pre-race with so much going on. And saddling boxes are a very alien environment for our horses. So much so that I have to wonder when they were first introduced and how they have evolved.

If, like Catherine MacRae, you have attended a pre-parade ring with saddling facilities, you will have noticed that we lead the horse into the saddling box – a three-sided stall – and turn it to face outwards while it is saddled. Many saddling boxes, especially the older ones, are too narrow to easily turn the horse and so begins the catalogue of issues likely to upset the animal. I have, on very rare occasions, tried saddling a horse – one intent on barging out of the saddling box – facing inwards but this is fraught with dangers as the personnel have to squeeze between the horse’s hindquarters and the walls of the box to get in and out. Not a good idea if the horse gets at all fractious. And so we saddle the horse facing outwards with nothing but its groom to stop it coming out if it decides that it would rather be outside. In many cases there is little room to work on either side and it is not a nice place to be if the horse gets at all difficult.

Far better, wherever possible, to saddle in surroundings that the horse is used to – a loose box – and before the horse is presented to the atmosphere of the public areas of the racecourse. Let’s face it, I don’t think fans in other sports feel the need to have a view of dressing rooms or preparation areas.

What’s more the saddling procedure which I have described is, almost invariably,  a three-person job. Staff shortages seem to be commonplace these days in many industries, including racing, and not every trainer can afford the luxury of three people to saddle a horse. The job can be done easily by two people – even one – in the stable with little or no risk to horse or handler. Why would you do it any other way if you didn’t have to?

18th July 2022

In May the BHA, at last, decided to lift the restrictions which, for two years, had prevented entry to the weighing room for anyone other than jockeys, racecourse personnel and BHA officials. It was one of the many over-the-top measures introduced to help minimise the potential spread of Covid-19 and help to ensure the continuation of racing during the pandemic. However, when lifting the restrictions, they couldn’t just return to the way it was before. Some bright spark had to come up with a ‘new normal’. The BHA announced that, “From Saturday 21 May, trainers or representatives with a horse declared to run will be permitted to enter the Weighing Room complex whenever there is a clear work purpose for doing so. Work-related reasons for entering the Weighing Room are likely to include collecting saddles, observing apprentices weighing out, and for Stewards Enquiries.”

I’m not at all sure what prompted this desire to explain what ‘work’ means for a trainer or, indeed, what non ‘work related’ reason a trainer might have for entering the weighing room but, inevitably, racecourses have interpreted this instruction in different ways and many, if not most, have a person posted on the door to challenge everyone, other than jockeys and officials, attempting to enter the weighing room.

Pre-pandemic, my usual routine on arrival at a racecourse was to go to the weighing room, collect a race card, and check the notices on the wall for non-runners (and the reasons e.g. ground, which may indicate a problem), going changes, etc.. Now, apart from the indignity of constantly having to explain my purpose for being there, there is no point as they have stopped posting these notices in the weighing room and I am not aware that they are posted anywhere else on course.

At Haydock, where, let’s face it, there tends to be a greater than average number of non-runners, I would always go immediately to the weighing room to check the situation but now the non-runners are no longer displayed and, being a Jockey Club course, it is impossible to obtain the relevant information over the internet. The jockey Club free wi-fi system is hopeless as you have to go through the whole log-in process every time you want access and they have blocked the Racing Post website which, for most of us, is the best and quickest source of information on form, non-runners, etc.. Chester is another track where non-runners are commonplace and there the wi-fi system is so bad, and mobile phone signal virtually non-existent, that we cannot obtain the necessary information and we cannot report to owners, who are not in attendance, after the race. When I am not present myself, I have no contact with my representative.

It would seem that the BHA have a hankering for the bad old days when the regulator, The Jockey Club, saw trainers as coming from a lower order akin to servants. It is time for all of us – trainers, stable staff, and all others who are working to put the race meeting on – to be afforded due respect and aided, rather than hindered, in trying to do our job. Trainers and their representatives should have unhindered access to the weighing room and all necessary information should be readily available therein, and there should be a dedicated, and efficient, wi-fi system for racing professionals on course.

15th July -2022

Who was the mystery ‘prominent Newmarket handler’ who  supposedly urged fellow trainers not to declare their horses for the last race on Newbury’s Saturday card? He, or she, deserves a medal if it is true. I was assuming it was a ‘he’ as there were only three Newmarket trainers with entries in the race – four, if you count John and Thady Gosden as two. But, I suppose, it might have been a trainer who didn’t have an entry in the race.

It is interesting that the Racing Post have chosen not to name this person. The daily betting rag’s past form on such matters would suggest that they would be splashing the trainer’s name across the front page and castigating the rebel rouser. I can’t imagine that they would have held back if it was William Haggas. They certainly didn’t the last time that he and I urged trainers not to run in a below tariff race at Yarmouth – they called us ‘bullies’.

I wonder if the name will come out and if we’ll be seeing comment pieces from Alan Byrne and Bruce Millington personally attacking the ‘rogue’.

On this occasion, I wasn’t involved and that is largely because I have been voting with my feet all season and I have had very few entries at Newbury. This ‘boycott’, if that’s what you want to call it, made me look at how many runners I have had at the Berkshire track so far this year. The answer is three and the only tracks where I have had less runners are Thirsk (2), Weatherby (2), and Ffos Las (0). Ffos Las is a particularly long journey for us and there are more than enough of the type of races they run on offer at much closer tracks. The same cannot be said for the others. I wonder if they care. The management at Newbury probably don’t. Why would they? They’re doing very well as house-builders.

6th June 2022

Pontefract are watering, 9 hours before racing, on what they themselves describe as ‘Good To Firm, Good in Places’ ground. I have just (9.10am) spoken to the clerk of the course and he admits that it is currently raining, ‘a light drizzle’. Under BHA instructions they are supposed to be aiming for Good To Firm ground. No wonder horses are slipping all over the place on courses and meetings are being abandoned.


7th February 2022

Gary Woods is, apparently, a bloodstock agent and he is also, apparently, the founder of Empire International Bloodstock but I had never heard of Mr. Woods or his bloodstock agency prior to his being accused, a few days ago, of defrauding a syndicate of owners by failing to tell them that their horse was dead until he had extracted £6,000 in training fees from them.

His actions have led to another call from Lee Mottershead for the licensing of bloodstock agents in order to ‘reduce the possibility of anything like this happening again’. Would it reduce the possibility of anything like this happening again? I’m not so sure.

There may be other people who are acting as bloodstock agents and managing syndicates, in fact I suspect that there almost certainly are, but I am struggling to immediately think of one. Mr. Woods, as far as I can determine from the little we know about the case, was principally acting here as a syndicate manager rather than as a bloodstock agent. He is not, as far as I am aware, accused of malpractice in any activity that we would normally associate with bloodstock agents or that Lee Mottershead is seeking to have controlled by licensing.

I am not, particularly, against the idea of licensing bloodstock agents but I am wary of more layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and of unintended consequences. I would hate to see any restrictions on free trade, as we see in financial services, with buyers forced to use a licensed agent in order to make purchases. While Lee Mottershead and Justin Felice, who conducted the review of buying and selling practices, assume that licensing of bloodstock agents will afford greater protection for customers, theirs is a simplistic view and they have not, as far as I am aware, given much detail on how it would work. Consider, for example, some auctions of motor vehicles which are restricted to ‘the trade’, where bids will only be accepted from registered or bona fide traders. This may be portrayed as a way of protecting buyers, vendors and the auction house but, in reality, it allows the potential for the operation of cartels and guarantees a position for a ‘middle-man’ in every transaction.

Lee Mottershead points to a number of people naming themselves as agent at a recent sale and states that ‘it is hard to see why they or anyone else involved in buying horses would have any objection to being licensed’. Well, Lee, I  would object to needing to be licensed to spend my own money or to being forced to use a licensed agent in order to do so.

6th December 2021

It was drawn to my attention over the weekend that, in our latest Kingsley Klarion, which was published at the beginning of the month, it describes Subjectivist as ‘sadly now retired through injury’. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint the owners of other great stayers but that isn’t necessarily the case. Subjectivist is still here at Kingsley Park and there are no immediate plans for retirement.

It is well publicised that an injury came to light soon after he won this year’s Ascot Gold Cup and there is no doubt that that injury is career threatening but, in the absence of a suitable job at stud, we will make an attempt to bring him back for the Royal meeting next year. As the clock ticks by towards the 2022 covering season it looks likely that he will still be here in the New Year and returning to training.

His three-parts brother, Sir Ron Priestley, on the other hand, will definitely be retired. He is also currently still with us but it is hoped that he will shortly be departing for France where he will take up stud duties.

8th November 2021

It was a sad day for all at Johnston Racing today as Maydanny left to continue his racing career in Dubai. The departure of Attraction’s five-year-old son marks the end of an era for us which began 19 years ago when ownership of Bandari was transferred from the late Mr. Abdulla Al Rostamani to the late Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum. The horses which followed from Sheikh Hamdan brought us 167  British winners and some tremendous times with horses like Awzaan and Elarqam amongst many others.

Since Sheikh Hamdan’s death in March this year his horses have run in the name of his Shadwell Estate Company and we had our last two runners in the famous blue and white colours at Nottingham on 13th October when Qitaal won and Janoobi was runner up in the next race. Those two horses were sold soon afterwards as part of the Shadwell dispersal at Tattersalls and Maydanny was the last of the great owner’s horses to remain with us until today.

It was a great privilege to train for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum and I shall always be grateful  for the support he gave us.

10th August 2021

We are regularly told, particularly by the BHA, of the importance of the public perception of horseracing and, especially, horse welfare within horseracing. The BHA have even launched a public consultation on the use of the whip in horseracing and anyone can have their say online. Is this a good idea? I don’t think so and I fear it is a sad reflection on the administrator when they lack the confidence to make decisions in the best interests of the sport and its participants, both equine and human, without consulting the public.

Dare I say that the public are not very good at making decisions or driving policy on animal welfare. Take the case of Geronimo the alpaca, for example. 100,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the Government to intervene and prevent him being euthanised by DEFRA after he tested positive for bovine tuberculosis, twice. Yesterday, a group – granted, there may only have been around 30 of them – ‘marched’ on Downing Street in protest. His owner says that the tests are unreliable. The tests are, it is said, 99.98% accurate. One in 5,000 uninfected animals can give a false positive test. Geronimo has tested positive twice.

I can’t remember but I wonder how many people protested about the slaughter of 6,000,000 cattle and sheep during the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak. Tuberculosis is a zoonotic disease – one which can spread from animals to humans – and the main cause of human infection is bovine tuberculosis. Foot and Mouth disease is not a zoonotic disease, it does not infect people, or horses, and it is not a killer of cattle or sheep and yet the public were wholeheartedly behind the eradication policy despite the necessity for the slaughter of millions of animals.

So much for the public perception of animal welfare. We should not be relying on it to guide welfare policy in horseracing.


18th July 2021

A good win for Dr. Jim Walker’s Value Theory at Newmarket yesterday on her second start and it hopefully provides some consolation for the owner of Subjectivist that he has some nice two-year-olds to run and give him something to dream about now that his star is out of action. You may have noticed that many of Jim’s horses have names derived from his occupation as an economist. As I understand it, names like Austrian School, Austrian Theory, Natural Value, Subjective Value, Salamanca School, Praxeology, and maybe even Subjectivist come from the world of economics but it struct me that many of these terms and, in particular, ‘value theory’, could also be applied to the way I buy yearlings and maybe this is one of the things that has led to our successful association with Dr. Jim.

It needs to be remembered, when judging the success, or otherwise, of a buyer at the yearling sales, that the yearlings bought are not necessarily the ones the buyer wanted most but are, for some of us, the ones we could afford. That certainly applies to me and it is well publicised that I select yearlings first on pedigree and only look at those that meet our established criteria. Then, of the many hundreds which Charlie and I look at, some will be excluded on conformation, looks, or soundness but the vast majority will be followed to the ring because they could be worth buying at the right price. This is my ‘value theory’ and it has helped us buy many exceptionally good horses for very little money.

However, I still see plenty horses which I would consider good value at hundreds of thousands of pounds and well beyond my price range. I get the occasional one sent to me that falls into that bracket but for the most part I can only dream of training them and the many top class horses that have pedigree and looks but are clearly not good value. Nonetheless, I love the challenge of finding the value at all levels of the sales and get tremendous satisfaction when competing at the top level with horses bought cheaply for our owners.

13th July 2021

I’ve always argued that handicapping is not a science, it isn’t even arithmetic. It is, I would say, simply an opinion expressed as a figure. But, for those of you that do think it is a science and that it obeys the laws of mathematics, or even some of them, explain this to me.

Sir Ron Priestly (Rated 112) meets Pyledriver (Rated 119) at level weights and beats him two and a quarter lengths. After the race, both horses are rated 117.

Pyledriver (now 117) then meets Al Aasy (Rated 119) at level weights and beats him a neck. After the race Pyledriver is raised to 121 and Al Aasy is raised to 120.

Sir Ron Priestly (granted – since having run two disappointing races and having been dropped to 116) then meets Al Aasy (120), giving him 3lbs, and beats him a neck (the same distance that Pyledriver beat him but carrying 3lbs more). After the race Al Aasy is still rated 120 and and Sir Ron Priestly is now rated 118.


5th July 2021

Happy birthday to Brian Palmer, described in the Racing Post today as ‘Mark Johnston’s first owner’. Close but not quite correct. Our first owner was Paul Venner of Baileys horse feeds, for whom we trained Mister Baileys to win the Guineas seven years later. Brian Palmer was the owner of Hinari Video, our first winner, and he, and his wife Val, became partners in our business from 1988 until 2000. Brian and Val are no longer involved in horseracing at all but remain our close friends. They now live at Leyburn just two miles from the yard.

When Brian broached the subject of a business partnership in 1988, he told me, ‘I can’t make you a better horse trainer than you are going to be, but I’ll move you on ten years’. He did exactly that.

4th July – 2021

There is too much racing.

Yesterday there were 35 races scheduled in the UK with a further 15 from Ireland shown on RTV. British races were scheduled to commence as little as five minutes after the previous race and, in reality, when it comes to looking at the actual ‘off’ time, this was cut to as little as two minutes. If you throw in the Irish cards, the minimum interval between two starts drops to one minute.

This can’t be a good move for anyone involved. Some might argue that it provides more opportunities for trainers like me to have runners and more opportunities for jockeys to ride but there are only so many horses to go round and the pool of horses and owners willing to pay for them to be trained and race is diminishing. The result will be a continued decline in quality as racecourses struggle to meet bookmaker demand for field sizes and owners leave the sport or take their horses abroad in search of better returns.

Look no further than BAGS greyhound racing to see where this policy can lead.

18th June 2021

For the first time ever, today, I had runners at Royal Ascot without being in attendance myself. Deirdre tells me that I have missed another day in the last 30+ years since I started attending, when we didn’t have a runner and we decided to take a day off, but I don’t remember that. Generally, I would always be there from beginning to end but things are  different this year. Not quite as ‘different’ as last year but different from any normal year.

We usually stay fairly nearby – for many years now it has been the Marriott hotel in Slough – but the traffic means that we still need to allow, at least, an hour to drive to the course. This year, with very little traffic, we have been flying down to White Waltham, as we would for any ordinary Ascot fixture, and getting a taxi from there. In all, it has been taking us about an hour and threequarters and I had originally planned to do the same today but, when I saw the weather forecast, I realised that flying might not be an option and so Charlie stayed down last night to cover the meeting if I couldn’t make it.

As it was, the weather was so bad that the meeting had to survive an inspection just after noon and there would have been no possibility of me landing at White Waltham or anywhere else nearby. I stayed at home in the Yorkshire sunshine – not a drop of rain here – and basked in the glory of Subjectivist’s Gold Cup win. It was great to watch the race again and to read some of the newspaper reports – Joe Fanning made the front page of the Yorkshire Post – although it was a little frustrating, if not entirely surprising, to be damned with faint praise in some quarters where the emphasis was on Stradivarius having suffered interference  in running rather than on the magnificent performances from Subjectivist and his jockey.

It should, perhaps, be noted that the Gold Cup was the only race on the day where the time dipped below standard, and by a full 1.22 seconds. ITV’s analysis of the sectional times was also very interesting and it pointed out that Subjectivist covered the final furlong faster than any other horse so, if my very basic physics and maths isn’t failing me, that tells me that, for anything to beat him, it would have had to be in front of him with 220 yards to go or it would have had to finish a lot faster than it did on the day.

Stradivarius’s owner, Bjorn Nielsen was the first person to congratulate me when I managed to extricate myself from the winners’ enclosure and he and the Gosdens were very magnanimous in defeat as you would expect from such a professional team. They must have been very disappointed but I am sure that they feel that their great horse owes them nothing. His earnings are quite staggering as, I believe, he collected two £1,000,000 Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers bonuses to add to almost £3,000,000 in prize-money and who is to say that he is finished yet. Subjectivist is highly unlikely to ever amass such earnings although, if this was a different sport, we would probably have Subjectivist’s breeder’s husband, Barry Hearn, promoting a rematch with the bulk of the media rights earnings going to the ‘players’. Wouldn’t that be something?


23rd May 2021

Am I alone in thinking that Martin Bashir is being made a scapegoat by the BBC and the media in general? While there has been criticism of BBC management at the time of his Princess Diana interview, I have not heard any suggestion that his actions stemmed from a culture of lies, deceit and sensationalism which pervades the media, including the BBC, to this day. I am not, for a minute, condoning what he did but I cannot accept that this was a case of one bad apple. Most of the fruit shop is well beyond ripe.

For decades we have been sold the image that the BBC is some great bastion of  moral values and beyond reproach. Panorama, in particular, has been placed on a pedestal and I now look back and wonder  how many times I was taken in  and accepted, without question, reports on subjects I knew nothing about.

Sadly, it seems, that the old adage of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story applies just as much to BBC journalists as it does to those who are seeking to outsell rival tabloids by displaying the most shocking headline. Horseracing has suffered many times, during my career, at the hands of these unscrupulous reporters  and documentaries from Panorama, the BBC’s Kenyon Confronts, and ITV’s The Cook Report, sprang immediately to my mind as I read and listened to reports on this latest BBC scandal. It was only through having some inside knowledge of the subjects being covered that I came to realise how inaccurate and sensationalist many television documentaries are and I certainly do not think that the situation is any better now than it was in Martin Bashir’s time. I now wonder, was it always so? Have we always been misled and manipulated by the media? Who can you trust to tell it as it is?



17th May 2021

So, so sad to hear of Joe Mercer’s death. It was only on Saturday that I saw Bruce Raymond at Newbury and asked after Joe. Bruce said, ‘He’s great. As bright as ever. He phones me every week’.

As a child and teenager, Joe was a superhero in my eyes. I could never have imagined that years later he would be coming to stay in my house. When he was racing manager for Sheikh Maktoum, he would come to stay and look at the horses the next morning. If racing was at York, Joe would leave after his last runner and, if I had one in a later race, he would let himself in and make himself at home. By the time I got back, Joe would have been raking about for a nice bottle of red wine and he’d be half way through his first glass. We loved having him to stay.

24th April 2021

Course officials at Ripon are, apparently, “very disappointed” with the turnout for their seven race card today. Clerk of the course, James Hutchinson, blames it on the ‘quick conditions’. Good to Firm, Good in places. That’s not ‘quick’. In fact, knowing Ripon, there is a serious danger that it will be over-watered and slow.

I have two of the three runners in the two mile handicap but, I have to say, I wouldn’t be running two and might not have been running any at all if I’d had to take on more rivals. The prize-money is so appalling that it simply doesn’t make sense to risk horses of this calibre for such poor rewards. The £11, 338.80 on offer to the winner today might seem like a lot of money when compared with the price of eggs but it is very little compared to the cost of buying, training and racing a horse and it is a pittance when compared to the value of this calibre of horse if it were to be sold to race abroad.

As with so many other things at present, this sorry state of affairs will be blamed on Covid 19 and that could, arguably, justify the the reduction from the £15,562.50 landed by our own Making Miracles in 2019 when the first six home received prize-money. But how do they justify the fact that, when Richard Fahey and Marwan Koukash won the race in 2014 with Angel Gabrial, they collected £24,900 and, again, six of the thirteen runners were rewarded for their efforts? And, when Trip to Paris won it the following year for Ed Dunlop, he collected £25,876.

I, as much as anyone, believe that racehorses are for racing and I’d rather gallop them round Ripon with a good chance of winning £11,000 than gallop them at Kingsley Park for nothing but it is a large part of my job, when placing horses, to look at the risk to reward ratio and racecourse managers are going to have to wake up to the fact that, if they want to attract good quality horses, they are going to have to pay a lot more attention to the prize-money and stop blaming the weather and other factors beyond their control.



9th March 2021

The influence of public opinion on the BHA and IHRB has been all too evident in recent times but that pales into insignificance when compared with the influence on governments and politicians, particularly in times of crisis. To what extent has public opinion and perception influenced the handling of the of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, rather than virology, epidemiology, and objective assessment of risk? Sadly, it seems that politicians, of all parties and in most countries, are more likely to be driven by polls than by any genuine altruistic concern for the electorate.

Perhaps it has always been so but I think most would agree that the influence of public opinion has been, at least, widened and extended into many more facets of our lives by the explosion of social media and the internet. And sadly, it seems, that the greatest influence on public opinion, especially ignorant majorities, is exerted by that section of the media which almost prides itself in never letting the truth get in the way of a good story, the tabloid journalists and those that produce the headlines to accompany their work. The objective of the headline writer, of course, is to grab attention and they really don’t mind how they do it. The perception created by the headline is often very different from that which the article was intended to convey.

On the internet, headline writers must compete with a huge volume of material and, as a result, there is a tendency to be even more sensationalist than their counterparts in print. There was a good example of this on the Racing Post website today.

Peter Thomas has written a typically good piece on the 2001 abandonment of the Cheltenham Festival due to Foot and Mouth. It is a very balanced and accurate piece based on those whose dreams of Cheltenham success were shattered when the meeting was cancelled. The attitude of those involved seemed to be one of resignation. Nobody questioned the need to abandon the meeting. It is assumed that it was a necessary measure as part of the fight against Foot and Mouth.

Readers of Peter Thomas’s piece will probably share the view that the abandonment of racing was an appropriate action at the time, especially if they read his article on the Racing Post website where it is presented under the headline, ‘How a killer disease thwarted two festival legends’. What ‘killer disease’? Foot and Mouth doesn’t kill people, it doesn’t kill horses, and it doesn’t usually even kill cattle, pigs or sheep. By no stretch of the imagination can it be described as a killer. What’s more, horses are no more likely to spread the disease than a bicycle or a motor car.

Some comparisons have been made between that outbreak of Foot and Mouth in 2001 and the current horrendous, world-wide, situation caused by Covid -19 and the measures implemented to minimise it’s spread. I suppose there are some comparisons, if only in that sensationalist journalism, misinformation and scaremongering have been used to influence public opinion in both cases.

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.



31st January 2021

It is so sad to hear of the death of Paul Haigh and it is a reminder to me of how much I have missed reading his words. I have already seen many tributes to him in which he is described as a ‘great writer’, a ‘wonderful raconteur’, and even  a ‘genius’ but what we must remember is that Paul was recognised as a great racing writer in an era of great racing writers. He stood out from the crowd when there really was a crowd.

I don’t think I ever had the pleasure of meeting any of his family and I wish I had. It would have been good to know him better. What I did know of him, I liked a lot.

25th January 2021

If I could bottle it – whatever it is that is making our horses run so well at present – and sell it, I would. But, unfortunately, there is no magic potion and it is no easier to explain a phenomenally good run of form than it is to explain a string of losers.

Of course the horses are generally well but we are still encountering all the usual winter ailments: coughs and snotty noses; cracked heels from exercising in the wet; ringworm from an influx of new young horses; and so on. We are not doing anything differently.

When we had a run of more than 100 consecutive losers one year and James Willoughby famously commented that ‘there is no such thing as yard form’, he explained our ‘poor’ performance by saying that it was down to the population of horses that we were running at the time and he pointed out that, based on previous form, the vast majority could not be expected to win. There was a lot of truth in that.

If you look at our strike rate at the end of any year you will see that it tends to take quite a dip and that is down to the fact that many horses are rushing to get a run before the end of the year to give them some experience before a winter break or to allow us to fully assess their ability if we, and/or their owners, need to make decisions on whether to keep them into another year. The same applies to many other training yards and Maiden and Novice races, in particular, tend to be big fields and pretty competitive.

Come January, we have the whole year ahead of us and, for most of the horses, there is no pressure or rush to run and we can take our time to select the ideal race. That said, the same again applies to many other yards and so our current run of winners and strike-rate is still quite exceptional.

With a week to go we have already passed our best ever total for January and our 18 winners have come at an incredible strike-rate of 45%. Even more amazing, I would say, is the fact that 17 individuals from 31 to run have won. That, 55%, winners-runners is the sort of figure we might just aspire to at the end of a season but never at this stage.

Long may it last but we must keep our feet on the ground and remember that the nature of the British program and its reliance on handicaps often dictates that a peak must be followed by a trough as our friends the official handicappers hike the winners up and try to stop them from winning again. Sadly, it takes a lot longer to come down in the handicap than it does to go up. Thankfully, however, we have a few more horses waiting in the wings to pick up the gauntlet if this first wave of success starts to wane. It is a great start to the year and makes the cold, dark mornings, and the boredom of lock-down a lot easier to cope with.

8th January 2021

Do you remember, just a few years ago, when we had a over 100 runners without a winner? James Willoughby, when discussing the situation on TV, said something along the lines of “there is no such thing as ‘yard form'” and that prompted us to engage James to look statistically at various aspects of our business. Of course, there are factors which can affect the form of a trainer’s team as a whole but, in reality, they are pretty unusual and, in 35 years of closely monitoring the cyclical fluctuations in our form and investigating the deep ‘troughs’ there have only been a couple of times that we have found a clear common factor affecting a significant number of horses. Early in my career I recognised that these apparent fluctuations in yard form were almost never related to an infectious agent and that the age old excuse, ‘the virus’, didn’t exist. I think that recognition has played a big part in our success.

Yesterday, I was asked by the Racing Post about our current excellent run and why it might be that we are knocking in the winners since the New Year. In reality, the same applies as when you are having a bad run: it isn’t something that we are doing differently and it isn’t down to an absence of infections amongst the horses. If it was down to something we were doing differently or something which we could affect, of course, we would do it all the time.

Ironically, it is less than three weeks since an owner of ours said to me, ‘you won’t like me saying this, but your horses aren’t running very well at the moment’. It was a day or two after we had had a treble and I can’t really understand where he had got that impression but it just shows you that the public impression of yard form is rarely backed by hard evidence.

In monitoring the form of the yard I tend to concentrate on the percentage of placed horses as, simply due to the greater numbers, it is a more reliable indicator. As a rough rule of thumb, I say that if we are having 50% placed, we are ‘flying’, 33% is good, and anything under 25% triggers investigation. In the last fortnight we are well over 50% but, of course, it is a fairly small sample and James might tell us that it isn’t statistically significant.

Can we maintain it? That is the most important question and the reality is that, beyond doing what we always do and have done for many years, we can’t change the fact that there will be peaks and troughs in the number of winners. We just have to ride out the troughs and try to ensure that they don’t result in loss of customers and/or horses and create a downward spiral. I said to the Racing Post that, in the current circumstances, with owners cutting back and number of horses down in our yard and, perhaps, across the industry, it is more important than ever to get winners but, if we are already doing our best every day, we can’t do any better. All we can do is to ensure that it is business as usual and that we are leaving no stone unturned. The same applies when trying to maintain a good run or recovering from a poor run.

This makes it sound like whether or not we have winners or not is all down to luck and it certainly isn’t. We can’t change the fact that there will be weekly or monthly fluctuations in the number of winners but it is how we deal with the poor runs that can set us apart. If you blame it on ‘the virus’ and shut down then you are ensuring that you will not be winning for, at least, the period of the shut down. One certainty in racing is that a horse can’t win if you don’t run it. It can’t get beaten either and it seems that some owners and trainers prefer that method of dealing with a run of losers but not this one.

When faced with a challenge, whether it is a run of losers or some threat to the business such as we are now experiencing due to Covid-19, we must rise to that challenge with attention to detail on which horses we run, where we run them, and every other little detail that makes a difference between winners and losers. Not long ago, when faced with cut backs by a major owner and a shift in the type of horses in our yard, we made a conscious decision to ‘hit the boards running’ at the start of the flat season. We had more two-year-olds ready and we aimed to run those that were going best first rather than test the water with a second division. It resulted in us winning the first three two-year-old races one year and the first four the next. It showed what can be done to combat a downturn.

I can’t say that there has been any shift in policy that has resulted in seven winners in the first seven days of 2021 but I am wise to the threat of owners’ cutbacks this year and will be doing everything possible to ensure that we ride out any storm.


6th January 2021

What a great start to the New Year. Six winners in the first six days. I don’t think we have ever had such a rapid start. Long may it continue. Racing isn’t much fun for owners at present but winners always help.

I haven’t been racing yet this year and, with no owners on track, and advice to limit our racing team to essential people, I don’t see that I’ll be going much in the next few weeks. It is, perhaps, a good reminder for punters if any is needed that the presence of the trainer on track has no bearing whatsoever on the horse’s chances.


28th December 2020

This is my first Blethering for several months and will almost certainly be my last of 2020. I will probably resolve to make much more regular contributions to this site in 2021 but that doesn’t, necessarily,  mean I will do it as I think I have made the same resolution now for many years. But, who knows, maybe I will be more determined to change my ways in the New Year.

Our lives have been changed quite dramatically in 2020, mostly for the worse, but in some ways for the better, and some of those changes might stick. There is no denying that I have had more free time as there have been months with no racing at all and, when it did resume, owners couldn’t go racing. When they were allowed, it generally wasn’t much fun for them and there has been no social interaction between owners and trainers and so less time spent on the racecourse for both of us. That has given me more time to do other things like go cycling and I must admit that I have enjoyed it.

Owners will also have found other things to do with their time and we in racing have to hope that they haven’t enjoyed those things too much. First indications are that some have cut back, whether as a result of financial pressures resulting from the pandemic or simply because they have re-evaluated their spend on racing. Johnston Racing will go into 2021 with about 20% less horses than we had at the beginning of this year but we still have a big team and we have scaled ‘mountains’ in the past with much smaller teams than we have now.

There is a huge amount to be positive about. Despite all the challenges this year we have still notched up more than 170 winners, with numerous Group class victories and two Group 1 winners amongst them. We have lots of exciting horses to look forward to so roll on 2021.


16th August 2020

I didn’t go to either of the first two meetings to be held at Chester this year, on Monday and Friday of this week, but had runners at both and, for the first time since the resumption of racing, we had really positive feedback from our owners about the experience and the hospitality on offer. They were, apparently, treated to a three-course dinner in a restaurant overlooking the finish. One owner described it as ‘five star treatment’.

I was delighted, but not particularly surprised, to hear it. Chester, along with Musselburgh, Chelmsford and York, stands apart from other racecourses in terms of its attitude to the participants. There will be little, if any, good come from this pandemic – apart, perhaps, from me having lost a bit of weight – but it will serve to sort a lot of wheat from chaff in many walks of life, including racing.

I didn’t go to Pontefract either this week but Charlie did and reported back that it seemed they had watered half the track, not the first mile or the last mile but the inside half. I watched it again on television and I think it is almost certain that he is right. They did this last year to a point where the outside half was baked and the inside was lush but i thought there had been some intervention by the BHA and that this could not happen again. It didn’t seem to make a lot of difference on Friday – maybe because very few jockeys spotted it and attempted to take advantage of the drier ground and maybe because the inside was still fast.

Charlie’s opinion was that rain would have resulted in an extreme difference and I would have thought that, not only are they risking meetings with a considerable bias, but there is likely to be a long term effect. If Charlie is wrong and they have not watered just the inside half  recently then I can only conclude that the damage is already done. I will certainly be making an effort to attend Pontefract as soon as possible to walk the track.

24th June 2020

I am absolutely delighted to hear that Hamilton Park are leading the way and will be accommodating horses and stable staff on Saturday night for their meeting on Sunday. It actually has no effect on my stable as Hamilton is not an overnight stay for us (we generally stay over at tracks where the journey time is greater than 4 hours each way which means Ayr to the north and anything south of Leicester) but the absence of overnight accommodation has been the greatest hardship for stable staff since racing was resumed behind closed doors and I hope that other tracks will follow Hamilton’s example in the near future.

It has been interesting to note that the form of our horses does not appear to have suffered at all when travelling to far flung tracks but it has been very hard on the staff. Some did a 26 hour shift for one meeting at Goodwood.

We have been in the lucky position of being able to ferry some staff to or from racetracks in our aeroplane and Newmarket and Haydock went to considerable lengths to open their airstrips because we were doing that. It has meant that, for some of the longest journeys, we could allow some staff to travel to the races by plane and others to travel back, greatly reducing their overall time on duty. But the majority of our travelling staff have had to travel both ways with the horses and the hours they have been working is not sustainable in the long term.

I myself have been going racing a lot. I have attended 17 race meetings at 9 different tracks since 1st June and I have seen some quite different approaches to managing the day. I must say that, from a virus control point of view, I have seen nothing that could be considered remotely risky. Everyone has taken it very seriously and all workers, whether they are racecourse employees, BHA officials, or stable staff, have accepted the inconveniences and extra pressures. That said, I have seen quite a variation in the facilities and catering  that has been provided for those attending, ranging from zero to to the first-class provisions at Ascot. ARC tracks, Jockey Club racecourses, Goodwood, Ayr and Hamilton have all provided a free packed lunch for everyone attending and some have added free hot drinks throughout the day but Ascot added a little touch of luxury that you might expect at the Royal meeting. It was much appreciated.

10th June 2020

Now that racing (but not as we know it) has recommenced I am bracing myself for the abusive text messages, e mails and, occasionally, phone calls. I used to think that I was one of the only ones receiving these but I now know that it goes with the job and most, if not all, trainers and jockeys are subjected to this.

On the other hand, I also get plenty of pleasant messages and there are more posts on social media praising our efforts than there are criticising us. Unfortunately, many of those who text or write to tell me what a  wonderful trainer I am spoil it by playing their hand and adding the request for ‘a horse to follow’ but one such text message this week made me smile. It read:

“Hi Mark, Just wanted to say wow what a start after horrible virus hope all your stable and staff ok everyone says you won’t reply but will try as love ya. Any horse to look out for over next few day your in amazing form? No’ worry’s if your understandably very busy but worth a try please stay safe and good luck 🙂 Louise x”

I then noticed that I had received a previous message, last July, from the same number. It read:

“Hi Mark, My 21st birthday today I clean out horses stables for a living. Your derby entry runs today at Epsom going for my biggest bet £20 nothing to you but awful lot to me is horse worth thumbs up no worry’s if your busy understand you are top guy and trainer. Take care. Amy x”

She/he must think I came up the Clyde on a water biscuit.


2nd June 2020

Oh, Sir Anthony, I so agree with what you said in the Racing Post today about making your own decisions and weighing the risks but be prepared for a possible backlash from Lee Mottershead and Alan Byrne. Mottersdhead, the Racing Post’s self appointed expert in virology, might accuse you of being arrogant, blinkered, misguided or even disaffected and Alan Byrne, their editor in chief and temporary resident epidemiologist, could remind you of how many people have died, and might still die – as if your views on horseracing mean that you don’t know or don’t care. He certainly might say that society must give you ‘permission’ to make a decision to go horseracing or even to have an opinion that there should be any horseracing at all. He might think your views are ill-judged or just ill-timed but, given that he chose to print them in his paper and he is not inclined to print views that he doesn’t share,  maybe he is climbing down from his high horse or maybe he had some other, more personal, agenda – or should I say gripe – when he made his little attack on myself and Ralph Beckett.

Today, I attended my first, and I dearly hope last, funeral during ‘lockdown’. My mother-in-law, Kathleen Ferguson’s death had nothing to do with Covid-19 but her last two months were sorely affected by it. Her 88-year-old husband, Duncan, didn’t see his wife for the last seven weeks of her life and he is struggling to make sense of that or the fact that there were only nine of us at her funeral.  I suspect he might share Sir Anthony McCoy’s view that, at his age,  he and his family can make their own decisions on the risks he should take.

It was, without doubt, the strangest funeral I have ever attended and it, along with Kathleen’s time in hospital and hospice, will be the most poignant memory of ‘lockdown’ and Covid – 19 for me. But, the fact that the hearse met us at her house and the neighbours stood out in the street to see her off was touching to say the least. That might be something to consider for what people are terming the ‘new normal’. Me, I’d just like a  return to the old normal as soon as possible.

7th April 2020

I really like Andrew Balding’s idea (Racing Post interview with James Stevens) of pushing the whole flat season back a month. It seems so obvious now he has said it. I wish I had thought of it myself.

Of course, it isn’t simple and there would be no end of obsticles to overcome, many of which might be totally out of racing’s control. But it would be an excellent target for all involved. As Andrew says, it just wouldn’t be practical to run some meetings, especially later in year, but, if we could work approximately to the template of a normal season run late, it would give everyone clear objectives and benefit all facets of the industry rather than saving some and leaving others to drown.

Could the sales also be moved a month? Breeze-ups, horses-in-training sales, yearling sales? Hopefully, by December, the breeding stock sales could sit in their normal place. This would give some hope to those sectors, such as the pinhookers, which, at present are facing almost immediate ruin. There is a strong argument to say that yearling sales come too early in the year anyway and there would be little or no disadvantage in holding them later when everyone had had a chance to find their feet again.

It won’t be easy but I am certainly behind it. And, if plan A doesn’t work, move to plan B: maybe it would need to be 5 weeks, or even 6 weeks, or variable to suit some tracks, but it would provide us all with a common objective.

31st March 2020

My attention has just been drawn to this statement by a North Yorkshire MP. It sets out clearly the situation on travelling for work and it is as we interpreted it from the start: you can travel for work if you absolutely cannot do your job from home. It is great to have it clarified.

The National Trainers Federation advised us to give every employee a letter saying that they were an essential worker and had to travel to and from work. We have done that but I now think I will also print this out and give it to them.


24th March – 2020 ‘Lockdown’

My cedar wood shoe trees/stretchers arrived yesterday from Amazon. If we all get very bored during this ‘lockdown’ I may take time to tell you why I bought them but, for the moment, no matter. It did, however, set me thinking on whether or not the transport that brought them here could be deemed to be ‘essential’.

What was ‘essential’ yesterday clearly isn’t, necessarily, deemed to be ‘essential’ today as goverment advice on movement of people and interaction between them is changing every day – sometimes every hour. But even yesterday I couldn’t say that the delivery of this item was, in any way, essential for me. I could easily do without this product, and, by no stretch of my imagination, could I even begin to think that it was essential for anyone I work with or, for that matter, anyone I know. But there is a strong argument that it was essential, certainly by yesterday’s definition of the word, to quite a lot of people. Some of them, those involved in the manufacture of this non-essential item, aren’t in this country (sadly, they are imported) but we can all understand the long term implications of a failure to sell product or even, for some, a delay in selling that product and getting the money in.  And there is a chain of people, from those involved in the importation, through those responsible for packing and distribution, to the person driving the delivery van who depend on this trade for their livlihood.

I went out on my bike in the afternoon – something I can still do today, even under ‘lockdown’ – to think about it. Normally I try to stick to the quietest roads but yesterday, like lots of people, I was nosy and I wanted to see how people were coping with the current crisis. Supprisingly, the roads were not appreciably quieter than usual although villages clearly were. As well as private cars, I saw a multitude of commercial vehicles. There were animal feed transporters (undoubtedly essential to the 94% of us who rely on this material being converted to more palatable fare for humans); a plethora of vehicles associated with the construction trade, from those carrying materials, plant, and machenery to the vans for the various tradesmen; loads of, very essential, supermarket chain delivery vans; one carrying office furtniture; a service bus which I passed as it went from Ripon to Middleham and on its return; a van carrying car parts; numerous vans and trucks that flashed past so quickly that I could get no impression of their purpose; and a Black Sheep Brewery van doing home deliveries of six-packs of beer.

As we are in a rural area, some of the vehicles were well known to me. Some were suppliers of ours and, dare I say, some of the builders and tradesmen might consider Johnston Racing as one of their biggest customers. There was no doubt in my mind that many of them would be sorely affected by any downturn in racehorse training in Middleham. If Middleham trainers ceased trading, many other local businesses would go the same way or would, at least, employ far fewer people than they do today.

You may be wondering what all this has got to do with horseracing – I am almost wondering myself – but I was trying to get my head round the definition of ‘essential transport’ as some in the racing media, and even at the BHA, were suggesting that taking horses to a racemeeting wouldn’t be essential transport, even if racing was taking place. Surely it would be as about essential as taking bricks to a building site.

Anyway, it all changed again last night when we went into ‘lockdown’ and I was up until one in the morning trying, like many others, to get my head around the latest rules and guidelines. It wasn’t easy and, at times, it gets frustrating that much of the advice is very London-centric and hard to apply in our situation. Luckily, others were burning the midnight oil on the issue too and by 10pm the National Trainers Federation had issued guidlines which answered most people’s first question, ‘do I go to work and do we keep exercising the horses?  The answer is yes but, although it might seem obvious to some, it wasn’t obvious to others and understandably so. There is very little information out there that can be directly attributed to the training of racehorses. I found myself trailing through advice given for other totally unrelated industries to find useful snippets. A guidline for the construction industry which states   “if you are working on site, you can continue to do so. But follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing” seemed particularly clear and useful as our staff are, effectively, ‘working on site’ but, then again, I think the situation is different in Scotland where the government has, or is about to, close the construction sites. The dilema continues. What is ‘essential’ to one person, is not necessarily ‘essential’ to another. It isn’t as clear cut as those who spend all day in an office on a PC, and can take the work home on a laptop, may think. And, in any case, they are still heading in their droves to their places of work in London.

So, we are continuing to feed, exercise and care for our horses as normal but there are no races to enter them in. The business of training racehorses in many ways lends itself well to ‘social distancing’ – horses, even nose to tail, tend to leave their riders or handlers two metres apart – and it is helped by the lovely weather at the moment. Ironically, it is the little extras which we try to provide for our staff that are causing the most concern. We have had to switch our canteen to a take-away service and, even so, we are going to have to take further measures to avoid people queuing for food.

Our mini-bus service is a concern and it was an area that, surprisingly, I could find no guidlines on. I searched for advice on people sharing transport to work but could find nothing other than countless references to tube trains and other public transport which, even in the worst-hit city, are still operating albeit with a reduced service.

No doubt there will be further changes to the rules, advise and guidlines. I appreciate the fact that people are changing their minds as new information becomes available to them and/or they are faced with new challenges. We just have to try to adapt.

I’ll go out on my bike again this afternoon. Alone. I’ll observe what is going on and I’ll be very interested to see how it differs from yesterday.


24th February 2020

Double Trigger died yesterday in his paddock at John and Sarah Haydon’s Clarendon Farm in Wiltshire. He was 28 years and 11 months old. A great age for a thoroughbred horse.

It is only a few weeks since videos were distributed on social media of him cantering around the paddock and cavorting like a young thing. He was in rude health till the end. What a way to go.

It seems that, no matter what champions I trained or might be lucky enough to train in future, I will always be remember more for having trained Double Trigger than for anything else.  He captured the public’s imagination like no other animal that I have been associated with, and rightly so.

He was purchased for just 7,200 Irish pounds at Goffs Orby sales in October 1992 and he went on to win 14 races (13 of them Stakes races) from 29 starts, amassing £559,102 in prize-money. His wins included three Goodwood Cups, three Doncaster Cups, the Ascot Gold Cup, and the Italian St.Leger. He was third in the real St.Leger on just his fourth career start and he also finished runner up twice in the Ascot Gold Cup.

His career as a stallion inevitably revolved around jump racing and he didn’t scale any great heights – few, if any, stayers do these days – but it was a long and productive career at stud with the couple who kept him in his retirement.

I was neither shocked nor particularly saddened by the news that he had gone. It had to happen soon and it happened suddenly and without any suffering. To share the phrase which has been adopted  as a slogan by the new Welfare Board, Double Trigger had ‘a life well lived’.


19th December 2019

Today the BHA issued a notification to all trainers, by e mail, of ‘several minor changes to the rules of racing which will take effect from 20 January 2020’.

One reads: “UPDATE TO RULE (L) 53

Disqualified persons

Rule (L) 53 has been updated to clarify that a Disqualified Person may not be involved in any way with a horse that has ever been subject to the Rules of Racing, unless the BHA directs otherwise”

Am I reading this wrongly? It seems to me that the BHA is saying that a disqualified person cannot be involved in any way with a horse that has ever been in training or ‘subject to the rules of racing’. With other moves they are making, this might include most thoroughbred foals born and registered with Weatherbys.

Are they really trying to say that a person who has been disqualified under the rules of racing can’t own, lease, borrow or otherwise be involved with an ex-racehorse for the purpose of hunting, showjumping, eventing, or even hacking. That is what it sounds like but surely that is too ridiculous for even the most enthusiastic bureaucrat at High Holborn to think they have the power to do that.

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.


29th May 2019 – Later

Very interesting to hear that the BHA conducted three pre-race inquiries into runners trained by Irish trainer Denis Hogan. Apparently, the inquiries mostly centred around riding instructions that were to be given to the jockeys. The trainer contacted the BHA about this and was told that they have the power to do it. I am sure they do but I’d be very interested to hear how often this has occurred in the past and when. Is this a new idea?

I have only once, that I can remember, had to attend a stewards inquiry before a race and it wasn’t in this country. I’ll leave you to guess where it was.

29th May 2019

It was very refreshing to read Jamie Osborne’s Tuesday Column in the Racing Post yesterday. I hope this is to become a regular feature. We always have a good, sometimes heated, debate on racing, the meaning of life, and other vitally important issues when we meet up at the sales or races. It would be great to read his views on a regular basis.


25th May 2019

It is reported in the Racing Post this morning, and I had already heard elsewhere, that there was annoyance at the late arrival of horses in the parade ring at Sandown on Thursday night. My horses were amongst those late in the parade ring for the Henry ll stakes and I very much sympathise with those who would have liked them to be there earlier but it is totally wrong to suggest that it is deliberate and that we aim for the horses to arrive late. The previous race was a little late off and two of my three jockeys were late to weigh out for the Henry 11. I already had Making Miracles saddled before Charlie arrived with the next two saddles and we had separate teams saddling Dee Ex Bee and Austrian School but, nonetheless, there was apparently a call for our horses to come to the parade ring before we were ready. I didn’t notice but apparently Mekong didn’t come to the parade ring at all for that race. Sir Michael Stoute must have had dispensation if that was the case.

I do accept that the horses should be in the parade ring before the race but I would be most disappointed if the right to saddle in the stables was withdrawn as commentator Richard Hoiles is apparently suggesting. Saddling boxes on many tracks are inadequate and can be a very unpleasant place to be with a fractious horse. Surely, the most important thing for all concerned is to get the horses to the race ready to do their best and not to have them upset before they even get to the parade ring.

The first race at Sandown on Thursday night was over six minutes late – I don’t know why, I didn’t have a runner in it. – and officials were trying to catch up. The second race was over two minutes late but the Henry 11 Stakes started 1 minute and 18 seconds after the appointed time: the closest to scheduled off time of any race on the night. That is largely down to it being the smallest field (two other races had only one more participant) but it shows that the horses were all at the start in good time and that delays from the first race had been made up.

23rd May 2019

Before continueing further on the watering debate can I stress again that I am not having a go at any particular racetrack or clerk of the course. This issue is a problem for racing as a whole and, perhaps, even for the future  strength and development of the thoroughbred breed: we should be colectively looking for a policy that can be implemented, and enforced, by the BHA to address it. But maybe we don’t do ‘collectively’ too well in racing.

York have, this morning, in their usual super-efficient way, sent out a going update in advance of their Saturday meeting. It states that the ground is Good to Firm and that there has been no rain since the Dante. They then state that they are watering each night ‘to replace moisture’.

They are clearly aiming for Good to Firm ground, as BHA guidlines suggest, and doing their best to produce it, to order, on the day. But I don’t think I need to be an agronomist, or even a gardener, to know that there is nothing natural about watering every night to replace moisture lost. Surely it is this approach to grass management – perhaps forced on racecourses by BHA guidlines and trainer pressure – that is causing many of the problems we encounter on tracks in recent years with a loose surface and sand filler flying even on ground that is described as Good to Firm. Is it not fairly obvious that, if a small amount of water is applied to grass on a daily basis, the roots will always be near to the surface and that constant supply of moisture.

We have, perhaps, forgotten what it was like under the old Jockey Club instructions – or were they just guidlines? – which said courses should only water to promote grass growth and not to alter the state of the going. In those days, if I remember rightly, Firm ground was much more common and we raced on Hard at times. Is the new system better? Do we get more or less non-runners due to going? Are the horses sounder than they were? My gut feeling is that that was a better and certainly fairer system. Back then the clerks of the courses could quite simply blame nature and the weather: two things which we all accept are outwith their control.



22nd May 2019 …. later

Well, having said that the Racing Post article came across as me ‘bashing’ clerks of courses, so, when I read it again now, did my Bletherings. In short, I am saying that clerks of courses are wrong to aim for softer than Good to Firm ground and that they are wrong to water so regularly but I can understand why they do it. The answer is to take the responsibility away from them or, at least, have rules and checks in place to ensure that they are genuinely aiming for Good to Firm ground.

22nd May 2019

It is unfortunate that yesterday’s piece in the Racing Post about watering came across as me ‘bashing’ clerks of courses and particularly unfortunate that two individual tracks were singled out. I have the utmost symapthy for clerks of courses over this issue. They are in an invidious position and much of the blame surely sits with trainers who complain about watering but are quick to withdraw horses when they perceive the ground to be too firm. I get the impression that there are more non-runners on Good to Firm ground than there are on Good ground and, if that is the case, it is little wonder that many clerks of courses play safe and aim for Good ground or, at least, water to ensure that there is no chance of the ground going to Firm.

The fault here surely lies with the BHA’s failure to take control of the issue. They are very quick to point out that they provide guidlines, not rules, on what courses should be aiming for and the official going description is left to the, potentially biased, clerk of the course. How can something which will be written in stone in the form book for ever more, as if it were fact, be down to the opinion of one person. Even when going descriptions are changed mid meeting the, clearly wrong, description, in place before the change, remains. Likewise, going descriptions which are shown to be inaccurate based on race times are left unchanged and remain on a horse’s record for life and beyoond.

Stewards are liable to question trainers’ reasoning for withdrawal of horses based on ground and explanations for poor, or improved, performances which refer to ground conditions but the clerk of the course is not subject to sanction in the same way. Surely, the very least the BHA should be doing is to have an independant assement of the ground on raceday and put in place some sanction for courses who regularly get it wrong. It would also help if official going descriptions were checked against race times and could be corrected. Again, some sanction should be in place for those tracks who are consistantly wrong although, where ground is consistantly softer than described on a track, average race times for that track will, of course, be slower than they should be.

We have to somehow remove the incentive for tracks to trickle water on in an attempt to keep the going on that knife edge between Good to Firm and Good. It is, in my opinion, this regular, minimal, watering that does the greatest damage with roots turning to the surface rather than going down in search of water and a consequencially loose surface.

17th March 2019

Nick Rust is, of course, quite right to say that British racing must keep control of its own sport. He is, however, missing the point that, if British racing was to lose control of the sport, it would be because of, rather than in spite of, the governing body’s current policies on welfare and its efforts to appease those that have no real knowledge of the sport. And, sadly, it would seem that it is not simply a case of the BHA lacking the strength to educate the politicians and the public at large: there is, as I have been saying for quite some time, a desperate lack of horsemanship amongst the executive and on the board of the BHA and they actually believe that their welfare policies will benefit the horses, the breed, and the sport in the long term. I think they are wrong.

A catalogue of recent blunders and poor decisions has shown the BHA to have more in common with, and to be more aligned with the views of, the ignorant majority who have no interest in horseracing than with the people who breed, care for, train and ride the horses which are at the centre of the sport. For me – and I accept that I am part of a minority of those that follow horseracing, never mind those who don’t – the horses and the thoroughbred breed are the raisons d’etre of horseracing. For most of those who govern, manage, and control the sport, horseracing is about entertainment, betting, and selling a social event to the public. Many of them – particularly those that run the racecourses and the betting industry – are very good at what they do but many of us, who actually participate in the sport, or manage those who do, are also good at what we do and we are clearly getting to a point where we have had just about enough of being told how to do it by those who know less.

In today’s Racing Post they have given a dozen or so examples of what they consider to be  ‘the best quotes from a thrilling Cheltenham Festival’. To my mind , they missed the best quote from Cheltenham and one of the best statements I have ever heard made about horseracing and its governance: “If you don’t like racing, go and watch Peppa Pig” – Irish trainer, Ted Walsh.

14th March 2019

Apart from tomorrow, when I attend Hamish Alexander’s Gold Cup day at the Wensleydale Heifer in aid of the Injured Jockey’s Fund, I won’t have watched much of Cheltenham. I did, however, feel compelled to watch a rerun of the National Hunt Chase after I heard what Tony McCoy had to say on the subject of the jockeys – especially the jockey who rode the third – being banned. And I have just gone back and watched it again after hearing Ted Walsh join the debate.

I am totally with A.P. McCoy and Ted Walsh on this one. The BHA are dragging the sport of horseracing down the road to destruction. If the rules of racing are to be driven by the opinions of a large majority of the public who have no knowledge of, or interest in, horses or horseracing, then it is the beginning of the end for British racing.

As I have said many times recently, I do not hold with the principle that public perception of horse welfare is more important than horse welfare itself and I firmly believe that we need a BHA run by people who are willing and able to stand up to the ignorant majority and the, vote-hungry, politicians who put staying in power ahead of all else.

See Bletherings of 12th January below.



2nd March 2019

I suppose I’m an ‘ideas man’. I have ideas. I got it from my father. He was an ‘ideas man’. My uncle Jim used to say that my dad should write a book and call it ‘That’s an Idea’, because he had thousands of ideas and the vast majority never saw the light of day.

If Deirdre and I ever really write the full story of how we started out and got to where we are now, it is sure to be peppered with my many ideas that never came to fruition. She often tells the story of the ‘Icyhose’ machine and how I bought two rather than test one first. Less frequently, we recall the times when I tried to feed the horses lard or to give them a nightcap of a can of Guinness, only to find the mangers full of dead mice in the morning. Thankfully, for every hundred ideas that were nonsense, there was a gem that set us apart.

I was reminded of this when raking through a pile of papers tonight and I came across a poem written by my late sister, Lyn. It dates from the time, about eight years ago, when we had just taken on three greyhound pups as part of a challenge to prove that I could train them. I had no end of good ideas for changing the world of greyhound training and, I promise you, they weren’t all wrong.

Lyn wrote:

Mark, oh Mark, you do make us smile,

We pups, we come from the Emerald Isle.

We don’t like porridge, oh no, we do not,

We don’t like it cold and we don’t like it hot.

Porridge is Scottish and really won’t do.

Give us, please give us, a good Irish stew.

Colcannon and Skirlie and Boxty are fine.

Just stop feeding us horrible slime!

Mourne Mutton and Clapshot are really quite good,

But porridge is nasty and horrible food.

We feel we’re in prison, this cage on a hill,

Add insult to injury, feed us on swill!

‘Porridge’, we’ve seen it, that programme on telly,

But the food it is awful and lies in the belly.

So bring on the eggs, the beef and the lamb,

Or even some fish, with warm milk and ham.

Just please not the porridge, we’ve had quite enough,

Cos it’s yucky, and foul and tasteless old stuff!


I took the hint. I changed their feed and I’d like to think that, by the end of my short flirtation with greyhound training, I wasn’t getting it too far wrong.


1st March 2019 – A bit later

This could all get very interesting. ARC are, according to the Racing Post, edging closer to taking legal action against trainers. I wonder, which trainers? Am I included. If so, please let me know – preferably before declaration time tomorrow.

1st March 2019

I wonder what the bookmakers think about all this fuss over ARC’s prize-money cuts? If I was paying what I believed was a fair price for a product or service and, because my supplier decided to pay less to his workforce, suppliers, or performers, my product or service was disrupted or cancelled altogether, I would be very upset indeed.

The betting industry know what they are paying ARC for racing and they know approximately how much of it  ARC are passing on in prize-money. They must surely feel very aggrieved. Racing isn’t being disrupted because owners and trainers are asking for more, it is being disrupted because we aren’t willing to accept less.


28th February 2019

What an extraordinary day. I attended the National Trainers Federation AGM in London and it very soon became apparent that trainers in the room and those, along with many owners, communicating through social media from around the country were extremely dissatisfied with the suggestion that a deal had been struck to allow ARC to shift prize-money from better class races into the lowest grades to ‘unlock’ Levy Board funding for the low grade races and enable them to increase prize-money in  those races while still reducing their own contribution by £3 million.

The entry process for races to be run on 6th March was ongoing as the meeting started (entries close at noon) and I was astounded to receive messages from the BHA  announcing increases in prize-money for races to be run at ARC tracks on 6th March and an extended entry deadline to 1pm as Lingfield races, in particular, weren’t attracting enough entries. But trainers weren’t buying this move to ‘rob Peter and pay Paul’ and stood steadfastly behind the principle that ARC must reinstate their own contributions rather than simply creaming money off different races.

After the new entry deadline at 1pm, in another totally unprecedented move, the BHA reopened four of the races at Lingfield until tomorrow. Under the new transparent entry system for flat races there have been no re-opened races through the winter period – the rules don’t allow for it – but it seems that, today, someone at the BHA was rewriting the rules and moving the goalposts as the saga unfolded.

It is going to be extremely interesting to see what happens next. I have never known trainers so angered over prize-money. Clearly ARC and other racecourses have come to think that, with owners and trainers accepting derisory returns for so long, they could simply do as they pleased and horses would turn up regardless to allow their businesses to operate.  They may have to think again.

Whatever happens, this the second major shot over ARC’s bows in a week and others had better take note too. Feelings were running high over the BHA’s part in proceedings and there was little doubt that what some had thought was an ROA and NTF party line was not going to be supported by owners and trainers.

And, in the midst of all this, Norman Gundill of Pontefract announced that they intend to cut prize-money. Not a clever move. Whats’s more, in an attempt to stress that the reduction is ‘provisional’, he said “If the projected reduction in media rights income does not materialise, we expect to reinstate some, but not all, of the reductions.” Eh? So he is admitting that it isn’t really about FOBTs at all. They have just seen an opportunity to pay less and thought they would take it. I’d think again, Norman.

14th February 2019

It is many years – I have lost count of how many – since I was a Racing Post columnist and was encouraged to toe the ‘party’ line. I can’t even remember how long our tumultuous relationship lasted but, of course, it was doomed to failure from the start – I was never good at toeing anyone’s line but my own. I can’t deny that.

The divorce was not an amicable one and we have often exchanged blows since. I have not seen them as supporters of horse racing and I have felt that the situation has been getting progressively worse as editorial staff and writers have steadily been replaced with a new breed who, in my eyes, have no real understanding of the sport other than from a punter’s perspective.

However, I have now found myself moved to congratulate a Racing Post columnist twice in little over a week for his objective observations on the sport and, in particular, his views on horse health and welfare. Who is this Richard Forristal and where did he come from? As far as I can determine, from the oracles Google and Wikipedia, he was neither born in a stable nor raised on the hunting field but he appears to be an independent thinker with the interests of the sport of horseracing and the participants, the horses and the thoroughbred breed, truly at heart. He is not following the populist line and this, dare I say, is a breath of fresh air in the Racing Post.

His column today on the BHA’s handling of the flu outbreak doesn’t pull any punches and was a joy to read. I particularly admired his willingness to suggest that we have been given an Australian solution to a European problem and to question whether this was appropriate. The same could be said of many issues in British racing in recent years but nobody, until now, has queried this in anything other than hushed tones.

Perhaps some credit should also be given to the Racing Post’s new editor, Tom Kerr. Has he let Richard Forristal of the leash? I have been as critical of him as any Racing Post writer in recent years and branded him as naive for his views on the whip but there is nothing wrong with being naive. It is vastly preferable to being ignorant and unwilling to learn. Maybe he can restore my faith in the Racing Post as a friend rather than an enemy of racing after all. Giving more column inches to Richard Forristal would be a great start.

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.


6th December 2018

Firstly, as is invariably the case when I come to new Bletherings, I must first apologise for the length of time since I contributed to this section of our site. Secondly, I must also apologise for waiting until prominent owners Sheikh Fahad and John Dance spoke out against Championship Horse Racing (The Series) before nailing my colours to the mast. I can assure you I am not just jumping on their bandwagon.

I met with Jeremy Wray at Tattersalls back in the spring, he described his plan to me, we discussed it at some length, and he sent me away with a document that explained The Series in greater detail. I tried to approach the subject with an open mind, I studied the document, and I sent him what he himself described as a ‘considered response’.

Without doubt he has some excellent ideas for marketing and media coverage of horseracing but there are some fundamental principles which I cannot accept in his plans and he is clearly hell bent on trying to proceed with it as it is. I, therefore, told him, back in June, to count me out. I made it clear that I am not a supporter of the concept as it stands and that I will not take part in it if it comes to fruition. I also said that I do not believe this would be a positive move for the sport of horseracing. So, when he says that ‘the structure and format of the event has been the direct result of consultation with all relevant bodies, including owners and trainers’,  I think you should take that with a pinch of salt. He did not consult Sheikh Fahad and, while he can genuinely claim to have consulted me, he didn’t listen to a word I said.

He tells us that ‘it has been particularly pleasing to have received so much support from leading trainers keen to back an initiative designed to bring new revenues into racing’. But, when I spoke to a trainer who I believe is one of those being classed as a supporter, he told me that, while he was of course a supporter of any initiative to bring new revenue into racing, that did not mean that he could support the structure of this plan.

It is, surely, time for us all to come out and say publicly whether we support this ‘ridiculous idea’ (good words, Sheikh Fahad) or not, before it goes any further.

15th September 2018

At this time of year there are plenty issues that I’d love to blether about but I just can’t find the time. Come winter I’ll have plenty of time and nothing to say.

Last saturday Richard Hughes wrote about his frustration with the handicap system and made some very radical proposals for change but it was only after watching Austrian School finishing second again yesterday, for the fifth time in his last six runs, that I felt compelled to writre about the subject. He’s a lucky, and clearly popular, fellow: Richard Hughes.  If I’d suggested that horses should only rise in the handicap  when winning we’d have had all the lottery-mentality gamblers and the media’s punter-pundits saying that I am naive and anti-betting. C’est la vie.

Austrian School last won a race on 10th May off a rating of 85. The handicapper raised him 8lbs for that half-length win and he was beaten into fourth next time out. Between that run and yesterday’s start, we have run him a further six times (five of them handicaps) without winning and the handicapper has seen fit to raise him another 9lbs. A total of 17lbs rise since his last win despite seven subsequent runs.

Yesterday, on his eighth start since winning, we were running him before the last 2lb rise came into effect (i.e. off 100. Last win off 85) and he was beaten a head into second. What will the handicapper do next, I wonder? He certainly will not drop him from his latest mark of 102 and he may well put him up further on the grounds that he has to raise the winner more than 3lbs.

Richard Hughes was right when he said that radical change is needed but I, as you all know, would go a lot further than he is suggesting. The handicap system is long outdated and is now unfit for purpose. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to come up with a better and fairer system that would demystefy, without dumbing down, our sport.

7th September 2018

What have they done to the Cesarewitch? I said immediately, when I saw the proposals to increase the value of the race, first to £500,000 and ultimately to £1,000,000, that this was doing nothing for the promotion of the staying horse, as they claimed, or for the Cesarewitch. I pointed out the obvious, that the race attracted a full field every year, that the lowest rated top weight in the last five years was 103, and that a massive increase in prize-money could not dramatically change the shape of the race or attract horses that would not have run anyway. I pointed out that it was no more than a publicity stunt at the expense of owners who are to be landed with exorbitant entry fees.

I did not know about a further rule change which has now resulted in last year’s winner, Withhold, being ineligible. The new rule says that entrants must have run at least twice since April on the flat at 1m4f or more. Why? What exactly are they trying to achieve?

A spokesman for Newmarket Racecourse said that the amendment was highlighted to trainers in a letter from Michael Prosser two weeks before entries closed and was published in the Racing Calendar. I was not aware of it until I read about it on the Racing Post website today. They also said that the fact that last year’s winner has been ruled out is, ‘no doubt an unintended consequence’. Well, that’s stating the obvious. But what I want to know is, what do they see as the intended, positive, consequences of these changes? What has it done to change the race for the better? And is someone going to stand up, soon, and say ‘we got it wrong, we shouldn’t have done it, and we are going to change it back’? Fat chance!

6th August 2018

It is a ridiculous amount of time since I last blethered. There are, of course, no end of things to write about at this time of year but I find it extrememely difficult to set aside any time at all to allocate to this. I cannot  say that I am working every minute of every day but there is an endless ‘to do’ list and blethering very rarely seems to find its way to the top. Even now, I am trying to fit this in, sentance at a time, between other tasks.

One thing I have found time for is watching last week’s Vintage Stakes over and over again. I really don’t think I have watched a race so many times since Mister Baileys won the Guineas back it 1994. I still can’t believe it. It was such an incredible performance.

In this morning’s Racing Post, Simon Turner rates it ‘the most taking juvenile performance’ of the week but tempers his comments by saying that ‘the pace of the Group 2 prize clearly favoured those coming from off the pace’. Did it? I’m not sure. The second placed horse hit the front with two furlongs to go; the third came from well back but started his run long before Dark Vision; and the fourth was in mid-field from the bend. I think it was just such an extraordinary performance that we are all looking for ways to explain it.

Only time will tell whether the field comes up to the usual standard for this Group 2 event but there is little doubt that the winner was far and away the best horse in the race. Our previous winners of the Vintage Stakes, Mister Baileys, Lucky Story and Shamardal all went on to be top class and Dark Vision was as impressive as any of them.


11th May 2018

Apologies to any of my owners who had a runner at Chester and didn’t get the normal post-race phone call. Communications on the track were the worst I have ever known on a racecourse.

Phone signal fluctuated between ‘no service’ and two ‘bricks’ and, if you ever did manage to get through on a call, it was very difficult to hold a conversation as you kept getting cut off.

Wifi suggested that there was a strong signal on an unsecured O2 network but it never worked for me or for anyone else that I spoke to. When you switched the wifi off, you occasionally got 3G or 4G but, surprisingly, this didn’t help’

It is a sad fact of modern life that we have come to rely on mobile phone communications and we are lost without them, simply because we have become used to their constant availability. Those of us that are still working when we are at the races have come to expect that we can carry on our business remotely. This was not an option at Chester.

I find it hard to believe that the course, and BHA, officials can run such a busy race meeting without good communications and so I concluded that they have them but Chester, unlike some courses, chooses not to share them with others who are working to put on the show or with the general public.

Some conspiracy theorists were suggesting that Chester blocks signals that might be used for betting in order to boost turnover on Chesterbet. Surely not. I would be appalled if I thought that could ever be the case.

So, come on Chester, you are leaders in other aspects of running a racecourse so how about providing good wifi for everyone working on your racecourse or, better still, good wifi for all. That is, of course, assuming that controll of the mobile phone signal is outwith your control

6th April 2018

Can you imagine a horse too good to run in a £1 million race? I know it sounds ridiculous, it is ridiculous, but that will be the case when Jockey Club Racecourses introduces its £1 million Cesarewitch from 2020. Horses rated more than 110 will not be eligible to run.

What, exactly, is the objective? There is a lot of talk about promoting staying races and owners keeping horses in training for longer but the Cesarewitch fills every year. So they aren’t going to get more runners. And they aren’t going to improve the quality by much as the lowest rated top-weight in the last five years is 103.

£750,000 for a maximum increase in class of 7lbs doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me. But, of course, it isn’t going to cost Jockey Club Racecourses £750,000 and it isn’t going to bring £750,000 of new money into the sport. Along with the rise in prize-money comes a hike in entry fees from 0.5% to 1.25% and they haven’t told us yet how they are going to structure those entry fees. If they are true to form there will be early stages meaning that, while the 36 runners pay £12,500 each (that’s £450,000 of the pot), there might be many more who paid a lesser amount at an early stage.

I hope this isn’t another con like the sales races and the Wetherbys Super Sprint, where owners are putting up the vast majority of the money, but I fear that it might be.

It strikes me that the announcement has come now to try and steal some of the thunder from York’s £1 million Ebor but that race will be a very different kettle of fish. For a start the entry fees remain at 0.5% as they should. There will be no cap on the quality of horse and every chance that this can turn into a Melbourne Cup-style race with horses coming from around the globe. There is still the issue of it being a handicap and the question of whether horses, racing for such a prize, should have to give weight to others but even the current Ebor is such a high class race that the weight band is narrow. Some similarly structured races in the USA and the Melbourne Cup itself have Group 1 status.

That the winner of the Ebor gets no ‘Black Type’ at all, while a horse trailing in third in a Listed race does, is also more than a little ridiculous but that is no fault of the Ebor or York racecourse – it is the ‘Black Type’ system that is flawed.

So, as you can see, I am a great supporter of the £1 million Ebor and I am not impressed by the cheap imitation Cesarewitch. And, by the way, before those idiots with the lottery mentality start bleating about big value handicaps giving small owners and trainers a chance of winning a big prize, just remember which trainer has won the Cesarewitch more than any other in, at least, the last thirty years. Only two trainers have won more and they were both in the 19th century. Sadly, I might not be winning it again if they turn it into a rip-off race that extracts entry fees from owners for the gratification of the racecourse.


19th March 2018

Today the Racing Post published some interesting details of the betting turnover at Cheltenham. As far as Paddy Power’s Festival Turnover Table goes – and it seems likely that the same applies to most bookmakers and betting turnover in general – no handicap made it into the top dozen races based on betting turnover and the same applied in 2017.

This, of course, is based on turnover, not profit, and it might be a very different story if we were looking at bookmakers’ margins. But it does make a mockery of the constant claims that punters love handicaps. As I have been saying for years, the only beneficiary of the handicap system is the betting industry and, despite the huge marketing machine that constantly plugs the big-field handicaps, punters still prefer non-handicap racing.


1st March 2018

The weather for the last two days has been pretty horrendous and, for those with animals to look after, there is no option to take a day off work to go sledging or building snowmen.

The majority of our staff have made it to work and some have gone the extra mile in more ways than one. Several walked to work in terrible conditions because they knew they wouldn’t make it by car and Mikaelle and her ‘estate’ team started an hour and a half before everyone else to try and get the yards, tracks and gallops cleared.

But it was John ‘Spider’ Nicholson who demonstrated the greatest dedication and concern for the welfare of the horses.

Spider is one of our two night men and he works a shift, either from 6pm until midnight or from midnight until 6am, to feed the horses, deal with any problems,  and get everything ready for the day’s work to begin. Last night, Spider was on the early (6pm till midnight) shift but, when Mikaelle came in this morning, she found him still at work after more than 12 hours. The water was freezing in many of the stables and all the outside taps were solid, so Spider took it on himself to fill buckets from the staff kitchen for all the horses with a frozen drinker.

It isn’t the first time that Spider has gone beyond the call of duty on his night time shift. Last year Jock Bennett noticed one day that a horse had lost a shoe in the swimming pool and he thought he’s have to figure out some way to fish it out. But, when he looked the next day, it was gone. He couldn’t figure it out. How could it have disappeared from the bottom of a 12 foot deep horse swimming pool? He was so puzzled that he resorted to trailing through the cctv footage and there he found Spider, stripping off and diving into the pool to retrieve the lost shoe.


2nd February 2018

Howzat! Ollie Stammers and Ravenhoe win on Ollie’s very first ride of his career. A perfect ride from an almost impossible draw.

Granted, the other jockeys did give him an easy time in front – more fool them – but he took every advantage he was handed. He got the horse out well, aimed for the entrance to the bend as instructed, and eased him into the lead. He then, smoothly, edged over to the rail when clear and kept a cool head all the way to the line without any hint of getting tired or losing his balance.

