SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER //
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX
!— Global site tag (gtag.js) - Google Analytics —>
INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
With the cash splash on racing prizemoney in Australia rolling on, Michael Cox asks if some of that money might be better spent on staff training?
It remains to be seen what difference an additional $1 million makes to the field for the 2023 Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
What isn’t in doubt is the difference some of the millions being splashed around in the ongoing ‘prizemoney war’ could make to training the next generation of stable staff and track riders.
Wednesday’s announcement of $30 million worth of prizemoney increases across New South Wales came with an incremental, but welcome, increase for the strapper’s share of prizemoney (from 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent) but there is a growing concern from within the industry that tit-for-tat big money splurges are ignoring the staffing crisis that threatens to cripple Australian racing.
Attracting properly trained staff isn’t an issue exclusive to Peter V’Landys’ fiefdom that is NSW but the most recent prizemoney boosts further highlight the issue that many feel is white-anting the foundation of Australian racing.
Gai Waterhouse horses (L-R) Sweet Idea, Almalad, Overeach, Forever Loved and The Offer walking in the shallow waters of Altona Beach. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)
When Hong Kong’s five-time champion trainer and all-time great John Moore returned to Australia it was meant to be a glorious homecoming, training a small but boutique stable full of expensive youngsters. After splitting with brother Gary in Sydney and relocating to Queensland, his tenure ended within months and staffing was the core of his issues at his new Gold Coast base.
“I had more than $20 million worth of horses and nobody to ride them,” he told The Report earlier this year. “Sydney wasn’t too bad but we just couldn’t make it work in Queensland.”
Staffing issues are the most common ‘off the record’ complaint heard from trainers, often discussed in hushed tones with the kicker “please don’t attribute that to me”. Trainers are businesses in open competition and ‘I can’t work my horses’ isn’t something any trainer wants current or prospective clients reading about their stable.
Paying staff what they are worth and providing a designated cut of the growing prizemoney pie is a step forward for New South Wales and one that is yet to be matched by other states.
Other issues that need addressing are trackwork start times and workplace conditions.
Then there are visa issues and access to overseas staff, a problem which has been compounded by Covid travel restrictions.
However, pay and conditions are immaterial if there is nobody properly trained to do the skilled and sometimes dangerous job of handling thoroughbreds in a modern racing stable.
Trainer John Moore, FiFi Moore and George Moore at Sha Tin Racecourse (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)
Veteran trainers like Les Bridge speak fondly of times when country families would be begging for a job in a city stable for their school-leaving children. The kids would arrive with suitcases at Central station with a lifetime of experience around horses.
Horses play less of a role than ever in everyday Australian life as the trend continues towards urban living. In 1960, nearly one in five Australians lived outside the big cities. That number is shrinking and World Bank figures show 86.3 per cent of Australians now live in an urban environment.
Modern stables are not a place for on-the-job training, at least not for a novice from a non-racing background, and trainers will tell you that a traumatic early experience with a horse can end a career the day it begins.
Moore had come from Hong Kong – the most vertical city in the world with as limited exposure to horses as there is in any major jurisdiction. The Hong Kong Jockey Club has had no choice but to develop its own staff from scratch.
Moore was also generous with prizemoney cuts – in the form of red packets or ‘lai see’ handed out after feature wins – which made his stables a sought-after location for ground staff, or ‘mafoos’ as they are known in Hong Kong. However, starting again in Australia was a culture shock for the champion trainer.
“To find staff who were up to the task was difficult,” he said. “We found some girls through the equestrian world but we still had to train them from scratch and there wasn’t just the availability of people knocking on the front door like the old days.”
To find staff who were up to the task was difficult.
“When they came into racing, we had to train them from scratch and we did for the first few months at the Gold Coast.
“But in the end I just couldn’t find riders, so how could I get the horses worked. That was the main thing. Getting horses worked.
“I wouldn’t have been doing the right thing by the owners if I pressed on, so I returned to Hong Kong.”
COMMENT | One Size doesn’t fit all: How The John Moore Rule became The John Size Rule
Moore’s experience shows that finding staff capable of working safely is becoming a more pressing concern for all of racing.
This year saw the closure of Richmond TAFE’s equine courses in the Hawkesbury River region and that has left a gaping hole in training.
“Even beyond that I think there has been a void there for quite a while in terms of where people are educated to enter our industry,” said Moore. “It isn’t just about learning to ride, it is about learning to feel comfortable about the horses.”
“Traintech on the Gold Coast was one training facility that really helped the industry. TAFE trained people and that is the answer: education. But the places where you go to learn have all closed down.”
It isn’t just about learning to ride, it is about learning to feel comfortable about the horses.
V’Landys has shown a willingness to push politicians for a cause he feels is worth fighting for: go back to Equine Influenza, and now – albeit on behalf of rugby league – his current battle with the New South Wales Premier Dom Perrottet over suburban stadium funding.
But V’Landys doesn’t run Australian racing, and this seems another issue where a national approach would benefit, but state self-interest will most likely rule.
Maybe government lobbying isn’t the answer. Could it be that with just one less pop-up race or prizemoney boost, racing could take responsibility for properly preparing the next generation of racing stable staff itself?
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX