In racing, just as in the wider world, some have been hit very much harder than others by the Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions.
One group that one might have expected to have been particularly vulnerable is young trainers only just embarking on their new careers, However, when we spoke to five primarily Flat- orientated trainers in just their first or second seasons, we found they have coped well.
None of us know quite how damaging the pandemic will prove in the longer term, with the viability of some racecourses threatened, prize-money inevitably reduced, and the likelihood of some owners being forced out of the sport, but with racing back in full flow our young guns are full of optimism for the future.
Neardown Stables, Upper Lambourn
The lockdown frustratingly delayed not only the completion of the new yard Tom Ward is building next door to the Neardown Stables he is renting from Charlie Mann, but also his wedding to Alex Lowe. In other respects, however, it did not hit him half as hard as it might have done.
Ward, who had his first runner last August after four years assisting Richard Hannon, reckons the toughest part was keeping owners in the loop and staying positive about the future for so long without a specific date for racing’s resumption. That remains just as important, with owners still not allowed at the yard or on the racecourse even though racing is back. However, he is full of optimism for the remainder of 2020.
He says: “There have been a lot of phone calls, and we’ve sent out a lot of videos and photos, but the owners have all been great, despite having their own businesses to worry about. We haven’t lost anyone.”
As he hasn’t lost any horses he hasn’t had to make any difficult decisions about staff, as they all needed exercising every day whether or not they were racing.
— Tom Ward Racing Ltd. (@TomWardRacing) June 14, 2020
Ward, who still hopes to be in his new yard by the end of June and has pencilled in September for the wedding, currently has 31 horses on his books, of which 24 are two-year-olds. He reckons there is a good balance among them.
He says: “We hope we can still win with the ones we thought would be sharp and early, and hopefully we’ve got two-year- olds for all through the year. I’m very happy with them all, and I’m also excited about some of the older horses.
“I’ve got particularly high hopes of Vintage Rascal, who was our first winner when scoring at Windsor last year, and I’m also looking forward to Dirty Rascal, who was a Glorious Goodwood winner for Richard Hannon and hopefully has another good race or two in him.
“They are both owned by Charlie and Julia Hosier, who have seven horses here and are our biggest owners. They’ve been very supportive, and with their understanding and that of all of our other owners the lockdown went surprisingly quickly.”
Saville House Stables, Newmarket
James Ferguson missed the day-to-day excitement of live racing, just as we all did, but he knows how fortunate he is to be starting out with horses who have the potential to be really good, and he believes the enforced break might even have benefited his team.
Ferguson, who had his first winner in January, says: “As a first-season trainer I might have rushed things as I want to make an impression, but I’ve been forced to be a bit more patient and that’s perhaps been no bad thing.
“It’s not just me – my brother Alex is here too – and we’ve got a great team of staff. I’m also very lucky to have Kieren Fallon riding out for me every day, which is a huge help to a trainer just starting out as you can imagine.
“I’ve got a nice team of horses, very few of which would have run during lockdown anyway. I know it’s been very tough for a lot of trainers, but although it’s not been the ideal start for me I’ve got nothing to complain about. The mood here remained very good throughout.
“I didn’t lose any owners, and the few horses who went away were ready for a break and so it’s understandable. My owners have their own business worries, which in time will affect us, but not yet.”
Ferguson grew up around horses and has long been destined to train. His father John was Godolphin’s Chief Executive and trained successfully, and he has learned his trade from some of the best, including Sir Mark Prescott, Brian Meehan, Charlie Appleby and Jessica Harrington. Now 30, he has made the most of his opportunities to travel extensively, and that is reflected in the make-up of his owners.
Among 15 two-year-olds in a team of 25 he has a 200,000gns colt by Frankel and a 125,000gns colt by Invincible Spirit, both of whom are owned by an Australian syndicate that hopes to race them at home eventually if they have some joy over here.
Lloyd Williams is also among his owners and his Kitten’s Joy colt is a full brother to Eclipse winner Hawkbill, one of the stars Ferguson got to know well in his time with Godolphin.
Two-year-olds like that would be the envy of most established trainers, let alone those in their first season, and Ferguson knows how lucky he is.
“I’m very, very fortunate to have firepower like that,” he agrees. “It’s a great position to be starting from, but I’m not in a mad rush. We are in it for the long game and I’ll be taking my time and doing what’s best for the horses.”
Saffron House Stables, Newmarket
George Boughey was already more than halfway towards his initial target when we went into lockdown. He could have done without missing well over two months of action, but he was back in the winner’s enclosure with only his third runner following resumption.