Ollie has only recently joined us straight from school having spent last summer holidays with us. He works his socks off every afternoon on the equiciser after riding four lots, and fully deserves this success.

5th January 2018

Happy New Year.

I had a quick look through old Bletherings (it didn’t take long) to see if I had commented when the BHA introduced its new threshold for percentage of non runners. I didn’t and I should have. I did make comment in my November Kingsley Klarion column and you can read that on this website if you wish.

I am, of course, totally against the ruling. If these non-runners are unfit to run, through disease, injury, or anything else affecting their wellbeing, then it most certainly is not in the interests of the sport, or anyone else for that matter, to put pressure on owners and trainers to run. If, as the BHA clearly suspects, a significant number of non-runners are actually fit to run, then the BHA should be asking themselves why an owner or trainer doesn’t want to run a perfectly fit horse when it is costing them so much to train it and running is surely its raison d’etre.

Today the Racing Post published the table of trainers who are falling outside the BHA’s threshold and Middleham handler, Ben Haslam, is in the unfortunate position of heading this particular trainers’ table. He rightly points out that nine months of the data is the same as that published when the ruling was introduced on 30th September and, with only 18 declarations in that period, he has had very little opportunity to get his percentage down and, unfortunately, he has had four non-runners from the 18. However, three of the four non-runners were withdrawn on veterinary advice and veterinary certificates were submitted for them. Furthermore, two of those three have not been fit to run since. Does anyone really think they should have run? Is the BHA questioning the validity of the veterinary certificates? I hope not.

Of the twenty trainers exceeding the threshold, now only one is a jump trainers. That, surely, shows us, as clear as day, that the increase in non-runners on the flat is entirely down to 48 hour declarations. Yet, just yesterday, Bruce Millington, editor of the Racing Post, was extolling the virtues of 48-hour declarations in his Racing Post column and calling for that system to be extended to Irish flat racing and British jump racing. It won’t happen, of course, because the BHA have learned their lesson from flat racing. They saw a 50% increase in non-runners immediately on the introduction of 48-hour declarations and they know that the increase would almost certainly be far greater for jumping.

18th December 2017

Great night, last night, entertaining a few of our owners at Olympia horse show. It really is great family entertainment and it is such a pity that it is no longer on terrestrial television.

Personally, I find it very hard to understand why show jumping  no longer has popular appeal as in the days of David Broom and Harvey Smith. No doubt, the experts at the Punter’s Post will say I am being naïve and that, without significant betting, there is no place for it amongst mainstream sports but I can’t really understand what went wrong. Maybe someone can enlighten me. It was prime-time TV when I was a kid.


16th December 2017

The Go Racing In Yorkshire annual awards lunch took place on Thursday at York racecourse and I was invited to attend together with nine of the longest standing and most senior members of my team.

As you can imagine, from the way that they approach the marketing of Yorkshire racecourses, Go Racing in Yorkshire know how to put on a good show and we were given great food, copious amounts of drink, and engaging interviews and entertainment during the awards.

I felt honoured and very grateful to be presented with their Outstanding Achievement award for training 4,000 winners and it was appropriate that it was presented to me by Norman Gundill of Pontefract Racecourse, where Dominating took us past that milestone. I can’t claim that the award was a surprise as Go Racing In Yorkshire’s General Manager, Emma White, couldn’t hide her enthusiasm when organising a full table for my team and kept telling me how much she hoped I would like the trophy. She was rightly proud of what she had done and I must say a special thank you to her for that trophy, the wonderful film that preceded the presentation of the award, and her hospitality on the day at the awards lunch and late into the ‘evening’ (I’m not sure what time it was when we piled back into our mini-bus) at the ‘after show’ party.

Two days before I attended a rather more formal Yorkshire racing do, the 247th Gimcrack dinner. Again the venue was Yorkshire’s flagship racecourse and, again, the catering was superb. The dinner is, of course, steeped in tradition although it is no longer an all male affair and the number of the fairer sex increases every year.

The winner of the race was Sands of Mali, owned by the Cool Silk Partnership, and so it was down to Peter Swann to propose the toast to British racing. The response was from Ed Chamberlin of ITV and his speech was, for the most part, music to my ears. The gist of his speech was that racing needs to engage with more people and it struck me that this was exactly what I said ITV should be aiming to do when they took over from Channel 4. The only difference was that my comments were taken by many in the media to be naive and anti-betting whereas his were just seen as a call for more media access. No doubt I said it all rather more bluntly.

He praised concerts at racecourses – something that I have generally been very much against – and said he saw them as a perfect opportunity to educate people about our sport. He is right, of course, but the problem has been that  the vast majority of racecourses have made no effort whatsoever to engage with that crowd. Only at Chelmsford have I seen any effort made to involve a concert crowd, and the performers, in the raceday. In most cases the concerts have done nothing but alienate existing customers and spoil the experience for them.

He described football, ‘apart from the offside rule’, as simple when compared to racing and said we need to do more to demystify the sport. But racing, too, is simple. In football there is a goal at each end and the aim of the game is obvious to anyone regardless of how much they happen to know about the intricacies of the rules. Racing is also a simple sport with a simple, single, objective of being first past the post. We complicate it unnecessarily, in particular with the handicap system. Why do we do it? What other professional sport doesn’t aim for a ‘level playing field’. I would say that the main aim of the handicap system is to increase the randomness of results and improve bookmakers margins but many punters and , in particular, members of the racing media claim that this enhances the ‘puzzle’ for them and encourages them to bet and to follow the sport. Maybe, but there is a much bigger potential audience out there who are bamboozled by this and cannot  have any serious opinion as a result. If it was simpler, more people would have their own opinions and many of them would have a bet, as they do on football. The constant thirst for ‘information for punters’ does nothing but complicate the sport and perpetuate the myth that it is all fixed and trainers and jockeys know the likely outcome before the start. Keep it simple, I do.

He described the opportunity to interview Jim Crowley at the start before the Nunthorpe as being akin to interviewing a footballer in the centre circle immediately before kick-off. ‘Brilliant’, so long as you don’t debase it by asking the the footballer if he is going to score or the jockey if he is going to win. Overall, as I say, it was music to my ears although I was not so sure about his enthusiasm for novelty races like the Shergar Cup.

Former England Hockey team goal keeper, Roger Dakin, then had us all splitting our sides with his self-deprecating tales.

A bumper Gimcrack dinner.

14th December 2017

Very many congratulations to the 50 people shortlisted for the 2018 Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards. These awards are yet another incredible initiative which, although run by the BHA in association with the Racing Post, would never have come into being without the inspiration and very significant financial support from Sheikh Mohammed. Our team have been winners and beneficiaries in the past and we are all most grateful for that recognition.

I am, of course, disappointed for the ten individuals (Ruth Burn – Newcomer; Aiden Smithies – Newcomer; Barry Lusted – Groom/Rider; Lauren Tindle – Groom /Rider; Becky Wright – Groom/Rider; Cesar Dayaca – Groom/Rider; Savroop Singh – Groom/Rider; Patrick Trainor – Groom/Rider; Mark Billingham – Dedication to Racing;  and Darren Forster- Dedication to Racing) nominated from our team this year as none of them have made the top ten in their category but I hope they understand that to be nominated by their peers is recognition in itself, particularly in such a strong team. Hopefully, some of them will get a chance again.

I should also, perhaps, make it clear that, although she once worked for us, I was not the nominator of Shannon Baines as suggested in the Racing Post this morning. She was, according to the BHA press release, nominated by Lucinda Egerton.

30th November 2017

Bruce Millington, editor of the Racing Post, doesn’t agree with  my opinions on any aspects of racing and he tells us today on page 100 of his publication that my viewpoint has ‘an uncanny knack of being the complete opposite’ of his. Should I be worried?

On top of that, there was someone, reported to work for Timeform, who went on Twitter after my appearance on Luck On Sunday last week and told the world (or that section of the world that follows him on Twitter) that he ‘found himself disagreeing with virtually every word’. And, of course, there was Graham Cunningham. Remember Graham Cunningham? I’m pretty sure he disagreed with everything I said about terrestrial TV coverage of racing.

But, back to Bruce Millington. The Englishman – I guess he’s an Englishman and he, very kindly, pointed out that I’m a Scot – recalls a conversation he had with me in Deauville. I don’t remember it at all and I can only take his word for the fact that I apparently ‘cited tennis as an example of a sport that did not need to be viewed through the prism of punting as much as racing is’. That, of course, is true but I think we can all be pretty certain that, if Bruce Millington and I were ‘jousting’ (his word, not mine) on the subject of sports coverage and betting, that I would first have cited football as the sport which is apparently one of the fastest growing sports betting mediums yet the extensive television coverage, at least, never mentions betting at all. Clearly, his memory isn’t any better than mine or is very selective.

24th September 2017 – Naas, Co. Kildare

I like to think I shoot straight from the hip and say it as it is but I have to admit that my assessment of the Keeneland sale was a bit wet when compared with James Delahooke’s. His letter to the Thoroughbred Daily News (see below) hit the nail on the head. I wish I’d written it.

‘The sad truth is’, he says, ‘ that nobody here wants your horses anymore’. Maybe a slight exaggeration but pretty much fact. James used to buy 15-20 yearlings at Keeneland, last year he bought one, this year none. I peaked at 20, last year I bought none, this year one.

‘They don’t trust your black-type, your under-raced stallions or your medication policies’, he said. I absolutely agree and I also fear that, with the vast majority of US sales yearlings having had some sort of surgical procedure or other significant interference, we can’t trust that they have had a proper upbringing with adequate time in the paddock.

When noticing a couple of symmetrical  scars on the fetlocks of a yearling last week, I asked the vendor if he’d had some surgery there. ‘No’, he said, ‘he just had a screw in as a baby’.They are so obsessed with presenting a ‘correct’ yearling with a ‘clean’ set of x rays that they have come to class anything short of invasive joint surgery as normal husbandry. It is a very sad state of affairs.

On one of my first visits to Keeneland I wrote for the Sporting Life that, ‘it is hard to tell which has had the most cosmetic surgery, the women or the yearlings’. I think the yearlings now have the edge.



I have resisted previous temptations to ally myself with WHOA (the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance) on the basis that, as a Brit, I have no business pontificating about U.S. drug policies.

Two recent events have decided me to strap on my guns and head into town to join the battle.

Firstly, I read with incredulity an advertisement in which one of your leading trainers enthusiastically endorsed a product specifically designed to speed recovery from pre-race medication.*

Then today, I read that a trainer filmed boasting about “juice” will be welcomed back at the same track next year.

As the cockney wide boys in London would say, they must be ‘aving a larf!

I have just returned from my 39th consecutive visit to Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale, where I regularly purchased 15-20 yearlings to race in England. Last year, I bought one, this year, none. In spite of Wesley Ward’s single-handed efforts to promote the American Thoroughbred, the sad truth is that nobody here wants your horses anymore.

They don’t trust your black-type, your under-raced stallions or your medication policies. There are plenty of good, young men and women in the breeding industry in the U.S. They need to strap on their guns and have a shootout with the complacent, laissez-faire politicians and racecourse managers. And your trainers who bleat that they cannot train without drugs, tell that to the Australians, the Japanese, and the Europeans who are all managing very well on hay, oats and water.

James Delahooke.

* This advertisement did not run in the TDN.

15th September 2017 – Bluegrass Airport, Lexington, Kentucky

It was great to be back in Keeneland after three or four years absence but I am far from sure that it was a commercially viable trip.

At one time I used to come here with three assistants and stay for over a week but, at peak, I bought twenty yearlings and they sold like hot cakes when I sent out the list to my owners. In more recent times the numbers bought declined well into single figures and some took months to find owners. Eventually, I decided it wasn’t worth coming and I have missed, at least, three years.

This time it was a low-key exercise compared with those days. I came on my own, travelling last Sunday, viewing in the mornings before the sale started, and returning today.

I bought just one yearling. She happens to be a full sister to the Queen Mary winner Acapulco and, like in the old days, she sold to Jaber Abdullah before I even had a chance to add her to my list of horses for sale. But, as we stand all the costs of coming to the sales and do not pass them onto the purchasers of the horses, it is hard to justify such a trip to buy just one horse.

Sadly, the factors that led to me deleting Keeneland from our round of yearlings sales, still exist. With the exception of Scat Daddy, War Front and Giant’s Causeway, whose progeny are generally very expensive, there are few stallions that would be known to my owners back home. Tapit is probably the most fashionable sire here at present and, dare I say, many of my owners have never heard of him.

When I was buying yearlings by the likes of Theatrical, Diesis, Seeking the Gold, Dynaformer, Rahy, Woodman, Trempolinio, Kris S, Dixieland Band, Gone West and occasionally pushing my boat right out to acquire the cheapest of Danzig’s or Storm Cat’s, my owners were fighting each other to get one.

Times have changed. To be blunt, I think we now have the best sires, especially for turf racing, in Europe and it may be that our stock now has the edge when it comes to soundness and durability.

I still love the place and I hope I  continue to come but it may be for bus man’s holidays rather than serious business trips.


5th September 2017

I can assure that my praise of Chelmsford’s prize-money in the Kingsley Klarion was written before I attended on Saturday evening and won the two richest (£80,000 and £50,000) races. In fact, when I arrived direct from Germany where I had been at the Baden Baden sale, early, in the hope of watching my runners from other tracks, and discovered that there was a Boyzone concert after racing, I was planning to retract everything good I had said about the place.

I had been at Windsor the previous Saturday for their biggest race-day of the year and they also had Boyzone playing. It was a shambles and it confirmed everything I have come to believe about the folly of combining racing and concerts. The place was packed with people who had come to watch Boyzone and get drunk. The vast majority were showing no interest whatsoever in the racing and, as they had their bottles and glasses perched on every inch of the stands that their bodies weren’t occupying, there was no possibility of watching a race live. I had come from Goodwood and the car which had dropped me off could not get back in to pick me up as the security personnel are so obsessed with the idea that people are trying to gate-crash their concert. As with every other racecourse concert I have had the misfortune to attend, I could not see that this was doing anything for racing at all.

So, when I arrived at Chelmsford I thought I was in for a dose of the same and I wasn’t best pleased but, as concerts combined with racing go, this was the best organised that I have seen. The owners and trainers had been moved to a non-viewing tent but, at Chelmsford, that isn’t a great hardship as most places are non-viewing and every member of staff I came into contact with, from the time I arrived until I left, apologised for the inconvenience. The main stand was out of bounds to those that had come principally for the music and it was easy to move back and forward between it and the parade ring. There was no shortage of space in front of the big screen at the winning post.

It certainly helped that they have Derek Thompson. He can entertain any crowd and get them involved. They don’t just sit around, drink, and wait for the music to start when Tommo’s on the mike. He introduced the ‘kiss cam’, where couples are expected to kiss if the camera is focused on them. I have only previously seen that at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, where there is non-stop entertainment throughout the night, and it drew a few funny looks when I tried to suggest it to the Hamilton Park board. It worked at Chelmsford and, in between kissing and being interviewed by Tommo about their reasons for being at Chelmsford that night, the crowd were fed horseracing and Tommo’s commentary on trainers, jockeys, horses and all things racing. I would like to have seen them fed even more horseracing, from other tracks, but, as I’ve said, as these events go, this was the best.

To cap it all, they had the band come out to present the trophy for the big race and, of course, the crowd were five deep round the winners enclosure to see them rather than sitting on a step somewhere drinking. It is something that I have been saying for years. Any artist employed to play on a racecourse, in an event combined with racing, should be obliged to take part in the proceedings of the race meeting. If they won’t do that, their concert should stand alone. Don’t tell us that concerts bring a new audience to racing when the vast majority don’t see a horse and those that came to see racing are charged extra and denied the opportunity to watch racing in comfort.

There is much, much more that could be done, beyond what I saw at Chelmsford, but at least they were making an effort. I haven’t seen that on any other course.

13th August 2017

You know me, if someone says something I don’t agree with, I’m usually telling them so or putting pen to paper before they can get the last word out. So it is very out of character for me to reflect and consider my response for so long when somebody has upset me as much as I have been upset by those who made negative comments about me and Charlie, on social media, after Permian was killed last night.

I think ‘stunned’ is the best word to describe the way I felt when I realised that he had broken his leg and would not survive. Watching the race on television we could see that he was, as Charlie later said, running ‘a very disappointing race’ but there was no sign of anything untoward or indication that something was wrong. He went out of the picture before reaching the line and I got up and walked away without any thought that he might be injured.

Injuries are part and parcel of competitive sport, whether the participants are human or equine, and, of course, they are also part and parcel of life, particularly for animals whether they are racing or running loose in a field. I, having worked with horses for over thirty years, first as a practising veterinary surgeon and then as trainer, have seen more than most people and I have seen injuries from minor grazes to catastrophic fractures. Some horses, like some people, seem prone to injury and sometimes it is not coincidence that the same horse is injured again and again. People are quick to say of such horses that they have a ‘weak constitution’ or must have poor conformation but that isn’t necessarily the case: often it is the period of rest when recovering from one injury that makes the horse particularly at risk of another. Bone density and strength is lost rapidly during periods of rest or inactivity.

It is the horse that never needs a lay off that is least at risk of injury. Permian was such a horse. He never had to miss a day’s exercise due to lameness. He was always sound and didn’t even show any sign of stiffness or pain in our routine, post race, inspections. That is why the news that he had suffered a catastrophic fracture was such a shock to us all. It is a horrendous blow to a racing yard to lose its best horse but it was particularly bad because we were so unprepared for it. We never thought it would happen to him. We were already making plans for next year.

The phone was ringing before I had walked from my seat by the television to the door of the room and it was Charlie who said, ‘he’ll have to be put down, it’s not even a grey area’. He has been horribly misquoted by the media and others as saying ‘I had thirty seconds with him’, when the fact was that he was with him ‘in thirty seconds’ from the realisation that he had broken his leg. I believe that Charlie and Permian’s groom, Gavin Hardisty, were first to the horse and Frankie Dettori dismounted and went to the aid of William Buick. It was Charlie who made the decision that the horse must be euthanased there and then on the track rather than removed in an ambulance as some might have preferred. It was the right decision.

It never ceases to amaze me that animals, and particularly horses, can suffer horrendous injuries and show little or no sign of being in pain. The effect of endorphins and adrenalin on the flight animal – nature’s survival mechanism – is verging on miraculous but it doesn’t last long and Charlie did exactly as I would have done in ensuring that the horse was spared any suffering. A good decision.

The messages of condolence were rolling in by e mail, on Facebook, and on Twitter within minutes of the horse’s death and I can assure you that they are all greatly received. Sadly, in reading them, I couldn’t help but see the others from a minority who sought to blame me for the horse’s demise and accuse Charlie of callousness because he, to my mind, acted practically in the horse’s best interests rather than concern himself with the public perception of the event.

The number of negative comments was in single figures, amongst hundreds of genuine condolences, but they hurt nonetheless and not because there was any truth in them. I find it sad that people jump to the conclusion that an accident like this happens because of one too many runs. We all know that there is a risk of injury if you run and, if you run very fast the risk is increased. But we do not know that the risk on the eighth start is any greater than the risk on the first. It might even be that the risk is less if you go fast more often than it is if you have long gaps between racing. Some scientists are now suggesting that, to minimise the risk of injury, we should be working horses at maximum pace over a short distance every other day.

It is a very interesting subject and one that occupies a huge amount of my time but, frankly, I can do without the advice from those that know nothing about it and only put their brain into gear ten minutes after their lips start moving.

And, as to the one person who sought to blame William Buick because ‘surely he should have known something was wrong’, I wonder if he would keep going if he thought it likely that he was about to be catapulted into the ground from a horse travelling in excess of 30mph.

I have no complaints about anyone’s actions. I would employ the same team tomorrow in the full knowledge that nobody could do a better job.

7th July 2017

Has the time come for racing to drop the Racing Post? If the public perception of the sport is really so crucial to its future – and I agree that it is – how long can we continue to ally ourselves to a newspaper that regularly presents a negative opinion of the sport and the industry behind it?

Today’s Racing Post was another howler. In the Friday column, on page six, Tom Kerr assured us that he has ‘no personal desire to see the whip banned’. He told us that he does not believe it is cruel and he does not believe that there is an urgent welfare reason for it to be banned.

Eh? The front page of the paper was dedicated to his column and advertised it under the heading ‘Why Racing Must Ban The Whip’ on a background of jockeys, with sticks raised, under a black, cloudy, sky.

He quoted Mark Twain who said, ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’. Certainly it can, especially if you dress it up with emotive headlines and photographs and put it on the front page of a newspaper.

He pretends to be a supporter of racing and claims that he wants to see racing flourish. He wants us to believe that he wrote this column to warn us of impending danger if we do not accept his views but only an idiot could believe that this article or, in particular, the front page of the paper it was in did anything but harm to the sport of horseracing.

I have just a hint of sympathy for him because he refers to this perception of a cruel sport and says that he believes it to be fundamentally wrong. If that is true then he has been used and manipulated by his editor and those that wrote the headlines, to some extent, but my sympathy is short lived as his writing is dotted with unnecessary emotive embellishments that show his true colours.
He concludes with questions and says, ‘I ask only this: what would really happen if the whip was banned as a coercive tool? Would the sport suffer? Would the spectacle be diminished if a thrilling finish was fought not with whips slapping into the flanks of tired horses, but with hands and heels, nothing but man and horse united?’

I’ll answer, firstly, with a question of my own. Would the horses be less tired? Or did he just slot that word, tired, in to reinforce the suggestion that there is some abuse involved?

I’d say they might be more tired or, at least, more subject to the effect of fatigue. Three hundred plus years of selective breeding have honed the flight response to a quite incredible degree in the thoroughbred horse but that flight response still needs to be initiated. Contrary to what some ignorant people think [Deirdre doesn’t like me using the word ‘ignorant’ and she feels it is too antagonistic, but it is, without doubt, the correct word in this context] – and it seems Tom Kerr is one of them – horses will not race for the honour of winning, the trophy, the pat on the neck, or the extra bowl of oats. They simply do not have the means to understand that however much we want to feel that they know when they have won. They do not.

Dogs might be trained to run for a chocolate drop and a fussing from their owner but they would never run as fast as greyhounds in which the natural instinct to chase prey has been selected for. And horses just wouldn’t do it at all.

Racing would not be ‘just fine’ and the thoroughbred breed would steadily diminish. Genetic selection is a harsh process. It is based on the principles of survival. Frederico Tesio famously said, ‘the thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby’. He, perhaps, omitted to mention the piece of wood that initiated the flight response and ensured that the horses pushed themselves to their limits.

The word ‘coercion’, as used by Tom Kerr, is an emotive one in this context but let’s be realistic about it, horses will not run their hearts out for reward. Don’t listen to people who tell you nothing would change. They, quite simply, don’t know what they are talking about.

16th June 2017

I posted a link to the Blethering below on our Facebook page and, to my surprise, it has attracted nearly 13,000 views and many “likes” and “shares”. In addition I have received countless e mails on the subject.

One this morning came from a Nick Bennett of ‘Nick Bennett Racing’. Not racehorses but speedway and Nick points out that they have had a similar system in speedway for years with a cord attached to the rider’s wrist to cut the engine if he falls off, preventing a bike with open throttle careering into the crowd. It is obvious really and should be with a blindfold on a horse too.

13th June 2017

I was sorry to hear that Just Marion, the horse that unshipped its apprentice rider coming out of the stalls at Brighton yesterday and raced blindfolded before crashing through rails, has had to be put down.

The trainer, Clare Ellam, was apparently deeply upset and described the injuries as the worst she had seen in 25 years working with horses. She did not see exactly what happened, she has requested footage from the BHA to get clarification, and she wishes to discuss ways to prevent anything similar from happening again.
I can tell her, and the BHA, that there is a way to prevent it from happening but, when I previously suggested it to the PJA and the BHA, there was no interest in my idea.

I have seen, at least, two previous incidents of horses running loose blindfolded. One was at a Point to Point and the horse got into the car park and collided with several cars; the other, if I remember rightly, was at Doncaster and I think the horse was trained by Mary Reveley.

