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COMMENT | Late finishes, early starts and no days off: what gives in racing’s staffing crisis?

Nighttime and twilight meetings may please the beancounters and feed the turnover machine, but the human cost of wall-to-wall racing is becoming evident.

When the marketers pitched Friday night racing at Canterbury Park, this isn’t what they had in mind: heavy rain, a heavy eight-rated track and the lawn area empty, other than the plastic chairs tipped against the tables to stop them filling with water.

It is a night for the diehards. In the betting ring, two Mark Newnham-trained runners are vying for favoritism in Race 1 but a more intriguing bet would be “are there more racing staff here than punters?” As the TAB spruikers in the trackside studio would say, “It’s $1.90 each of two.”

This is not to say Friday night summer racing isn’t a success – the crowds and buzz will be back when the weather is warm and clear – but it is to focus on the fact that racing stables don’t have the luxury of a day off due to weather and staying in to watch on Sky. In fact some don’t get a day off at all.

Many of the same trainers and staff that are here now, and expected to be here until after the last at 9.30pm, will start at 3.30am tomorrow morning.

In the race for more – wall-to-wall racing and turnover to support Australia’s ever-climbing prize money – something has to give, and it has become obvious that the pinch point is the people who work with the horses.

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Dreary scenes at Canterbury on Friday January 6. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

One mid-table trainer is grabbing a coffee and takeaway wrap on the run. He is flying solo, strapping his runners himself, after which he will drive the truck home, complete the feeds and get ready to go again a few hours later.

“When I wake up I will feel physically sick, I will be that tired, but the horses have to be worked and fed,” he says. “It’s fine to call night racing a success, but behind the scenes we haven’t got the staff and resources to keep this up.

“Every Christmas is like this,” he adds, referring to a stacked Racing NSW schedule that included 40 meetings in the 14 days available to race at the end of last year, and 25 in the week ending New Year’s Day. “I just don’t think it is sustainable.”

It isn’t just small stables struggling for staff and pointing to the “late night, early morning” situation for relief. Comments on start times from Annabel Neasham in an excellent profile piece by Asian Racing Report’s chief journalist David Morgan sparked a massive response from readers within the racing industry.

“The hours are very early and people are all split on that decision: my stance is that I’d like it to be later, I think it would attract more people,” she said. “A lot of people will disagree with me but my personal opinion is if we change it to more sociable hours, we will greatly increase the participation from staff.”

Neasham is right that the issue of starting times is not clear cut. Trainers like Chris Waller and Michael Freedman have spoken in favour of more “normalised” hours, but there are traditionalists who are vocal behind the scenes about maintaining the status quo.

Sydney trainer Annabel Neasham. (Photo by Brett Holburt)

As one trainer pointed out “somebody who doesn’t want to ride a horse at 4am won’t want to ride a horse at 6am,” and officials are also right when they say that many trainers could choose to start later if they wanted to. As is the case in racing, self-interest rules, “the option is there, but they want first use of the fresh grass for gallops,” one said.

So if start times is a sticking point, where does that leave night racing? At least the Australian Turf Club has refused to run the last after 9.30pm. Racing Victoria have programmed racing after 10pm.

Victorian trackwork rider Paul Fung has long been an advocate for better working conditions but he admits the trackwork times argument is not a simple one.

“It isn’t just about paying people more money, that is how I used to come at it, with a lot of anger and just thinking trainers were being greedy,” said Fung, who also spent time working in the Hong Kong Jockey Club system. ”But as a track rider, you can actually make pretty good money if you are willing to do the work.

“The times are difficult though. If you are at the last race at Moonee Valley or Canterbury, and travel two-three hours back, then get back up on a five hour turnaround? It is hard because there is not enough staff to back-up the people missing the early starts.”

Night racing at Moonee Valley. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri)

It is telling that when contacted by Asian Racing Report, Fung had just finished a hospitality shift, waiting tables and washing dishes at a cousin’s cafe to help out with a staff shortage. Labour shortage is not a problem unique to racing in 2023.

When Covid hit and stopped the stream of foreign workers usually brought in to fill the gaps for racing, it was also the catalyst for the lowest unemployment rates in a lifetime. The last figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed an unemployment rate of 3.4%, the lowest in more than 50 years, a figure that is unlikely to drop soon given the addition of 64,000 jobs to the national economy during the survey period.

“And any random person can be taught to wash dishes,” Fung said. “I was just filling in. Obviously racing isn’t like that, it is such a small pool of people it has to draw on. There are all of the intricacies of working with horses. How people used to come in is learning the basics, like me, picking up the shit and filling up the water buckets, then moving up to handling the horses, washing and feeding, before you really begin working with the animal.

“That might be the difference now, there are a lot of people with options that want to skip that groundwork. They have options.”

What Fung and many others are querying is if racing is doing enough to train potential staff and promote careers in racing.

“That is what other industries are doing, so why not racing?” Fung asked.

At some stage racing’s governing bodies – those who have benefited from relentless scheduling and are responsible for delivering returns to the participants – must take responsibility for training people, or at the very least, lobby the government for loosening of visa requirements for foreign workers.

Sadly, the same competition driving prizemoney to unsustainable levels is what stops meaningful change. Australian racing’s fractured administrative system means that there is little motivation for say, Racing NSW, to set up a training system, only to see the students go and fill a void in other states that are struggling with the same shortages.

Racing NSW boss Peter V'Landys. (Photo by Getty Images)

It is easy to blame young Australians for not wanting to do racing’s dirty work, but perhaps that argument should be put to turnover-obsessed racing administrators. Who, among racing’s leaders, is willing to pick up the metaphorical pick-and-‘barrow and do the hard work required to solve the staffing problem? Or is another unsustainable prize money increase just an easier option?

It is a pity that most arguments start and end over money, when ultimately the consequences will be human.

“Accidents happen early in the morning, when it is darker, and when people are tired,” said the trainer at Canterbury, finishing his coffee but running late to saddle-up and taking the half-eaten wrap with him for the drive home.

“The human cost, that is what the breaking point looks like and I think we are not far away from it.”

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