I don’t want to see it happen again so I came up with the simple idea of a cord from the blind fold to a Velcro strap which fits around the rider’s wrist before the blindfold is put on the horse. If the rider comes off the horse, the blindfold comes too. Once in the starting stalls, the rider transfers the strap to the superstructure of the stalls. Now, if the rider fails to pull the blindfold off when the stalls open, the horse will leave it behind attached to the stalls.

We introduced it at Kingsley Park and now always have it in place when a blindfold is used during stalls practice. Apart from preventing a horrendous accident like the one that occurred yesterday, it means that the rider can concentrate on staying on if the horse rears or becomes fractious with the blindfold on, rather than snatching for the blindfold. You see that situation regularly on our racecourses.

This also, perhaps, should focus attention on the common practice of pulling the blindfold off just as the gates open. I hate to see it as the horse almost invariably misses the break (you have added the jockey’s reaction time to that of the horse) and I think, if it is necessary to leave the blindfold on so long, we really need to do more work with that horse at home. It also begs the question of whether a horse that needs a blindfold on until the gates open should be ridden by an apprentice.

4th June 2017

I was shocked and saddened to hear today that Dandy Nicholls has died.

I can’t actually remember if Dandy ever rode for me but it was certainly only after he retired from the saddle and started training that I got to know him. Unfortunately, I never visited his yard to actually see how he did it and he told me that his methods weren’t quite as unorthodox as everyone believed but they were certainly effective. I imagine that many of the ideas came from David Chapman and it is great to see that that legacy is being carried on by Ruth Carr.

I have always said that, if you send me a horse which is bred to go a mile, I’ll stretch it out to get a mile and a quarter. But, if you sent the same horse to Dandy Nicholls, he would take it back to six furlongs. He did it very successfully several times, most notably with Regal Parade.

We trainers never like it if someone gets a horse from us and improves it, and I like to think that it doesn’t happen too often to me, but it didn’t hurt quite so much when it was Dandy. He would ask me to recommend horses that he should buy out of my yard and he clearly trusted me to be honest with him. I respected that and wished him well with them, even when he took Regal Parade from decent handicapper to Group 1 winner.

The racing world is certainly less colourful without him.

24th May 2017

If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake. Today, mixing of the latest recipe MJR all-weather surface began. Various recipes were trialled on lunge rings and now a furlong of this material will be put down where we can canter over it and work it with our normal gallop maintenance equipment. Having complete control of the manufacturing process will allow us to make any necessary adjustments and we expect that, by the time we go over to using this on our main gallop, we should have it exactly to our liking. Take a look at my video clip.


6th May 2017

I must stress that I have great sympathy for clerks of courses who are over-watering and wrongly describing the going in order to avoid any chance of the ground going to firm and owners and trainers withdrawing their horses. It is pretty much universally accepted that good-firm is the optimum condition of turf for flat racing and the BHA instruct clerks to aim for good-firm ground. But the fact is that most of them aim for softer.

Today the forecast ground for Ayr on Monday was changed from Good-Firm to Good-Firm: Good in places. I phoned the course, asked if it had rained, and was told that there has been no rain for fourteen days. I then asked what they expected the ground to be come Monday and they said, ‘we are watering now to maintain it as it is now’. I pointed out that they are supposed to be aiming for Good-Firm but the clerk said that he was aiming to keep it as it is now, Good-Firm: Good in placed.

Well, at least he is honest but he isn’t following BHA instructions and I do wonder whether he, like many others, is even aware of the instruction.

There should be a complete review of the way going is described and what they are allowed to do with watering to alter it.

1st May 2017

I’m not dead. Although, if Bletherings is your only contact with me, then you could be forgiven for thinking that I was.

I have simply been very busy and, for some reason, nothing has driven me to blether. Until now.

Tomorrow there are five flat meetings in Britain. 35 individual races of which 12 needed to be re-opened due to insufficient declarations.

It is notable that the two most valuable races on the day, a £15,500 handicap at Brighton and a £15,000 handicap at Nottingham, both restricted to fillies and both for horses rated 71-90, attracted just six runners each. This will lead to some claiming that prize-money (not that £15,500 is big money for horses of this calibre) doesn’t attract runners but the simple truth is that there is too much racing for the available horse population, at all levels. There are handicaps for horses rated under 75 on the day which have also failed to attract more than six runners.

If we keep spreading the jam thinner and thinner we are going to continue to lose owners and we are going to continue to lose good horses to other countries where they can earn far more than they do here. With so much racing and the betting industry’s measure of success being field size, my fear is that the racecourses keep putting on lower and lower grade races in search of that larger population of moderate horses and our racing continues to decline.

2nd February 2017

With so many supporting the reduction in distance of the Queen’s Vase, I must admit that I was beginning to wonder if I was overreacting. Son Charlie then pointed out to me that this will now mean that Royal Ascot will have Group 2 races, restricted to three-year-olds, at 10, 12 and 14 furlongs. The Queen’s Vase of old, at two miles, was surely a much more realistic race for the true stayer.

1st February 2017

The Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot, having only recently been downgraded from Group 3 to Listed, has now leapfrogged up to Group 2 ‘as part of British racing’s long-term plan to safeguard the staying breed’. That has to be good news. But, at the same time, the distance of the race has been reduced from 2 miles to 14 furlongs. Eh? What is that move doing for the staying breed?

Is 14 furlongs a ‘staying’ race? I know some will say it is and I well remember that, back in 1995, Double Trigger missed out on being crowned Champion Stayer despite having won all five Cup races that year because Strategic Choice earned a higher rating for his third place in the 12 furlong King George and was deemed to be a stayer because he had run in that year’s Irish St. Leger over 14 furlongs. But that couldn’t happen now and, even then, surely most of us would have accepted 14 furlongs as being a Classic distance – the distance of the St. Leger.
The Queen’s Vase has always been, for me, the first big test of the true three-year-old stayers. A true trial for Cup horses of the future. That said, in the last twenty years, only three Ascot Gold Cup winners had run in the Queen’s Vase. I’m not sure if that makes it a good trial or not but those three were Leading Light and Estimate, who had both won the Vase, and Mr Dinos, who had finished second.

Would Leading Light and Estimate have won the Queen’s Vase over 14 furlongs? Maybe, but we can’t be sure.

I am a huge supporter of the principles behind the initiative to promote the breeding and racing of stayers in Britain but I have some grave reservations about some of the methods being employed. Our Kingsley Klarion went to press just before this change was announced today but in it I have queried other parts of this initiative which involve the programming of two-year-old maiden races over 7 and 8 furlongs for horses whose sire won over a minimum of nine and a half furlongs.

To my mind it is quite simple, if you want to promote the breeding and racing of stayers, you improve opportunities and/or prize-money for stayers. You don’t do it by putting meaningless restrictions on 7 furlong maidens and you don’t do it by reducing distances of the best stamina tests.

26th December 2016

Raye Wilkinson, welfare officer at Johnston Racing, e mailed me three days ago and said, “I hope you realise that you have let your million readers down – no Bletherings for 2 months”.

A slight exaggeration, I think. Maybe five zeros too many there but he has a good point all the same.

I always seem to find some excuse not to do it and, most recently, I have been telling myself that I must save all interesting topics for the Kingsley Klarion as I am constantly under pressure from Mikaelle Lebretton to provide 1,500 words for that publication each month. But, believe it or not, I have already completed my rant for the January issue and I have several bees left on my bonnet that probably shouldn’t wait until February. So Raye and his friend, my other reader, are going to get their wish. Here goes.

It does, indeed, seem to be just over a month since I last blethered about the retirement of The Last Lion and, scanning down this page, you will see that it was a month before that when I wrote about jockeys’ weights. That piece was itself a follow up to an earlier Kingsley Klarion article and on both occasions I gave numerous examples where races were being run with reduced top weights when compared to the old scale of 9st 7lbs for 2yo’s, 9st 10lbs for 3yo’s, and 10st for older horses.

I laid the blame for the mess firmly at the feet of the racecourses who had been given the power to set their own top weights and, under pressure from the Professional Jockeys Association at the time, agreed to reduce top weights to ‘provide opportunities for lightweight jockeys’.

However, I recently discovered, at a Hamilton Park board meeting, that the power to set top weights has been returned to the BHA. I was suggesting that Hamilton Park could steal a march on other tracks by getting its top weights back to the old maximums. They would make it easier for all jockeys, provide more opportunities for those struggling with their weight and, hopefully, as a result, would attract more and better jockeys to ride at Hamilton. But, Racing Manager, Sulekha Varma put me right and explained that courses no longer have the power to alter the top weights in races and those races where the weights were reduced are now stuck there until the BHA does something about it.

So, why aren’t they doing it? It makes no sense. They are commissioning studies and entering into lengthy debates about the welfare of jockeys and horses but they are taking no action. Can’t someone make the decision to get on with it and return the top weights to the old maximums. They might find that they alleviate the problem and that there is no call for them to spend fortunes on further study and debate.

21st October 2016

It is with mixed feelings that we say goodbye today to The Last Lion who is off to begin what I am sure will be a very successful career at stud. Of course, as a trainer, I would have loved to have him next year and to see what he might do stepped up to a mile or in the top sprint races against his elders. I had every confidence that he would have trained on and done well but, at the same time, I am delighted for his owners and for the horse himself that he has done so well in such a very short space of time and that he is already in such demand for stud purposes.

He will surely go down in history as one of the best and toughest horses I ever trained. We started him way back at the beginning of April when he won the Brocklesby on very soft ground at Doncaster and he finished off at the end of September winning the Group 1 Middle Park on Good-Firm ground at Newmarket. In between he ran a further eight times on all types of ground and tracks and was never unplaced. He ran uphill, downhill, round a bend and even on the all-weather. To The Last Lion, it was all the same.

Looking back at his training records I see that, from that first day at Doncaster until today when he steps on that horsebox, he has never had more than two consecutive days without a rider on his back. He is the type of horse that every owner and trainers dreams of. He truly is a ‘lion’ of a horse but I hope he is not the last. I am looking forward to training his progeny and I dearly hope there are many just like him.

20th September 2016

To follow on from my Kingsley Klarion piece this month on the subject of jockeys’ weights (see Klarion, Straight Talking, September 2016), it is worth taking a look at a few of the weights on Thursday this week. With the dividing of races at Pontefract and Chelmsford resulting in a later finish at one and an earlier start at the other, we found ourselves struggling to find jockeys for our runners at Chelmsford. As I struggled to find a jockey to do 8st 9lbs on one runner, I was drawn to have a look at the top weights in the various races at the Essex track.

The first race, for 2yo fillies, has a top weight of 8st 11lbs – why not 9st, or even 9st 7lbs? The second race, a handicap for 2yo’s has a top weight of 9st 7lbs which makes reasonable sense and fits with the old rules but it does make me wonder why the top weight in the fillies race has to carry 10lbs less. The third race, a handicap for 3yo’s, has a top weight of 9st 7lbs, the same as the 2yo’s – why not 9st 10lbs? The fourth race is a handicap for 3yo’s and upwards and the 4yo top weight again carries 9st 7lbs – why not 10st? The fifth race is again a handicap for 3yo’s and upwards but this time, thanks to a 6lb penalty, the top weight carries 10st 1lb but the next horse carries 9st 12lbs – where did that idea come from? The sixth race is yet another handicap for 3yo’s and upwards but this time the top weight carries 9st 10lbs – yet another variation. The seventh race is the most confusing of all because it is the second division of the sixth race but, this time, the top weight, which is also a 4yo, carries 3lbs less than in the other division. The last race is a maiden for 3yo’s and upwards and this time the 4yo top weight carries 9st 11lbs. It seems they make it up as they go along.

The weights at Newmarket, where the 10yo top weight in one handicap carries 9st 7lbs, and Pontefract are just as ridiculous. The BHA should sort this mess out immediately, if for no other reason than to bring some logic to the issue, and should then consider whether a raising of the minimums is necessary. Probably not.

8th September 2016

According to Lewis Porteous in today’s Racing Post, the BHA’s latest selection of ‘eyecatching’ racing silks which are up for auction, will give owners a chance to stand out from their peers. Well, maybe – if they wear them themselves.

If, on the other hand, they want to be able to spot their horse mid race – and, as far as I am concerned, that is the whole purpose of jockeys wearing colours – these silks are not fit for purpose.

Some are like camouflage and others are single colours with a motif (an anchor or a horseshoe) on the chest where it will be invisible once the jockey is in the racing position. No doubt those single colours (e.g. purple), without the motifs, have already been sold by the BHA to some other unsuspecting owner.

26th August 2016

An odds on favourite gets beaten and the internet trolls crawl out from under their piles of losing betting slips. The latest one calls himself Simon Street and comes, to me at least, from the highly unoriginal e mail address of ‘alwayscheatings@gmail.com’.

This evening’s offering read simply ‘Sofia’s Rock – Always cheating at it’s best Mark!’ (please note the grammatical error is his, not mine).

Interestingly, I have heard from him before. Most recently he e mailed me regarding my views on betting coverage on terrestrial television. Thankfully, he was one of the few that did not agree with me. He, like so many others, fails to see that he is one of the victims of the culture which leads punters to believe that finding winners is all about tips and inside information. I know it is difficult for most of us to conceive such ignorance but these people really believe that trainers know what is going to win the race and that beaten favourites are planned and are part of our conspiracy against punters.

His e mail address is clearly created as part of his attempt to remain anonymous but the name, Simon Street, may be real or, at least, one he uses regularly to send his abusive mail. A Simon Street recently bombarded jockey Sean Levey with abusive tweets from the twitter handle @SimonStreet9 after Promising was a beaten favourite at Newbury on August 13th. The same person tweeted that trainer John Butler was a ‘dirty cheat’ on August 19th. Presumably he backed the favourite when Butler’s horse won at Wolverhampton that day.

If the name is real, you may know him and, if so, I would urge you to expose him. I have had it suggested to me in the past that these people are to be pitied rather than exposed and that they require to remain anonymous due to their own vulnerability. It was suggested that, in exposing them, I was the bully but I don’t hold with that theory. I can cope with all the abusive mail I get, although I have to admit that it is an unpleasant side of the job, but I am very aware that such abusive e mail, tweets and texts can have very serious consequences and I think they should be stamped out wherever possible.

17th August 2016

The Dikler, whoever he she or it is, is just like some other Racing Post scribes in liking to write about, but not listen to, what I have said. Did I deny that bands and music bring large numbers of people into racecourses? Of course I didn’t. Jess Glynne would probably fill Glasgow Green, never mind Newmarket and Market Rasen racecourses.

What I said was that the vast majority of those that go to racecourses to listen to music have no interest whatsoever in the racing and will not be introduced to racing by their visit to Newmarket or Market Rasen to listen to Jess Glynne. And I’ll add now that they are spoiling the racecourse experience for many of those that do go to racecourses to watch horseracing.
If courses are going to have these artists playing alongside racing then every effort should be made to engage the crowd in racing. Jess Glynne should not get the gig unless she is willing to participate in the day’s racing – presenting prizes, judging best turned out, doing interviews, etc. – and, if she won’t do it, find someone else or put the concert on when there is no racing.

The Dikler, apparently, is heading to Newmarket to see Little Mix. Well, he better remember to take his press badge as, last Friday, staff bringing horses for the last race, some with a horse in one hand, were denied access because they didn’t have their stable passes with them. The lady on the gate feared that they were trying to sneak in to see Jess Glynne without paying.

15th August 2016

Our in-house photographer, Mikaelle Lebreton, passed me these shots taken at Catterick on Friday evening with her comment attached. I cannot but agree with her.

I didn’t look at the official going at the track, but on the Racing Post website, it says the ground at Catterick was “Good” on Friday. Looking at these shots, I am not sure that was quite the case!

3rd August 2016

Letters and e mails of support for my views, as expressed on The Morning Line, continue to pour in. I realise that those sent to me may not be an entirely representative sample but it is gratifying nonetheless and clearly shows that I am not expressing such a minority view after all.

One e mail which arrived this morning was particularly interesting. It came from an Alexander Frew and he was prompted to write to me after reading my latest Bletherings.
Mr. Frew had already written to Channel 4 to complain about Graham Cunningham’s part in the show and Channel 4 had replied to him. Kelsey Quinn of Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries replied and said, “May we assure that Mark Johnston accepted the invitation to join The Morning Line and was fully aware of the panel and intended questions.”

Well, I can assure Kelsey Quinn and you that I had no knowledge of who would be on the panel until I arrived on set fifteen minutes after the show had started and saw them for myself. At no time was I given any prior notice of the questions that would be asked.

I have no complaint about that but I do think that, if they had plans to ask specific questions, sharing them with me in advance would have allowed an opportunity to make considered replies and make much better use of the limited time available.

1st August 2016

The response to my appearance on the morning line has been quite astonishing. We have been flooded by e mails and letters of support for my views. A selection have been printed in this month’s Klarion but we do intend to put more of them on the website in due course.

To be fair, there were a couple – well, one and a half really – in support of Graham Cunningham’s position and I have to accept that people who agree with him might be less inclined to write to me but past experience suggests that critics aren’t slow to come forward so I have to conclude that there is widespread support for my views.

For me, it was a very unsatisfactory debate. I’m a big boy – too big by half – and I can cope with interruptions and attempts to mock but it is a serious subject and it would have been good to get into the detail.

Some say that I was ambushed. I don’t particularly feel that but clearly they had a preset agenda and prepared questions which I had no prior knowledge of. That was obviously going to put me at a disadvantage – I didn’t have any quips about string vests or dancing and sex at the ready – but I could still have answered his questions if given a chance to do so.
Surely we should really have started with a discussion on why, if the current programme content and the emphasis on betting is acceptable or preferable, as Graham Cunningham would have it, they have lost viewers, lost the contract and why most of them are fighting for a job. I shouldn’t need to tell them that something is wrong. And Graham Cunningham, if he is looking for a position in the ITV team, might be better trying to think of what he could do differently to attract more viewers rather than trying to defend the same old failing format.
Graham Cunningham asked me, ‘What would you do to engage 10 year old, 12 year old, children with a programme about horseracing? Just give me a couple of concrete ideas.’ And added, somewhat condescendingly I thought, ‘You’ve obviously thought about this’. I replied that I had thought about it but, in truth, I was unprepared for the question and didn’t think to query how he thought we could engage them with a programme about betting. Off air we discussed how all of us there had become interested in horseracing and most, if not all, had first become hooked in their pre-teen years. Of course it wasn’t betting that lured us in. I am surprised that the betting industry don’t seem to consider that or maybe they know it but would rather lure new customers into sports or betting opportunities that are cheaper and/or more profitable for them.

I could have gone on for hours on ideas to make coverage of racing more interesting to a wider audience, on how to simplify it, and on how to educate people about it. I built my business on an almost daily diet of new ideas. Most, of course, are rejected long before they are put into practice. Many are tried and fail, and it is very important to recognise that they are failing, but the regular supply of new ideas ensures that we don’t stand still. If I ran a television company covering horseracing, or a bookmaker, I’d have the same approach.

13th July 2016

I can’t be held responsible for people disagreeing with what I didn’t say.

Nor should I lose any sleep about being ‘drowned out by a cacophony of dissenting voices’ especially if, as the Racing Post says, much of it was on social media. Most of those people, by definition, don’t read or write more than 140 characters.

Hopefully, there are some thinkers in all three industries – racing, betting and media – who might just take a minute to consider what I did actually say about the TV coverage of racing and look at the potential benefits to all of bringing a wider audience to our sport and, above all, educating them about it and cultivating their interest to a point where they might have their own opinions.

That doesn’t simply mean that we should have TV coverage dominated by behind-the-scenes features – although they are clearly popular and do reach out to a wider audience. We must promote a greater understanding of the sport.

Our media coverage screams out that, ‘if you don’t bet, this is not for you’ and, from what I can see, that cacophony of voices that the Racing Post are referring to is saying exactly the same thing. How clever is that?

12th July 2016

Touché Mr. Carr. Yesterday, at the Go Racing In Yorkshire Summer Festival Press Day, I told David Carr that the front page of the Racing Post usually looks like a bookmaker’s advert and today he has managed to persuade them to put me on it under the controversial heading ‘Johnston’s message for ITV: drop all betting talk’. What’s more, apart from a small banner advert for Coral, the front page has no mention of betting at all and headlines draw attention to six interesting articles inside. Have I been doing the Racing Post an injustice? Judged on today’s content, I have.

When you have a press day like that and you are fielding questions from a dozen journalists on topics ranging from Brexit to the price of eggs, it is difficult to cover every topic in detail and the opportunities to be misquoted are numerous. David Carr’s coverage of what I said was, however, very fair although he did, perhaps, put too much emphasis on my plea for the media to give less coverage to betting and nowhere near enough on my assertion that they should concentrate on promoting understanding of, and interest in, the sport. If people have an opinion they are much more likely to bet as is evident from sports like football.

The issue drew comment from the editor, Bruce Millington, and he is of course right to say that ‘betting is far more fundamental to racing’s funding model than it is to other sports’. But I am not for a moment suggesting that people should not be allowed to bet and his suggestion that we should look to showjumping for an indication of how racing might be without betting is a ridiculous one. Far more important to look to greyhound racing for what can happen to a sport that becomes nothing more than a betting medium and is reduced to a game of numbers and colours. Let’s not allow racing to go any further down that path.

6th July 2016

We are mid season and there should be more for me to blether about now than at any other time of the year but I am, quite simply, too busy and/or just not disciplined enough.
It has taken my old friends at York racecourse to move me to write something. If you live in the North of England I think you will be as astounded as I am to hear that they are watering again. It has hardly stopped raining all year and they put 2mm of water on last night.

To my mind – and I am sure they will say that my mind is of no consequence as I am neither a gardener nor a groundsman – 2mm does nothing but damage. What is their aim in constantly trickling water on to the track? It is inconceivable to me that a racetrack should need watering in this wettest of years and I find it hard to understand that the Knavesmire, which still had standing water in the middle at the last meeting, should seem to need water more often than any other track.

I am clearly in a minority, as I don’t hear too many others complaining about it, but being in a minority has never bothered me too much. I’ve learned that it is no indication of whether I am right or wrong.

5th June 2016

I just watched the second episode of the new Top Gear. I was away last Sunday and so was unable to watch the first episode live. I did have it recorded but have to admit that I fell asleep half way through watching it. This week’s was a lot better but still a major disappointment.

For me, it is not that the new team are not every bit as good as the last. I think they are and the change is refreshing. Clarkson’s political incorrectness was a breath of fresh air in the early days and helped make it a ‘not to be missed’ programme for me but the format was very tired and latter episodes were, frankly, boring.

I was hoping that the new Top Gear would arrive with a completely new format but sadly not. It is pretty much the same as the old programme and that is very disappointing.
Let’s hope that ITV don’t make the same mistake when they take over the coverage of racing from Channel 4. I am assuming that there will be a magazine programme to replace The Morning Line and I am dearly hoping that they take the opportunity to come up with a new format that might bring a whole new audience to racing. Channel 4’s various reincarnations of The Morning Line have done little or nothing to make the programme appeal to anyone other than punters and, personally, I think it should be possible to produce a programme that appeals to all the family. Here’s hoping.

24th April 2016

‘BHA spokesman Robin Mounsey said: “The fact that Morning Suit was a colt rather than a filly was picked up on by the vet in the morning when the horse arrived at the course, and media outlets were informed in order that online racecards could be amended.’

Not so. Weatherbys were informed of their error long before the horse left Middleham. Granted, I should probably have noticed that the horse was wrongly described in the Racing Post when looking at the entries and the declarations at the five day and forty-eight hour stages but, as far as we were concerned, there was no doubt that the horse was a colt.

The Racing Post coverage seems to suggest that I was unaware of the sex of an animal in my yard. That, most certainly, is not the case. The horse is a colt, it is described as a colt on its passport, and on the application form for its name, and on every document and data entry that we have.

17th April 2016

When Byres Road ran at Doncaster (see yesterday’s Blethering), he finished last and I was asked if I could explain the poor performance. Yesterday, at Wolverhampton, Ordinal won by seven lengths and my travelling manager Calvin McCormack was asked to explain the apparent improvement in form.

This makes a bit more sense as, theoretically, an unscrupulous trainer could have sought to ensure that the horse did not run on its merits in its first three starts in order to obtain a low handicap rating.

Nonetheless, I told Calvin to tell the stewards (or more likely, his report would be passed via the stewards secretary) that we could not say that it was an improvement in form. That may seem a little ridiculous, especially as the Racing Post reported that ‘his opening mark is clearly not an accurate reflection of his ability’, but I think I can demonstrate that it is far from easy to say that Ordinal needed to improve to win this race. And it would certainly be unreasonable to expect Calvin to be able to properly assess the performance at the time.

Ordinal’s ten opponents had run a total of 71 times and had only achieved one win. That solitary win came from David’s Beauty (5th in this race) way back on the 15th July last year, in a Lingfield Claimer, and yesterday’s race was his tenth start since without winning. And David’s Beauty and Tombe Girl (9th) were the only two horses in the race to have reached the frame on their last outing.

In short, this was a very poor handicap contested, principally, by out-of-form maidens and it is arguable that, if I had run Ordinal in a similar grade of handicap but against horses with good recent form, the result might have been very different.

It will be very interesting to see how the handicapper assesses the performance. They work by choosing a marker horse that they perceive to have run to its best and then adjusting the others’ ratings, up or down, to reflect their finishing position relative to that horse. I wonder what horse they will choose here. None of Ordinal’s opponents have ever succeeded in winning a handicap which might arguably suggest that they are all over-rated rather than that Ordinal is massively under-rated.

So, I think I was right to tell Calvin to say that he could not say whether the performance was an improvement or not. He assures me that that is what he said but the official report states that “The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, ORDINAL, ridden by Silvestre De Sousa and trained by Mark Johnston, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer’s representative who stated that the colt appreciated the drop into handicap company.”

16th April 2016

It seems that in racing, more than any other sport, we have come to a position where the public believe that information about the well-being of the participants and/or ‘inside information’ on how they are likely to perform is at least as important as their recent form. It is a very unhealthy state to be in.

Can you imagine a situation where a football manager or coach was asked if one of the players was going to score in a game or how many goals in total the team would score? It would be ridiculous to ask such questions, and if they were answered it would immediately put the game under suspicion as to whether it was fixed, but no more ridiculous than the daily barrage I get from punters on course who ask, ‘will it win?’. And hardly more ridiculous than those questions we get on an almost daily basis from Racing Post journalists who want ‘a line’ on our runners.

So how have we got ourselves into this mess. Of course, the media are partly to blame and there is a new breed of lazy scribes who would rather print opinion from trainers as if it were fact than put the effort into studying the form themselves. But the journalists, along with the public at large, were encouraged to believe in the value of inside information by the very authorities who manage and police the sport.

The BHA are just as likely as the Racing Post to publish misinformation and opinion as if it were fact and are even more likely than the media to misquote trainers, put words into jockeys mouths, or simply invent the ‘facts’.

I have long complained about the BHA instructions requiring trainers to give an explanation for perceived poor performances. Not only is the ruling wrong in principle but the way it is enforced and managed by stipendiary stewards and stewards’ secretaries is appalling.

Surely, before you can give an explanation for a poor performance, you must first establish that it is a poor performance and not the horse’s true form. That isn’t always easy to do and I would argue that, more often than not, the form is correct and shouldn’t be excused. It is virtually impossible to convince the authorities of this and, if they don’t like what you tell them, they will simply say that ‘the trainer could offer no explanation for the horse’s performance’.

A classical example of this occurred when Byres Road ran at Doncaster and finished last of five behind our own Soldier in Action and Juste Pour Nous, beaten 44 lengths. I did not believe this was a ‘poor performance’ and thought it was, quite simply, the horse’s true form – if form on heavy ground (officially described as ‘Soft’ but the race was run 13.25 seconds slow and times on the day ranged from 8.26 seconds slow over 6 furlongs to 14.5 seconds slow over a mile and a half) can ever be considered to be true. When the stipendiary steward enquired about what he and/or the stewards considered to be a poor performance, I told him that I have long been telling the handicappers that it is almost impossible for horses given a rating of 80 or more for performances on the All-Weather to carry that rating over to the turf and I use early season races at Doncaster as the example every time.

The race at Doncaster was a 0-95 handicap but, as it turned out, the top weight only had a rating of 84. Nonetheless, Byres Road was the only horse not to have previously run on turf. He gained his rating of 80 after running in two Maiden Auction races and a Maiden on the All-Weather. That is not to say that I believe he will be any less effective on turf but the Doncaster race was many classes above anything he had contested before. He ran well up to a point, leading for almost seven furlongs, but was the first horse beaten and, after that, his finishing position, in heavy ground, was irrelevant. I told the stipendiary steward all this but it was published on the BHA website that ‘the Stewards considered the running of BYRES ROAD, ridden by Franny Norton and trained by Mark Johnston, which finished unplaced. They noted the trainer could offer no explanation for the colt’s performance.’ Not true. I did offer an explanation but he chose to ignore it and what the public got was neither fact nor my opinion.

As it happens, Byres Road came out 11 days later and finished 2nd beaten ¾ of a length at Ripon in heavy ground. So I was wrong. Well, yes and no. The handicapper, as is so often the case, certainly wasn’t as far out as I had thought and was clearly right to ignore the Doncaster performance. But that does not mean that the horse was suffering from some physical ailment at Doncaster, had put in a poor performance, and had made a miraculous recovery by the time Ripon came around.

Most form students will, understandably, jump to the fact that the Doncaster race was over two furlongs further than Ripon but, interestingly, Byres Road was headed and beaten more than two furlongs out at Doncaster but was apparently struggling early in the race at Ripon and was running on very strongly at the finish.

So, what, with the huge benefit of hindsight, is the explanation? For a start, form on very soft ground is notoriously unreliable, distances are greatly extended, and finishing positions of horses which are the first to throw down the gauntlet and get beaten are irrelevant. These were different races, run at a different pace, and Byres Road didn’t get involved until near the finish at Ripon.

The one thing we know for sure is that the official ‘explanation’ given for Doncaster was not the one I gave. The stewards are misleading the public and, in doing so, are doing more harm than good to the reputation of our sport.

9th April 2016

We are often told that the biggest disincentive to working in racing is the unsociable hours. I’m sure it is true and it is an issue that I am continually trying to solve but maybe we have to accept that it is an inevitable consequence of working in a leisure industry.

Deirdre and I stayed last night in a well known Perthshire hotel and had dinner in their main restaurant. We were served by a very efficient waitress called Lauren. This morning, at breakfast, we were served by the same girl.

Deirdre commented to her about having to work late and start early again and she said, ‘No, I got off early last night at 10 o’clock’. A normal shift would, apparently, end at Midnight (‘usually finished up about half past’, she said) and begin again at 8am.

She gets five and a half hours off in the afternoon and, of course, weekends are the busiest times and it is all hands on deck.

I can’t stop thinking about something Richard Hannon said in a recent Racing Post interview. He said that he spent £12.8M on ‘spec’ at last year’s yearling sales and, just to confirm that it wasn’t a typing error, quipped ‘don’t round it up to thirteen million.

That equates to 100 yearlings at an average of £128,000 each. I wonder, did he buy more than 100 yearlings on ‘spec’ or was he spending more than an average of £128,000. Add to that the homebreds and those that were bought by agents or to order and it tells me that he must have a phenomenal team of two-year-olds.

It seems I did right to get in early before he unleashes that mob.

1st April 2016

It is truly incredible. The group that I used to dub ‘Racing For No Change’ have made one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of thoroughbred racing and breeding. Rod Street, head of the team at Great British Racing, will go down in the history of the thoroughbred alongside the likes of Admiral Rous, Frederico Tesio and, dare I say, Sheikh Mohammed.
He has, with the agreement of all ‘stakeholders’, moved the birthday of all thoroughbred horses in the northern hemisphere from 1st January to the Monday after British Champions Day. This will allow all championships – including jockeys, owners, trainers, sires, and first-season sires – to end on the same day and will, as Rod says, ‘provide a narrative for the sport, a great sponsorship opportunity, and an extra attraction for the thousands of people who attend British Champions Day principally to listen to the music and who hitherto had no interest in the sport’.

It will provide a few minor challenges but the team at Great British Racing are confident that none are insurmountable. It will mean that races like the Racing Post Trophy are now for three-year-olds only but that is surely preferable to having them sit outside some championships as is currently the case.

The breeding industry will, of course, face new challenges as there will now be a distinct advantage to having foals born in November but Rod Street has confirmed that, with the help of the new artificial daylight system perfected and marketed by Irish horsebox driver Sam Murphy, which is already in use in many yards, this is easily achievable. It is rumoured that Mr. Murphy, who must surely have had prior knowledge of the changes, is in talks with the Microsoft Corporation who have expressed a serious interest in his products.

Yearling and foal sales will be able to move to a position earlier in the year allowing vendors to present their stock while they still have their summer coats.

It isn’t yet confirmed but it is assumed that southern hemisphere authorities will move their thoroughbred birthday by approximately two and a half months to maintain the differential.
As with other GBR initiatives, full details will be available through Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

16th March 2016

Yesterday we saw a Champion Hurdle that will surely go down in history. Only the fourth mare ever to win the race; a track record; a fourth Champion Hurdle in the last six years for trainer Willie Mullins; comparisons with the mighty Dawn Run and talks of an attempt at emulating that mare in the Gold Cup; and an emotional Ruby Walsh dedicating the win to ‘little Annie’, daughter of the Mullins team’s vet Tim Brennan, who is battling cancer.

What a story. A media man’s dream. Jam packed full of ‘narrative’ – the buzz word that gets the marketing team at Great British Racing so excited.
So, where would you expect to find the story in racing’s trade paper? Front page? When we had a dedicated trade paper it would have been but the Racing Post put it on page 22. Is anyone on the editorial staff at that newspaper even interested in racing? They clearly don’t believe that their readership is.
It is a major problem in racing today. At many times in my life there were two dedicated racing papers. First the Sporting Life and the Sporting Chronicle (I remember the thrill in my very early years of being allowed to stay up until after midnight some Fridays to go with my dad on the drive from East Kilbride into Glasgow to get his Saturday Sporting Chronicle) and then the Life and the Racing Post.

I was a columnist on the Sporting Life from 1994 until it closed and, to be honest, saw it as the bookmakers’ paper while the Post was the racing industry paper. The Life was designed to be dismantled and pinned to bookmakers’ walls while the Post was a normal paper.

I longed to write for the Racing Post and got that opportunity when the Life closed but, from that day on, the Racing Post started to go downhill. I’m not sure if it was down to the ownership – initially it was Mirror Group, owners of the Sporting Life – or if it was driven by the editorial staff but it has been a steady decline to the paper that we have today.

When questioned on this issue, Rod Street of Great British Racing says that it doesn’t matter, that the days of the printed media are over, and that social media (Facebook and Twitter) is what matters now.

I don’t agree with him. The Racing Post may have a small circulation when compared with the mainstream press but they are still perceived by many as being the racing industry’s trade paper and their lack of interest in the sport and those that take part must be harmful. Their occasional open hostility certainly is.

6th March 2016

The main thrust of Julian Muscat’s Wednesday Column this week in the Racing Post was blown away by the announcement the next day that the Government have at last moved to replace the Levy with a Racing Right but his views on issues like bookmakers contributions, media rights payments to racecourses, and Approved Betting Partners are nonetheless relevant and are a breath of fresh air in a paper which is now almost exclusively aimed at promoting the interests of the betting industry.

I did not agree with his comparisons between Greyhound welfare and Retraining of Racehorses as they involve two very different animals and very different welfare issues but horseracing should indeed take serious note of the state of greyhound racing as a sport in Britain despite what it earns for bookmakers (Julian Muscat puts bookmakers profits from greyhound racing as in excess of £200 million per annum).

He also hits the nail on the head when pointing out that, while levy receipts have halved in the last ten years, media rights payments to racecourses have advanced from £30m in 2006 to £173m in 2014. He says that this makes the ‘lukeworm response from racing’s large independent tracks to British racing’s authorized betting partner initiative so much harder to fathom’. I’d go a lot further and say that their ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude is appalling and those large, racehorse-owning, sponsors who are pouring money into those tracks should make sure to wear some very thick gloves because these racetracks have demonstrated their repeated willingness to bite the hands that feed them.

In a separate piece, Julian talks of the recently published Horses In Training book and points out that the strings listed by some (probably most) trainers are inaccurate to say the least. Clearly, like me, he is interested in this type of statistic but I was surprised by his stating that ‘if you really want to know the score, all you have to do is look up any trainer’s number of individual runners last season on the Racing Post website’. And the headline writers had the temerity to top this piece with the statement ‘How long’s a trainer’s string? Try our site’.

It isn’t as easy as that and this piece made me wonder how many people at the Racing Post have any real interest in racing’s facts and figures and how many use their own website. For a start, if you want to access the statistics section of the Racing Post website, you have to be a paid-up member but you could go to each trainer individually, using the search facility or by clicking on the name in a racecard or on another free page. However, you will then find that the website does not give any clear figures on individual numbers of runners or winners. To obtain this you would need to go to the list of individual horses run and count them, counting those that have won separately if you want to know the ratio of winners to runners, or buy the paper. Unfortunately, if you want to know about flat trainers’ strings, you will need to buy the paper in summer time as they only publish it for the Flat Trainer’s Championship and that, as we know, spans parts of two calendar years.

They used to publish a pull-out summary at the end of the year which gave you these figures but, in their wisdom, they decided not to publish it at the end of 2015 and instead gave us one in November at the end of the ‘championship’.

Much of this mess is down to our friends at ‘Great British Racing’ who, at times, seem to know a lot about social media and very little about horseracing. They are intent on giving us championships that start and end on arbitrary days which only fit with some weird and wonderful ‘narrative’ that they themselves have conjured up. We now get four different flat trainers tables in the statistics section of the Racing Post website but none of them give us the figures on individual winners or runners as claimed in Julian Muscat’s column.

2nd January 2016

Wolverhampton clerk of the course Fergus Cameron said the number of horses entered for the Apprentice Handicap on Wednesday, which had to be re-opened after attracting only three entries and now has only five entries, was ‘extremely unusual’. Eh? Where has he been? It is a 1m 4f and 50yds handicap for 3yo’s only rated 46-65. How many qualified horses, fit to run and ready to race over that trip in the first week of January, does he think there are in training? Very few, I can tell him.

There were three races re-opened for Wednesday’s all-weather fixtures and there are a further six races re-opened today for the two all-weather meetings scheduled for Thursday.

Don’t get me wrong, it makes for easier pickings for trainers like me and I will take advantage of the situation whenever I can but it is an unsustainable situation. There is simply too much racing for the available horse population.

Hogmanay 2015

Three all-weather meetings next Wednesday, 6th January. Nothing to do with rescheduling or abandoned jump meeting. This was, it seems, the plan all along. It will be very interesting to see how the field sizes hold up. Personally, I think it is very bad planning.

Christmas Eve 2015

Oh, the weather outside is frightful but no possibility of snow. Just more and more rain and a driving wind to force it through every crevice.
It isn’t stopping us, thanks to the wonders of modern all-weather gallops, but it really does make it the most miserable environment to work in. I feel for the riders.

There is a temptation to say that the horses can just have a day off and stay dry in their boxes – after all, many won’t be running in the coming months – but we are all conscious of the need to exercise as many as possible. From today, through until Monday, we have half the staff on holiday and horses will alternate between being ridden and having days when they are just exercised on the walker. They get more than fresh enough on this regime without us reducing exercise any further.

No entries to make today and no declarations. Our next possible runners will be Monday 28th.

20th December 2015 (later)

So sad to hear about the death of, The Times racing reporter, Alan Lee. He told me just a few weeks ago that he was off work due to a heart problem but he suggested that all would be well and it seems that everyone thought that was the case.

He was a thoroughly decent man and is a great loss to British horseracing

20th December 2015

There is no rest for the wicked. This is supposed to be our quiet time of the year but, if opportunities for Blethering are anything to go by, it clearly isn’t.
This time last year I had already been to Las Vegas for the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) and I had sworn that I would make it an annual pilgrimage but, one year on, the resolution had to be broken. I was also writing, in early November last year, of taking it easy and finding time for cycling, and I was berated by some for saying that while our horses were in the midst of a long losing streak. Well, no such problems this year. The bike has hardly turned a wheel but I can’t say that that is the reason for any apparently better form. We are again operating with a very small string, principally made up of horses which ‘missed the boat’ for one reason or another in the middle of the season, and so the runners and consequently the winners are fairly few and far between. Luckily, however, one or two decent individuals have kept popping one in and have kept us off that dreaded Racing Post Cold Trainers List.

Richard Fahey confessed, over a few drinks at the sales, that he got some perverse pleasure from our plight last October and November and would exchange text messages with Jamie Osborne counting the days that we went without a winner. So I make no apology now for pointing out that it is him that has had a spell on the Cold List this year although he got off it just the other day.

In the midst of our long losing run I heard James Willoughby discussing it on TV and he said that he didn’t believe in ‘trainer form’. He was, firstly, unconvinced by the figures which simply look at days/runs without a winner and take no account of whether the horses are running to form or not, and he said that we were running a ‘subset of horses’ which were not up to our usual standard. I was delighted to accept this at the time but looking back now I see that, of the 67 horses which ran during that period, 53 went on to race into 2015 and 31 of them (58%) won races: a total of 59 races between them. Of the 14 that retired at the end of the year, only 5 retired as maidens. I didn’t count how many of those that failed to win again (22) retired as maidens but it was very few i.e. most had been successful before October of last year.

It was not, therefore, a ‘subset of horses’ in terms of ability to win races but, perhaps, many of them were on the way down having peaked earlier in the season or had not yet had an opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Since then I have done some work with James Willoughby on Breeze-Up sales and we have had discussions on what he can bring to our team in terms of analytics. We will certainly be working more closely with him in future and, perhaps, the phenomena of trainer form will need to be looked at again.

17th October 2015

What a remarkable horse Fire Fighting is. Last night, at Dundalk he won the Listed Carlingford Stakes by five lengths. That was his 22nd start of 2015. But, if we look a little further back through his relatively short career, we see that it was his 37th start since May 2014.

Even more fascinating is that, when looking at his training record, I see, since the 8th January 2014, he has only twice had two consecutive days when he was not ridden. Those were when travelling to and from Dubai.

In January 2014 he was coming back from a complete break and he had 27 days walking and trotting before he commenced cantering. Since then, the longest period he has had without cantering is 22 days in December 2014 when we were preparing him for Dubai.

It is remarkable because, in most sports and particularly in horse racing, it is very unusual for an athlete to go two years in training without some form of injury enforcing a period of rest. But it does make me wonder how many other horses might thrive on constant training and racing. Fire Fighting, like every other horse, had at least one run during that period when the jockey got off and said he needed a break. It is an easy thing to say and, if you give a horse a break, it is impossible to prove that it was the wrong decision. They can’t get beaten if you don’t run them but, then again, they can’t win either. It depends whether you are judging your horses on their best performances or their worst. Fire Fighting has suffered many defeats but last night he performed as well as at any time in his 48 race, three year, career.

16th October 2015

My apologies for the lack of recent blethering but I have been, as my Australian friends would say, ‘flat out as a lizard drinking’ at the sales. As I write I am still at Tattersalls for Book 3 but, after a count up of my purchases last night, I have decided that I can’t buy any more until I clear some of those that are on the shelf. I currently have thirty yearlings available for sale which is a record for me but I have been aiming to buy the same numbers as last year and they have not been finding owners as quickly as in the past. Last year’s buying spree was driven by some uncertainty at the time about my numbers for this season but the formula worked so well that I am determined to try and repeat it with similar numbers in 2016.

So, today I find myself at a horse sale but trying to keep away from the ring for fear that I feel compelled to buy another horse. Hence, a few moments to read the Racing Post and do some blethering.

I will not be at Ascot for Champions Day tomorrow and I see Tom Marquand, the leader in the apprentice jockey championship race, won’t be there either as he has opted to ride at Catterick where he can get more rides. Silvestre de Sousa will be there to be crowned Champion Jockey as he is 36 winners clear of William Buick but it should surely have occurred to organisers that, if it was a close run thing, the excitement might be at Catterick rather than Ascot. Silvestre has no rides booked after Ascot on Saturday and it looks like he will be sticking with his plan to depart for the United States as soon as the championship is over. It is interesting to note that, if the championship was based on all rides in 2015, he would still be in front but only four ahead of Like Morris and I think we could rest assured that he would not be leaving to ride abroad.

24th September 2015 (later)

And now for something completely different.

Today at Newmarket, between races, I went to buy a coffee from a stall. When she came to give me my coffee, the girl started to put a plastic lid on it and I said, ‘I don’t need a lid’, as I was taking it to a table a few feet away. ‘Sorry’, she said, ‘I have to put a lid on it. Health and safety’.

Who dreams up these rules? Probably the same sort of eejit that decides that the lid needs recycling.

What is the world coming to? I tried to drink it through the hole in the lid but burned my lips. I then spilled it over my fingers when trying to get the lid off. If someone from the Health and Safety executive had happened to walk by, I might have been tempted to throw it.

24th September 2015

Chelmsford made much of its proximity to Newmarket in its re-launch, and I could see the logic in that, but I can’t see the logic in them running on the same day as racing at ‘headquarters’ and I really can’t understand why they would put on a high-quality, £119,000 card on the same day as Newmarket runs an eight-race £686,000 card with three Group races and a 35 runner, £160,000, handicap.

‘Ah but’, you might say, ‘Chelmsford is evening racing’. It is, but its first race on Saturday starts 10 minutes after the last at Newmarket. And the first race today was 10 minutes before the last at Newmarket. They are close, but not that close. If there is method in their madness, maybe someone could enlighten me because I can’t see it.

I suppose it could have something to do with keeping punters in the betting shops that went there to watch, and bet on, the big races at HQ. If so, it is another reminder that those who compile the fixture list and the race programme have scant regard for the horse-population or the availability of jockeys to ride them.

15th September 2015

What on earth were they playing at at Carlisle? Why would you put water on Good-Firm ground (i.e. optimum flat racing ground as per BHA instructions) yesterday when rain was virtually guaranteed? They are now calling the ground Good-Soft.

It is so annoying when you have declared a horse in preference to other entries and taken it to Carlisle only to find that the ground has been altered deliberately. Nobody can complain about rain but it was just ridiculous to be putting water on that track.

I was there six days ago and it was described as Good-Firm (Good in places) but times, and our rider, suggested that it was softer than that. There was no sense in watering. I am fuming and have withdrawn my second runner.

As is our policy, Johnston Racing, will carry all the costs of taking Mustaqbal to Carlisle rather than pass them on to the owner. I wish Jockey Club Racecourses had to pay. Maybe then they would think twice before reaching for the hosepipe on a cloudy autumnal day.

10th September 2015

I think it is vitally important, for the future of the thoroughbred breed, that we encourage the breeding of quality middle distance horses and I applaud all initiatives that seek to promote middle-distance and staying races.

I do, however, have reservations about the BHA’s plan to stage 10 new, reasonably valuable (£10,000) maiden races, between seven furlongs and a mile and one furlong, for horses sired by a stallion which won at a mile and a quarter or more.

These are the same conditions as Ascot’s Listed Chesham Stakes in June and I cannot believe that this encourages people to breed or buy potential stayers. I try to target the Chesham every year because, to be blunt, the restriction makes the race less competitive than other Royal Ascot two-year-old races and, of course, the fact that it is run in June means that it is usually won by a juvenile which possesses more than average stamina. But these races are to be run at the tail end of the season.

When you consider that sons and daughters of the mighty Shamardal, whose progeny have an average winning distance of 8.1 furlongs, will be eligible for these races, but the progeny of Cape Cross, whose average winning distance is 9.1 furlongs, will not, you can see that the initiative is flawed. Worse still, the progeny of Dansili (9.4), Dubawi (9.5) and Teofilo (10.6) will not be eligible either.

If you want to encourage and promote juveniles with stamina, why not simply give them more opportunities to run in races which truly require stamina, i.e. over more than a mile? What is to be gained by providing an easier, and more valuable, opportunity for a horse to win over seven furlongs just because his sire won over ten furlongs even if that sire is proven not to be an influence for stamina.

Personally, I can’t see the logic and I fear that these races will be weaker and have smaller fields than average simply because less horses are eligible.

8th September 2015

Give credit where credit is due.

A press release from York:

“Press Release 7 September 2015

York Racecourse is delighted to announce an increase of £100,000 to prize money for its final meeting of the 2015 season on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 October. All fourteen races over the two days will benefit, as the prize fund is boosted by over 25% from last year, to a record level of £416,000.

The feature race of the Saturday meeting is the now £100,000 Coral Sprint Trophy, an ultra-competitive sprint handicap benefitting from a £25,000 boost to become the nineteenth race of the season to have a six figure purse. Also benefitting is the Listed Coral Rockingham Stakes for juveniles that will now offer £50,000, a race which uncovered the talents of impressive Coolmore Nunthorpe third placed horse, Mattmu.

Channel 4 cameras will be at the track on the Friday for the first time, to cover two races; including a new £50,000 feature handicap for three year old staying horses over a mile and three quarters supported by Stan James. This new race is intended to provide an autumn opportunity for the highly rated stayers who may well have competed in the Betfred Melrose Stakes at the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival.

All fourteen races have received an increase in prize funds across the two days with no race offering less than £12,000 on the Friday and £15,000 on the Saturday.

Connections in October are the beneficiaries of the strong performance of the business across racing and non racing events, and from the support of racegoers, sponsors and partners, over the summer months. The track remains true to its mission of investing in prize money, fixed facilities such as the new Northern End Development and in the experience of going racing on the Knavesmire. These latest increases will take prize money at York in 2015 to a record level of £6.7m which is some 26% ahead of 2012.

York Racecourse Chairman, Lord Grimthorpe, “York is delighted that our continued commercial success has allowed us to keep investing in the prize money, facilities and experience of racing at York. Our aim across all seventeen days is to stage compelling, competitive race action. Our investment in prize money has already been rewarded with tremendous contests for our feature races over the summer months and our hope is that these further increases to October will be rewarded by a fitting finale to the season. Our continued thanks to our supporters and sponsors who help us to invest in racing at York.”


7th September 2015

So, Silvestre de Sousa is going to the USA to try and ply his trade there. I can’t blame him. It’s quite simple, the money is a lot better there and he has no retainer to tie him to the UK. It is apparently something that he has been considering for some time and probably relates to uncertainty about the support he was going to get in the UK as a freelance although, as it turns out, he is clear in the championship.

What bothers me is the timing. He is leaving straight after Champions Day, October 17th. That’s exactly what I predicted would happen if they moved the end of the championship.

If the championship ended on November 7th or thereabouts, as has been the case in recent years, would Silvestre be leaving before then? I’m sure the answer is no, despite his commanding lead. And, if it ended on 31st December, it is possible that he, and others, would ride in Britain right to the end of the year and that we would have less of a drain to sunnier and more lucrative climes.

As it happens, the next three jockeys in the championship table all have retainers from Dubai based owners so they will stay here as long as their employers dictate and will, presumably, leave for Dubai at some stage so the championship dates will only have limited affect on their movements. And the next two, Luke Morris and Jim Crowley, tend to remain in the UK anyway. But it is clear that the change in championship dates has resulted in the premature departure of our leading rider this year and that is exactly what I said would happen.

As I have said many times before, if you are going to make the championship meaningful and especially if you are going to put significant money behind it, you must structure it to drive the behaviour that you want. Surely, we don’t want our top riders to ride in Britain for less than six months of the year?
I wonder if Silvestre will come back. There must be a significant risk that he won’t although I understand that he is planning to start off in New York and I think he might find the winter conditions there to be far worse than he has ever encountered at Wolverhampton. What is almost certain is that, if he does come back, and they leave the jockeys championship as it stands, we are unlikely to see him again before the Guineas meeting in May.

6th September 2015

Just watched Prince Gibraltar trot up in the G1 Grosser Preis Von Baden. A second G1 win for the colt.

Two weeks ago I bought the yearling full brother in Deauville for One Hundred Thousand Euros. He is well through the breaking process and has no issues. What a bargain.

Unbelievably, he is still for sale and I have had virtually no interest in him.

27th August 2015

Oops! It seems I have upset William Derby (again!) and this time he may have a point. I must accept that the statement I have made below, that ‘York racecourse is making a profit on entry fees alone’, is factually incorrect.

It seems that, while I was correct that some racecourses had vociferously objected to BHA proposals to put a cap on owners’ contributions to individual races at 75%, it was eventually agreed that owners’ contributions must not exceed 90% of any total prize fund. Furthermore, it was also ruled that total prize-funds should not exceed the advertised total amount and so, where entry fees exceed 90% of that sum, any surplus must be returned, first to those eliminated by ballot from the race and then, if a surplus still remained, pro-rata to other contributors.

In the case of the DBS Premier Yearling Stakes, York actually made an executive contribution of £40,000, £10,000 more than the minimum required, and so owners only contributed 86.66% of the total prize-fund.

I must, therefore, apologise to York for my error but it still doesn’t make me feel much happier about the principles of running ‘Sales’ races or other races where the owners are, in the main, running for their own money. And it also raises the question of what exactly constitutes an ‘executive’ contribution from a racecourse these days and where that money comes from but I’ll save that for another day. Maybe the next Klarion.

20th August 2015

The prize-money at this year’s York Ebor Festival is really fantastic, with no race worth less than £50,000, and that was certainly an incentive to me to make entries there. But, as is so often the case with racecourses these days, there is, at least, one fly in the ointment.
The first race on today’s card is the DBS Premier Yearling Stakes and it is worth a total of £300,000 with £147,540 going to the winner. But a glance at the conditions reveals that owners have contributed no less than £302,000 to enter this race (plus all the surcharges and add-ons). So York racecourse is making a profit on entry fees alone before you account for contributions from the levy, media rights and sponsorship. And that makes me wonder, what is the sponsor, DBS (Doncaster Bloodstock Sales), putting into this race and where is their contribution going?
William Derby – the chief executive and clerk of the course at York – was one of those who got up in arms about BHA proposals to put a cap on owners’ contributions to races at 75% and, when I told him that I thought he was wrong, he got quite upset and accused me of a bias against York. Come on, William, they weren’t trying to set it at 10% or even an astronomical 25%. 75% contribution from owners would, to my mind, be ridiculous and, when it gets to over 100%, it is daylight robbery.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to win the money for my owner with Delizia and, if I do, I’ll be very grateful to all those other owners who stumped up to put this race on.

19th August 2015

All in all, a very successful sale at Deauville with a total of five purchases which is one up on the same time last year. But those who are trying to portray me as the new Jack Berry should note that my yearlings, so far, are by Dalakhani, Manduro, Motivator, Rock of Gibraltar, and Henrythenavigator. And all from middle-distance families. They are more likely to be winning the 2017 Queen’s Vase than the 2016 Brocklesby but I can’t, and won’t, change my passion for middle-distance horses or my desire to acquire pedigrees with some hope of Classic success.

That said, I am off to Doncaster next week where, last year, I did acquire the Brocklesby winner and I will be looking for a different type of horse there. I’ll be looking for a different type of animal there but I still won’t compromise on pedigree too much. There needs to be some class in there.

We kick off at York today with seven runners and I’m hoping for a busy, and fruitful, week. Much has been made, particularly in the media, of our disappointing record at York in the last few years so it is very interesting to note that I am still 7th in today’s Racing Post, York, (2011+) trainers table from the 47 trainers with runners today. I don’t deny that the strike rate of 6% is way below that which I would normally be aiming for but it is the same as Richard Fahey’s (2nd in that table) and Tim Easterby (5th). So what is all the fuss about? It can only be that I set a much higher standard in years gone by and the drop from those levels puzzles me as much as anyone.

Richard Hughes wrote a very interesting piece at the weekend about the tendency for races to be run up the middle of the track at York in recent years and it is possible that our downturn in form there coincided with that change. Richard doesn’t believe that that has anything to do with the ground and suggests that the riders have collectively opted to come to the middle to open up the races and remove the advantage previously held by front runners who hogged the rail. Interesting? I wonder how many of those front runners were trained by M. Johnston. Maybe it is time for us to try and turn the clock back.

17th August 2015

Another frustrating evening at the sales. I simply haven’t got enough money to buy the horses that I want. I did push the boat out as far as I could and bid 200,000 euros for a lovely son of Acclamation but he was knocked down to Al Shaqab Racing for 240,000 euros.

I did, however, secure lot 131, a cracking son of Rock of Gibraltar for 100,000 euros. As a sire Rock of Gibraltar has never reached the heights achieved by the likes of Shamardal or Dubawi but he is capable of getting high class horses and, when combined with a mare that has already produced a Group 1 winner by him, you get exactly the kind of horse that can slip through the cracks, satisfy my desire for high-class pedigrees, and fall into my price bracket.

The dam, Princess Sofia, has had four previous foals of racing age and three of those were by Rock of Gibraltar. Two of those have run. The first, Prince of Sofia, won three times in France and achieved a rating of 91 (not bad) but the other was Prince of Gibraltar. His three wins included the Criterium de St. Cloud (Gr.1) and the Prix Greffuhle (Gr.2). He was also placed in the Grand Prix de Paris (Gr.1) and the Prix du Jockey Club (Gr.1). Just the sort of thing I’m looking for and, with the current exchange rate, it hopefully won’t be too long before he finds an owner.

16th August 2015

The chaos of the sales season, which coincides with the busiest time of year for racing, kicked off for me in Deauville yesterday. The Arqana catalogue is improving year on year, both in terms of pedigree and the quality of the individuals, so I found myself flat out in the ring with 57 of the 81 lots offered yesterday evening making my list. But, unfortunately, it was very difficult to buy with most exceeding my budget and/or the value I had put on them.

We did, however, acquire two yearlings from the first session. Lot 19 was a colt bred by Johnston Racing out of our mare Attima by Dalakhani and consigned for us by Haras du Petit Tellier. He was one of only two Dalakhanis in the sale and arguably too immature to be sold so early in the year but my principle objective was to value him for any owner that would like to have him with me and, having offered him without reserve, I bought him back for 20,000 euros. Arqana listed him in their results as ‘bought in’ and I have now been inundated with people trying to buy him but, as with all the yearlings I purchase, he is only available if remaining in training at Kingsley Park.

My other purchase, Lot 88, also has a Johnston Racing connection as she is out of the mare Lady Eclair that I trained to win six races for Martin Lightbody. This filly is very good looking and has a lot of her mother about her but she is by Henrythenavigator and, frankly, he has gone right out of fashion. Hence the price tag of just 30,000 euros.

Further details of both horses can be seen here on our ‘yearlings for sale’ page.

I’ll be back in the ring this evening trying to add more potential stars to the Kingsley Park juvenile team for 2016.

13th August 2015

I’m hoping to depart for Deauville this morning for my first yearling sale of the year. The weather, however, is extremely dodgy for flying. There is heavy rain and thunder sweeping across the channel into southern England and it will continue northwards later.

It could be bad and, at home, we are preparing for the forecast of a month’s rainfall in the next 48 hours. Drains and guttering are being checked and we will be battening down the hatches.

Racecourses around the country will be preparing too and at Doncaster, where the ground is currently described as ‘Good-Firm’ (the optimum ground for Flat racing under BHA guidelines) they are preparing by ………. you’ve guessed it ………. WATERING!

30th June 2015

Hamilton’s top jockey, Joe Fanning, with a 21% strike rate at the track, rides in just two of the seven races there today. He has one ride for me, my only runner, and one for Irish trainer Lee Smyth. No other British trainer is using him. Why?

Some of it is most certainly down to the fact that I had entries in five of the seven races and so he may well have been perceived as unavailable. There may also be a feeling that, due to his loyalty to us, he is unlikely to be available for the horse next time. But the same applies to most top jockeys. It’s puzzling.

25th June 2015

Another two individual two-year-old winners yesterday taking our tally of two-year-old wins for 2015 to 31 and our number of individual two-year-old winners to 25. It is really great and I am thoroughly enjoying this change of emphasis in the yard but I am not giving you these figures in order to boast about my achievements. If, however, like me, you enjoy looking at the trainers and jockeys statistics, you will probably, like me, be very confused by what you read in the Racing Post.

It is no fault of the ultra-reliable Racing Post. I have little doubt that their figures, both in the paper and on the website, are accurate (it is rare, but not unheard of, for them to make mistakes). But the paper doesn’t give us figures for two-year-olds of 2015 (the season having started on 9th November) and the website, where you can find the figures for the number of wins by looking into data on individual trainers, does not give us any details on the number of individual two-year-old runners. I was able to ascertain, by looking at all the horses I have run this year, that we have run 50 individual two-year-olds in 2015, that 25 of them have won, and that they have won a total of 31 races. So, as far as my yard is concerned, you must deduct two wins, two individual winners, and ten individual runners from the figures given in the Racing Post newspaper. I have no idea what the situation is for other trainers and so it is difficult to gain a proper perspective on what we have achieved, so far, this year.

15th June 2015

Announcement from ARC today:

“Today Arena Racing Company (“ARC”) announces changes to its Racing Department.

ARC Racing Director Jim Allen has decided to leave the company at the end of the year. In addition to his role at ARC Jim is a licensed flat trainer and will be moving to the USA in 2016 to set up his own training yard.”

I suppose he knows better than anyone how bad prize-money is in the UK when compared to the USA. He’ll also have some inside track on what the future holds for us here with ARC’s emphasis on all-weather racing and quantity ahead of quality.

2nd June 2015

Some great examples of ‘sliderule handicapping’ with my horses this week. Sliderule handicapping, as I have explained before, is the term Jim McGrath gives to the policy of moving horses up and down by small amounts while leaving them in the same grade and, effectively making no difference whatsoever to their chances of winning a race.

Bizzario dropped 1lb to 76; Casila dropped 1lb to 64, after a 56 length defeat at Brighton; Cassandane dropped 1lb to 56 after finishing 6th of 9 beaten 14 lengths; Maid in Rio dropped 2lbs to 95 for finishing 10th of 10 beaten a whopping 97 lengths; Regal Ways dropped 1lb to 71 after finishing last beaten 26 lengths; and Yorkindred Spirit dropped 2lbs to 57 after yet another unplaced run. What is the point?

Coversely, Leaderene went up 10lbs for winning a very weak Newmarket handicap in which she started at 11/10 favourite, presumably due to only one of the other six runners having been placed this year and that was back in February on the all-weather.

26th April 2015

Chaos again today when 18 races re-opened at declaration time for Tuesday. After reopening, most fields are still small with Brighton’s 7 races only attracting an average field size of 6.6, 6.7 at Chelmsford, 7.7 at Nottingham and 7.9 at Wolverhampton. Only Newcastle, with an average field size of 11, managed to pass the magic figure of 8 (the BHA target) and that is the track which Arena Racing Company want to scrap and turn into another all-weather course. If they have their way that will, presumably, mean that three of Tuesday’s five meetings would be run on artificial surfaces next year and they will be looking to increase the number of fixtures and the number of races on each card. Where do they think the horses will come from? Presumably, they are looking to something like the BAGS greyhound racing model with more and more moderate horses having more and more runs and maybe even being controlled by the track managers.

22nd April 2015

It is April and we have already enjoyed some unseasonably good weather, but rain and low temperatures are set to run on Friday all across the country and that is forecast to continue well into next week. Yet many clerks of courses are already watering and setting us up for unnaturally softened and false ground.
Wetherby stages its first flat meeting on Sunday and the clerk of the course has admitted that he has been watering and is aiming for Good ground. BHA instructions are to aim for Good to Firm but virtually every clerk ignores those instructions.

At Sandown they are watering ‘to maintain current conditions’ which are Good (Good to Firm in places) and, worst of all, at Newcastle they are watering to ‘ensure safe ground’ when there are four or five days of rain forecast in the run up to their meeting.

Clearly we now, generally, get ground conditions that are softer than would be the case if it was left to nature and, in my opinion, that is not good for racing or the future of the breed but, beyond that, I am certain that the continuous watering does untold damage to the turf and results in false, loose, ground regardless of the going description.

8th April 2015

I am delighted to see a table in this morning’s Racing Post for a ‘British Flat Owners Championship’ running from 9th November 2014 until the 7th November 2015 and seemingly ignoring the BHA’s decision to run this championship over a period from early May until early October.
Hopefully, this is a clear decision by someone at the Racing Post to put the wishes of the vast majority of their readers and those involved professionally in racing ahead of a nonsensical marketing ploy from Great British Racing. I wonder why they didn’t apply absolute logic and run the table from 1st January to 31st December.

I dearly hope that this is not simply a result of the fact that GBR gave almost no coverage to the owners championship and that the Racing Post may not have noticed that it was changed. That would be very sad and would confirm all that I have been saying in recent years about the lack of regard for the owners championship.

5th April 2015

Today at 10am, when declarations for Tuesday closed, all seven races at Chelmsford were re-opened due to insufficient declarations. Four at Lingfield and one at Pontefract were in the same boat. In the end, the seven race card at Chelmsford has attracted 38 horses, an average of 5.4 runners per race. Seven races at Lingfield have a total of 52 declared runners, 7.4 runners per race. And seven races at Pontefract, on turf, have 75 declared runners, an average of 10.7 declared runners per race. But we still have 48 hours to go in which a multitude of things can go wrong with horses. It is inevitable that the number that turn up will be even less.

I am not one of those that is obsessed with big field sizes or that believes more runners necessarily makes for better, or more competitive, racing. But more runners invariably increases bookmakers’ profit margins and so they are pretty much obsessed with it and racecourses and the BHA have undertaken to try and give them what they want. Yet, strangely, they do not seem to be able to grasp the simple fact that, if they keep increasing the number of available races without doing anything to increase the population of horses available to race, field sizes have to suffer. It is pretty simple arithmetic.

So, do we really need more racing? You can rest assured that, if tracks invest large sums of money to convert their turf tracks to all-weather, they expect to run a lot more races than they do now. Where do they think the horses are going to come from?

4th April 2015

The BHA’s efforts to combat small fields have led to complete chaos in the entry system. 42% of flat races which closed yesterday, for next Thursday, have been re-opened this morning due to insufficient entries. That means that those of us who made entries in those races yesterday, can’t see what the Thursday race looks like before making decisions about races on Monday if the horse/s already hold entries. More owners’ money wasted.

And I can tell you now that, despite Monday being a bank holiday, which traditionally attracted huge numbers of entries and large fields, races will be re-opened, again, at 10am this morning due to insufficient declarations. Two races at Wolverhampton are guaranteed to re-open already which, of course, makes a mockery of the declaration deadline.

20th March 2015

I sympathise with French trainer Francois Rohaut, Stan Moore and any other trainer who entered the three-year-old mile race on AW Championship Day only to find that it was reopened and that four horses were then added.

However, Francois Rohaut, is mistaken when he says that the rules had been changed ‘in the middle of things’. This rule, which allows for races to be re-opened at the entry stage if they attract insufficient entries, is relatively new but was in place long before this race closed. Nonetheless, I agree that it is unfair to allow a second chance to enter, after having seen the number of initial entries and the rating of the top horse, with no extra cost over and above that paid by the original entries. The result is that many of us watch entry and declaration tracking and don’t enter races which we know will re-open.

The entry tracking system is generally a good thing and to simply do away with it would not solve the problem of insufficient entries. The answer, surely, is to allow re-opening but with a significant supplementary fee for entering at a later stage. These supplementary fees should go entirely to prize-money (as with the Epsom Derby and many other major early-closing races) to compensate those that entered at the first stage.

17th March 2015

‘Racing professionals were bitterly divided yesterday over a radical shake-up to the British Flat Jockeys’ championship’, say the Racing Post this morning. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that. There is nothing ‘bitter’ about it. It looks to me like racing professionals are simply divided into those that have a vested, very personal, interest in only working in British racing during the most lucrative summer months, and those who are more concerned about the best interests of the sport in Britain as a whole. And those of us who are against it are, I would suggest, more saddened than bitter.

As for non-professionals, assuming most of those who vote in Racing Post on-line polls are racing fans rather than professionals, 75% of them are against it too.

The Professional Jockeys Association, on the other hand, supported the move, while admitting that many of their members wouldn’t agree, and their Chief Executive, Paul Struthers, said the shortened season would be less ‘attritional’ (did he invent that word?). And yet, they want the jump jockeys championship to remain on a twelve month basis. Well, that says it all, doesn’t it? Even the hardest working, half starved, flat jockey couldn’t say his job involved more attrition than that of a jump jockey. No, the simple fact is that there is nowhere more lucrative for the jump jockeys to go and so they choose to ply their trade in Britain throughout the year.

And I am further saddened to see that they have applied the same madness to the owners championship. Frankly, the owners championship is all but meaningless as it stands but I have long been calling for something to be done about that. Owners are the only group who might just be in a position to increase their investment in British racing in order to win a championship if we could make it really important to them but rather than try to make it important and use it to encourage owners to race in Britain, our marketers have put all the focus and attention on the jockeys championship and tagged the owners onto it as an afterthought. What’s more, owners can now take their best horses to race in Dubai for the winter and be back in time for all ‘championship’ races. That has to be good for racing in Dubai which, last time I looked, was doing very nicely.

16th March 2015

It is purely coincidence that I wrote about the jockeys championship yesterday. I had no idea whatsoever that changes were going to be announced this morning and, if previous changes to the trainers championship are anything to go by, the same probably applies to most jockeys.
The Racing Post doesn’t say whether or not there is a significant prize to go along with this new championship but, as they mention that there ‘will also be a prize for the most wins in a calendar year’, I think we can take it that there is.

So you can now brace yourself for the departure of our top jockeys, to sunnier, more lucrative, climes in early October. They may, or may not, return for the Craven meeting but you can take it that the majority will only ride in Britain for six months of the year. Another great idea from the folks at Racing For No Change.

Thankfully, they haven’t yet changed the trainers or owners championship to a similar format but you couldn’t even guess what idiotic idea they might come up with next. The trainers championship runs from November to November which, as Andrew Scutts says in the Racing Post, ‘is curious’ but he goes on to say that ‘if it is to be on a full-year basis it might just as well be as it is than change it to January to December’. He, as a journalist working for the Racing Post, should know better. The Racing Post website currently posts four different sets of statistics for trainers: Championship, Calendar Year, AW Championship, and Turf (which, bizarrely, includes a large number of races run on all-weather surfaces) and the only one which makes any real sense is the Calendar Year as two of the others include horses of different ‘generations’ (two-year-olds become three-year-olds on January 1st) and, as I say above, the ‘Turf’ table includes all-weather races. Nonsensical.

15th March 2015

An interesting piece in this morning’s Racing Post points out that we can expect there to be a jockey shortage at the Lincoln meeting with the introduction of a £155,000 card at Chelmsford in addition to Kempton and, most importantly, the Dubai World Cup.

I can’t remember the last time I was at the Lincoln meeting. A long long time ago. I am invariably at the Dubai Word Cup and it, almost invariably, clashes with the Lincoln.

I’m sure that few, if any, people care whether I am there or not and the same will apply to most other trainers but there have been many times when the BHA, GBR (formerly Racing For No Change), and the Racecourse Association have claimed that trainers need to do more to interact with the public and the media at race meetings. There have even been moves to force us to do so although attendance itself has, to date, always been voluntary.

The importance of attracting top jockeys to our top meetings is rarely disputed although there are now many examples of fixture clashes at weekends which demonstrate that some of the Food And Beverage men and women who run racecourses have lost sight of this. Clashes with top international meetings like the Dubai World Cup cannot always be avoided and we just have to face the fact that, when it happens, Britain, with its pitiful prize-money, is always going to be less attractive to those who have the opportunity to ride at a more lucrative meeting. But, surely, it is foolish, to say the least, to encourage them to do so.

We have already succumbed to pressure and agreed to start the British jockeys championship in late March and end it in early November, reducing it to little over seven months of the year, but there have been numerous calls for further reductions to a season of less than six months and suggestions that this championship should carry a reward in the region of £50,000 for riding the most winners in half of the year.

The main argument for a break in the season, and it has some merit, is that we cannot expect our top jockeys to work flat out for twelve months of the year. But the reality is that the top jockeys take the opportunity, when wins don’t count for the championship, to ride abroad in countries where the prize-money is generally much better. I have no doubt that a twelve month championship would result in our top jockeys having a much greater presence on our racecourses throughout the year and would ultimately be beneficial to British racing. I am sure they would still go to the Dubai World Cup, the Breeders Cup, the Arc and for a couple of weeks lying on a beach somewhere, and rightly so.

14th March 2015

All six races at Chelmsford City on Monday were re-opened at the declarations stage due to insufficient declared runners. In the end 36 horses have been declared.

Do we need more all-weather racing? Clearly not.

Is there still a need for an all-weather track in the north? Almost certainly, yes. It has been shown that there is a significant population of horses based in the north which do not race during the winter but would be likely to if the distance to the nearest all-weather course was not so extreme. But, unfortunately, with every new all-weather course, they want to create more and more fixtures and the horse population simply isn’t available to sustain all this racing. It isn’t rocket science.

19th January 2015

When discussing Champagne Ransom’s run in 4.10 at Wolverhampton today on Attheraces, Matt Chapman made reference to a horse of ours rallying to win the St. James Palace Stakes under ‘Kevin Darley’. I assume he was talking about Bijou D’Inde getting back up after being headed by Ashkalani and the rider was, of course, Jason Weaver. Surprisingly, Jason, sitting in the studio, didn’t pick up on this.

15th January 2015

I should have known that there would be no need for helmet lights in Dubai. Even with less than 50% of the floodlights on, it is like daylight at Meydan from 4.30am. I can read the paper, never mind watch my horses.

Now, at 6.30pm, with racing about to start and all the lights on, it really looks magnificent. Here’s to a big run from Sennockian Star.

The BHA has announced that we will have record prize-money of £130 Million in Britain this year. That is good news indeed but needs to be considered in relation to the size of the fixture list. Not long ago I looked at prize-money in certain specific races and compared them with levels for the same race 10 and 20 years previously. I found that, in most cases, we were behind the actual prize-money of 10 years ago (not corrected for inflation) and, in some cases, prize-money had not risen in 20 years. I’ll need to have another look now.

The Racecourse Association also made an announcement and told us that racecourse executive contributions to prize-money would also reach a new high of £58.4M in 2015 and that this is ‘effectively’ double the 2010 level of £30.3M. This is also very welcome news but, unfortunately, really needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. The RCA, like some of its members, like to compare racecourse contributions with 2010 because the funding system changed after that and media payments replaced much of the levy. Unlike levy, which must be used for prize-money, media payments go to the racecourses and they consider that as their money to do with as they please. In short, the goalposts have been moved half way up the pitch.

What I’d like to know is, have owners’ contributions been reduced at all and where does Britain stand now in a comparison of owners’ running costs against returns. I fear we might not have gained much ground.

I know I should look at the positive side and tell you all that you should have a racehorse and have it trained in Britain (by me) but I just can’t help myself. I have to tell it as it is.

14th January 2015

Just checked in to Meydan hotel and unpacked. It is now 3.20 AM and my first horse pulls out at 4.40 so no point in going to bed. I have no idea why they start in the middle of the night. Of course, it is important to get the horses back in before it gets too hot and there may well be difficulties in keeping visitors separate from resident horses but, from past experience, I’d say it has got nothing to do with that.

I think it is down to the Australian/American influence. They – especially the Australians – seem to like working their horses in the dark. They watch a little light going round in the pitch black and say ‘By Jingoes, that went well. Bruce!’

I’ve never quite understood it myself. At home, Clive Britain does something similar. Maybe there’s a bit of Aussie in him.

9th January 2015

Happy New Year.

This is always a relatively quiet time of year for us but this year is exceptionally quiet. We have plenty horses in – just slightly down on this time last year – but the vast majority of those are two-year-olds and we only have a handful of horses for all-weather racing.

This morning, at our weekly managers’ meeting, when looking for our horses which are fit to run and win, as we do every week, there were only three possible runners in the next seven days and one of those is in Dubai. Compare that with January 2014, when we had 45 runners and 16 winners, and you will see that things are very different.

It should give me time to indulge my other passions of cycling and flying but the weather hasn’t really been conducive to either and my flying is normally associated with going racing. No runners, no need to use the plane.

It has meant that I have had more free time in the evenings and I have been able to get my unread e mails down to just under 50 (it normally sits around 100 and can reach 200 in mid season). I have also watched a little bit of television and caught up with the news.

I have been particularly saddened by the coverage of the crisis in the NHS. In my youth our Health Service was, by far, the envy of the world and there was no country you would rather be taken ill or injured in. Sadly, that is no longer the case. They still do a magnificent job and I have utmost admiration for the staff but they are suffering from desperate under-funding at a time when demand has never been greater.

I assume that demand is principally driven by the ageing population and changes the NHS structure which have driven more people to A&E who might previously have called their GP but there has also been a huge culture change and it is very evident in the racing industry. Working with horses, or any large animals, is a risky business and accidents and injuries are an unfortunate inevitability. But I cannot help but notice that the percentage of falls which result in an ambulance being called has increased exponentially in recent years.

Gone are the days when I would personally assess the extent of injuries and make a decision on whether a rider could be helped into the car and driven to the GP in Leyburn or to hospital. It wasn’t uncommon at all for us to deal with distal limb fractures in this way, if there were no other injuries. I myself was driven to the hospital in Catterick by our then secretary, Polly Saverey, with a complete fracture of my radius and ulna and my arm wrapped in a horse travelling boot.

Now, many relatively minor injuries result in a paramedic (we are very lucky in Middleham to have a paramedic service that is usually nearby), an ambulance, and a trip to hospital. Everyone is frightened of making the wrong decision, falling foul of Health & Safety rules, or facing litigation. It is ‘better to be safe than sorry’, of course, but this culture has gone too far. It is all very well to say that we shouldn’t take any risks and we should leave first-aid treatment to the professionals but, watching those over-stretched A&E departments on the news, I couldn’t help but wonder about those with truly life-threatening injuries or ailments who might have to wait for attention because health professionals are tied up elsewhere dealing with a sprained ankle.

18th December 2014

A very wet, windy, and miserable day today in Middleham as I watched my string of just six horses canter by. This is always the quietest time of year for us in terms of horses in full work but, on this day last year there were 40 horses cantering. Of today’s six, one is destined for Dubai and one is to go home after it runs tomorrow. So, if you have been wondering why we are having such a quiet time on the All-Weather, that is the reason.

Our other older horses will start cantering again early in the New Year and I’m sure some will be ready to run before the turf begins in March but there will be nothing like the numbers that we have had in recent years.

17th December 2014

The debate about small fields rages on and today in the Racing Post Julian Muscatt reminds us of the simple arithmetic. There are far fewer horses in training than in 2008 and far more races for them to run in.

I haven’t seen any serious proposals on how we are going to get the number of horses in training back up and it seems that most of the measures which will be introduced are aimed at increasing the number of runs per horse. Who will pay for that? There will be a small increase in prize money and prizes in most class 2-6 races will go down to sixth place but, in the vast majority of cases, those prizes won’t even cover costs for the day, never mind the cost of keeping the horses in training.

One Irish owner who sent me a horse, already fit to run, on 24th September, has just informed me that she will return home after running on Friday, win or lose. He, quite rightly, points out that it makes no economic sense. Friday’s race will be her seventh run in that period and she has been ‘in the money’ in five of the six runs to date. Sadly, all that does is remind the owner of the economics of British racing and that every run adds significantly to the cost even when she gets placed.

12th December 2014

Last night Deirdre and I attended the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) in Las Vegas for the second time. Having been last year and been so taken by it, we just had to come again.

It is something that everyone who works with horses, in any capacity, should see. Even more so, anyone who works in what is now trendily called ‘Human Resources’ should see this too.

At one point a bull rider is tossed forward onto the head of the bull and thrown back and forward several times like a rag doll before being dumped and trampled by this huge animal. He is immediately attended by the ‘clowns’ – the brave men who draw the bulls attention away from fallen riders must have an official title but they behave like clowns – and others who are working around the chutes but no stretcher appears and nobody that would be recognisable in other sports as a paramedic. He is eventually helped to his feet and supported on either side as he shuffles, unceremoniously, with the legs torn out of his jeans, out of the arena. I never heard how badly he was injured – it looked serious – but, from what I saw last year, it is not inconceivable that he might be back there tonight and about to do it again. It is noticeable that the majority of bull and bronc riders walk with a limp.

I don’t actually know how dangerous this sport is and I would hesitate to suggest that these cowboys are any braver than our own National Hunt jockeys but their apparent disregard for their own safety – few bull riders and no bronc riders wear helmets – and the lack of obvious safety precautions is unusual, to say the least, in modern day sport.

I’m not saying that it is right and I’m certainly not saying that the safety precautions in other sports are wrong but I have to admit that the rawness and primitive nature of rodeo is a large part of the attraction. Other sports all seem very sanitised when compared to this. It is so easy to imagine how each discipline evolved from unregulated ‘games’ between working cowboys.

All the rodeo disciplines are tough, contact, sports and they are tough for the people and the animals that take part. I know that many will object to the fact that calves are roped, head and ‘tail’ (both hind legs), or roped and then wrestled to the ground and bound by a cord round three legs, with no other purpose than to test the skill of the cowboys but the risks to the animals are minimal indeed. For me it is a joy to see the skills of the working cowboy honed to this level and to watch man and horse working together as they have done for centuries. I’ll be back again.

3rd November 2014

Today we had the clearest indication yet that winter is coming and flat racing on turf is drawing to a close for the year: I was back on my bike for the first time since July. Just 21, very slow (11mph), undulating, on road, miles. A far cry from the Tour de France stage that I did back in summer and, on today’s performance, I wonder how I ever managed that.

Unfortunately, cycling isn’t anything like as much fun in winter but it is certainly easier for me to find time. If the past is anything to go by, I will now get out occasionally through until about March and then I will have a concerted effort to get a bit fitter for one or two longer trips in spring and early summer. Then, come August and the looming yearling sales, my cycling will grind to a halt and any pounds I might have shed will rapidly go back on. It can’t be the right way to do it.

5th October 2014

For the record, I was absolutely delighted to win The Tattersalls Millions 2yo Trophy and not, at all, as described by David Milnes in this morning’s Racing Post. I was very happy indeed. Very happy with the horse, very happy with the jockey, and very happy to have scooped £280,331 for Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed.

I told David Milnes all that but, when pressed by him on what I thought of these high-value restricted races, I had to be honest and say that I think they are wrong, bad for racing, and that for racecourses to object to a cap on entry fees at 75% of a race’s value is despicable.

For him to ask me these questions in the aftermath of such a victory was, arguably, a piece of good journalism. But to report it in the way he did was appalling and, sadly, typical of the standards which the Racing Post seem to set these days. It would appear that he didn’t listen to much, if any, of what I said in reply. If he didn’t already know how these races work, how they are financed and the effect that they have on Pattern racing and the competitiveness of other races, then 10 minutes research wouldn’t have gone amiss. If he was going to take that angle, he should have made the effort to gather some facts and write a reasonably balanced piece.

Ironically, David Milnes had phoned me on Thursday to get a comment on Secret Brief and others and I told him that I was rather fed up with Racing Post journalists phoning for comments from trainers and connections to fill the paper rather than giving us their own opinions. I pointed out that, three days previously, I had sent two horses all the way to Bath, landed a double, passed 200 domestic winners for the fifth time, and didn’t get even the smallest mention in Rodney Masters’ post race report. Of the eight races that day, only four got any mention at all. Maybe Rodney Masters didn’t turn up until after the second and left after the sixth. It was typical of current Racing Post content. It seems they aren’t really interested in news.

I told David Milnes exactly what I thought of Racing Post policy on reporting and added that, with its current inaccuracy on data, it is making it a very poor paper indeed. He claimed to agree with me and did so again yesterday but maybe he secretly needed to try and get his own back. Thankfully, as is now typical, his report was pushed to page 24 after one page of ‘news’ on page 23 and 22 pages of tipping and comments from connections.

27th September 2014

They’re at it again, watering when it is clear to anyone who bothers to look out the window that the ground will be softer than Good-Firm.
On Thursday, when doing declarations from Fairyhouse sale in Ireland, I asked our office to call Chester and ask how their going could possibly be Good-Soft when their close neighbour, Haydock, was Good-Firm and admitted to having applied 15mm of water. The clerk of the course at Chester was adamant, ‘the ground is Good-Soft and no water has applied’.

Silly me, I was questioning the wrong track. Today, on race day, Haydock now reports the ground as Good (Good-Soft in places, watered). What happened? Sudden downpour? Not that I am aware of although they are on the opposite side of the Pennines from us.

Ripon is on the same side of the Pennines and just 18 miles from Middleham, where the weather over the last couple of days has been exceptionally good. Their ground has gone from Good (Good to firm in places) to Good (watered). It seems clerks of the courses just cannot get it into their heads that the BHA instructions are to aim for Good-Firm ground.

In the last at Haydock today I run Ifwecan and Sir Guy Porteous. Both horses want good, fast, ground. I took the pair to Newmarket last weekend and, after a heavy shower of rain, I had to withdraw them. On Thursday I had the option to declare both horses for Newmarket again where the ground was described as Good. It is now Good-Firm at Newmarket and our horses are declared at Haydock where the ground has been altered by human intervention. It is extremely annoying, and expensive.

16th September 2014

Just redoing my entry diary (tool I use for planning entries) for the week beginning Monday 22nd September after all the handicap rating changes this morning. These new handicap ratings come into effect for entries made yesterday (Monday) but are not published until the following morning at 8am. Great, eh?

Anyway, next Thursday at Redcar there is a seven race card with two Sellers and not a single race above £4,500 total value. The whole card carries £30,000 prize money and I think Redcar will be gathering something in the region of £60,000 in media rights, plus Levy Board payments, plus entry fees, plus sponsorship, plus gate money. Well, maybe not a lot of gate money. I can’t imagine many people wanting to go and watch that.

18th August 2014

When driving to Nottingham last Tuesday, I was listening to an interview with comedian Ricky Gervais on Radio 2. He said that strangers have a habit of asking him to ‘tell us a joke’. He seemed to think that this was completely ridiculous and pointed out that you wouldn’t meet a builder in the street and say, ‘build us a wall, will you?’

He should try being a racehorse trainer. ‘Give us a winner’ – I get that ridiculous request, without fail, every single time I go racing. And others ask, in all seriousness, ‘will it win?’. When I try to explain, as politely as possible, that I don’t actually know and, if I did, I would be mega-rich and there would be no bookmaking industry to speak of, they invariably laugh.

It gets wearing as do the countless text messages and e mails claiming that I am a cheat and wishing all manner of ills on me, my family, the jockeys, and their families. They usually come when favourites get beaten but, on Saturday, I actually got one when a favourite, Bizzario, won at Chester.
It came from some idiot calling himself ‘Head Gate’ (‘Head Case’ would be a better name if you ask me), e mail address gathot@live.co.uk, and it claimed that Bizzario had either been doped or we have been cheating and had prevented Bizzario from running up to his best on his last two starts. If you know him, tell him what a plonker he is.

On the same trip to Nottingham I came up behind a white van of ‘tranny’ size and shape but this one was not the ubiquitous Ford Transit. This one was a Renault and the model, highlighted by the chrome plated badge on the back, was a Renault Trafic (yes, one f) Sport. ‘Sport’? What’s that all about?

On checking their website I found that the ‘sport’ model has a number of extras including alloy wheels, leather covered steering wheel and fog lights. There was no mention of what type of sport it is equipped for. The mind boggles!

13th August 2014

Jim McGrath, of Timeform and Channel 4 fame, calls it ‘sliderule handicapping’: moving horses a pound or two in either direction while, effectively, leaving them in the same grade. It works in the end, for most horses, as those going down will eventually drop into a class where they are competitive and, as we all know, the handicappers push them up much faster than they bring them down in an effort to make them jump up in class and stop them winning. But I have to wonder why it seems to be beyond the wit of man to come up with a better system.

In this week’s round of handicap changes, Busatto went down 1lb from 92 to 91 having run 9th beaten 12 lengths. What is the point? This change, in itself, cannot have a bearing on his chance of winning next time.

Cayjo also went down a whole 1lb for finishing 7th beaten a mammoth 66 lengths on his first start in a handicap and it isn’t as if there was some previous form to say that the rating of 50 is accurate as, on his only three starts, he has been beaten 14 lengths, 26 lengths and 37 lengths. Having said this, at a rating of 50, a further drop is immaterial as there is no lower grade to run in.

Outbacker is, perhaps, the best example of the subjectivity of handicapping amongst our horses this week. She went down 3lbs to 62 for finishing 5th of 8, beaten 7 lengths at Catterick. But she also went down 1lb to 72 on the All Weather. It makes sense that she should have two different ratings as her form is clearly better on the All Weather but I defy any handicapper to explain, in arithmetic terms, the two rating changes which resulted from this one run. In any event, neither change is likely to make a material difference to her chance of winning (something she has failed to do in her last 12 starts) as she has not been dropped in grade.

Even more ridiculous is the change made to the handicap rating for Travel. Her turf rating of 62 has remained constant but her All Weather rating was dropped 1lb this week to 78. She last ran on 2nd June and has retired.

Conversely, Fire Fighting was raised 5lbs for winning by a head, and surviving a stewards enquiry, with the six runner field all covered by five lengths.

7th August 2014

I, perhaps naively, thought Simon Holt was a commentator but I see now, from his column in the Weekender that he is also a journalist and a radical thinker to boot.

Last week he discussed the damage that the handicap system does to British racing (see Straight Talking in the Klarion) and now he is questioning the weight-for-age scale which has been used since 1860. His ideas, if nothing else, are worthy of serious consideration but I think he goes slightly astray when he suggests that, perhaps, we should abandon 2yo racing and move everything back a year. I think he is maybe thinking that this would reduce the imbalances due to varying levels of maturity but, overall in his piece, he claims that the weight-for-age scale is now defunct because horses mature so much more quickly than they did 150 years ago. He probably also hasn’t considered that, if you moved the time that horses enter training back by a year, you would probably delay their maturity, at least in terms of their skeletal conditioning, by a similar amount of time.

4th August 2014

The racecourses, and in particular Jockey Club Racecourses, tell us that there isn’t too much racing and that fixtures shouldn’t be cut. I think we can assume that they wouldn’t agree that the weekends are too congested either as they are racing on Friday evening and Saturday on seven consecutive weekends at Newmarket with, apparently, no consideration for what is going on elsewhere.

Today, doing entries, we are faced with five races on Friday that have re-opened due to insufficient entries and you can rest assured that there will be many more which need to re-open at the declaration stage. That has become a daily routine. I am also at a loss to decide which entries to leave out for some horses which have numerous options.

Busatto, rated 90, and with good form from a mile to a mile and a quarter, has four options to make for Saturday ranging in value from £12,500 to £45,000. Salutation, rated 98, has two options on the same day in handicaps, both over 10 furlongs, and worth £20,000 and £45,000. And at a slightly lower level, Skytrain, rated 77, has three options to make at 7 furlongs or a mile with values ranging from £10,000 to £12,500. And that, of course, is just one day, in the space of one week there are 11 option for Skytrain at around a mile where he is within the handicap range. And lower again, Staffhoss, rated 63, has 32 possible handicap options in the space of a week.

Today, 15 races have had to re-open due to insufficient declarations for Wednesday’s racing.

25th July 2014

The following e mail from Niall Hannity by way of a follow up to my comments on 14th July:

Hi Mark,

With regards to what you wrote on your website. It is two weeks today since I started booking rides for Joe Fanning despite still not on the BHA site to do so. In this time I’ve booked him rides for 13 days racing, as we had one day with only three jumping fixtures. In this period Joe has been declared to ride for 27 different trainers’ (three were non-runners) and forty outside rides, resulting in eight outside winners.
With your horses running so well he has ridden 18 winners out of 75 rides in this time, Ryan Moore is 14-57 and Richard Hughes is 10-47, so Joe has been the busiest jockey in this period but, more importantly, the most successful.
Compared with other big (and small) yards your office staff are very well organised and it’s a very straightforward getting Joe rides.

Kind regards

The change in Joe’s fortunes really is quite remarkable and I am sure I’m not the only one wondering whether he would have been challenging for the jockeys championship if this change had taken place earlier.

14th July 2014

Two winners out of three runners today at Ayr. Can’t be bad. And a treble for Joe Fanning and his new agent Niall Hannity. The combination have only been working together for a few days and they are flying high. It is great to see Joe with full books of rides as he clearly deserves. I have long thought it to be totally ridiculous that Joe could go to tracks like Hamilton, where he is the leading rider, and have few, if any, rides apart from ours. It has always been blamed on me having entries in most races and liking to make my decisions as late as possible, but Niall is already showing that that was never the case.

I went to Ayr myself today. I flew from home, departing at just after noon and arriving in Prestwick an hour later. The twenty minute taxi ride from the airport still wrangles a bit as it adds 30% to the journey and is so unnecessary as we fly straight over the racecourse and could land so easily if the course were minded to allow it. They have all sorts of excuses for not allowing planes to land but none of them make sense. If only Hamilton or Musselburgh had the same space for an airstrip, I know they would have one in a shot.

Anyway I still arrived at the track in plenty time to partake of their unrivalled hospitality. I had forgotten just how good the lunch is and, if only I hadn’t been flying, I could have helped myself to wine too. It is hardly surprising that the dining room is packed but, strangely, the parade ring is empty by comparison. Surely it can’t be that the food and drink is so good that owners stay indoors rather than go out to see their horses. Clearly that isn’t the case and the sad answer is that many of those partaking of Ayr’s hospitality have no connection with runners at all.

I was approached by a stranger as I entered the course and asked if I could give him two badges and two lunch tickets. He knew that I had three runners and was quite put out when I declined to give him the owners’ badges. But, looking at the number of people in Ayr’s dining room and thinking of the touts at Newmarket last week, I have to conclude that some people are passing their badges to people with no connection to the runners and/or selling them.

On the one hand it is easy to say that the courses get off lightly as, overall, only a small percentage of available owners badges are ever taken up. Today, the Duke of Roxburgh and I used two of the available fourteen (or was in twenty?) badges for my horses. The owners pay dearly for the, sometimes doubtful, pleasure of competing for pitiful returns and a few entrance tickets, or even meals and drinks, should never be grudged to those who are paying to provide the participants. It could be argued that those entrance badges and meal tickets are the owners’ to do with as they please and I do encourage our owners, when they can’t attend themselves, to send their friends or even share their badges with other owners who don’t have a runner but are available to go. It generally works well, helps to promote the benefits of ownership, and most tracks are very accommodating and will even supply extra badges on the few occasions that they are required.

But, surely, to hand badges to strangers or, even worse, sell them to touts is a step too far. It belittles and devalues the privilege of racehorse ownership and might make courses like Ayr question their policy of providing such excellent fare for the owners who support them.

13th July 2014 a little later

When a quiet man speaks people tend to listen (maybe I should learn something from that), so it was good to hear Ryan Moore speak out against the ridiculous clash of four top meetings (Newmarket, York, Ascot and Chester) on Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the right people are listening.

If I remember rightly, Newmarket’s argument for moving to Saturday was not only about increased attendances (last year they fell well short of Chester and others on the day) but something to do with selling their pictures to the far east. However, they still derive a very large part of their annual income from UK media payments, the levy board and owners but they, and others, refuse to give due consideration to what is best for the sport overall.

It is all very well to say that these congested days provide opportunities for more jockeys but our best racing should, surely, feature our best jockeys.

13th July 2014

What went on at Chester this weekend? On Friday night, all bar one of the races were run within a second of standard time and two were on the fast side. Four of the seven races were won by the favourite i.e. the form worked out well.

The next day, with no rain in between, only one race got within two seconds of standard and one race was more than nine seconds slow. No favourites won i.e. the form went out the window.

Was the ground watered in between? The going descriptions were almost identical ‘Good to Firm (Good in places)’, with the penetrometer reading suggesting that it was fractionally faster on Saturday (7.7) than on Friday night (7.6).

The times, emphatically, say otherwise but there is no mention of watering. I can’t see any other possible explanation. Can you?

Staff Area