The 28-year-old, who saddled his first runners last July, says: “We started this year with 17 horses and I like to set achievable aims and so wanted to have ten winners. We had six before lockdown and another on resumption, so the goalposts might have to be moved now.”
Boughey assisted Hugo Palmer for six years and graduated to running a 50-horse satellite yard, which he says gave him the confidence to start on his own.
With his team of 22 at the Saffron House Stables on Newmarket’s Hamilton Road most recently occupied by George Scott he enjoys access to both sides of town. He has the scope to grow into another barn if all goes well.
Reflecting on lockdown and the damage it might have done to a young trainer just finding his stride, he explains: “It was strange, but it was frustrating for everyone in racing. We’d made a great start to the year and we naturally wanted to try to keep it up, so the horses were mostly ready to crack on when we went into lockdown. I put most of them on the back burner for a couple of weeks and then slowly brought them back, so we were ready to go when the time came.
“Three C’s won in racing’s second week back, and that was his fifth win for us. He’s been an absolute star, as he’s also a great lead horse for the two-year-olds. If they can go with him we know they are all right.”
Boughey is not yet losing sleep over longer-term worries, but he is aware that he is not training for owners with bottomless pockets. He says: “Everyone has stuck with me, and I’m very grateful for that. I haven’t had to get rid of any staff, and that was a big thing for me.
“I’m training for a wide variety of people, but they aren’t big organisations that might have 50 horses and a lot of them are British businessmen who are probably going to be in a tax bracket which will probably rise. If something has to give it will probably be their racehorse, or their share in a racehorse, but that’s probably a bit further down the line.
“I’m not desperately worried so long as prize-money doesn’t drop massively, and a huge amount of credit has to go to the powers above for sorting the prize-money for racing’s resumption, so that the middle to lower tiers are protected, as that’s where I’m going to be operating.”
Boughey’s team is divided half and half between older horses and two-year-olds, but it’s the two-year-olds who hold the future.
He adds: “I think I’ve got a good balance. Among them are a forward two-year-old filly by Starspangledbanner owned by a couple of friends called Susucaru and a nice Mehmas colt owned by Paul and Susan Roy called Astimegoesby, who went close at Newmarket on his debut.
“There’s also a Bobby’s Kitten filly for Adrian McAlpine who is working well and nice back-end colts by Toronado and Australia.”
Plenty to look forward to then.
Well Close Farm, Easingwold
Phil Makin and his partner Sammy Jo Bell both had their riding careers cut short by injury, but they are making a good go of things training a team of around 30 from the former livestock farm that they rent from one of their owners in Easingwold, North Yorkshire.
They did not escape the pandemic unscathed and lost a couple of horses early on, but there are no complaints and they count themselves very lucky that their outdoor lives working with the horses continued largely unaffected while times for so many have been grim in the extreme.
Makin says: “We lost one or two horses right at the start when nobody knew when racing might come back, but that was understandable as their owners had the facilities to look after them more cheaply at home.
“The majority of our owners have kept their horses here and the others might come back too.”
Horses need feeding and exercising every day whether or not there is any racing, so life went on much as before and there has been no need for any staff to be furloughed or laid off. There was plenty to do on the yard too, and lockdown provided an opportunity to crack on.
Makin, who rode just short of 1,000 winners, says: “We are expanding all of the time, and have more or less doubled our team since starting last year. We have just built a new indoor school, and we are putting in a new walker. We are still learning every day, but we are enjoying the new life.”
Makin might have ridden for a few years more but for the neck injury he incurred in a fall at Redcar in 2018, but he was better prepared than many jockeys for training, having soaked up as much knowledge as he could while riding more than 100 winners each for David Barron, Michael Dods and Kevin Ryan.
Bell, whose all too brief career in the saddle was highlighted by her Silver Saddle success at the 2015 Shergar Cup, was associated primarily with Richard Fahey and so learned from another master trainer. Between them they make a powerful partnership, which they were keen to underline as soon as racing resumed.
Makin adds: “We’ve got a good team, including 12 two-year-olds, and when racing came back we won the first juvenile race of the season at Newcastle with a colt called Muker. He would have been out much earlier, and it was a bit of a relief that the sharp ones hadn’t missed the boat.
“There are some nice ones for later on, too, and among the older horses I’m particularly hopeful the sprinter Lahore will do well this year.”
Little Spigot, Middleham
Trainers usually enjoy their first win with an old handicapper sourced from elsewhere, but Middleham trainer Liam Bailey bucked that trend when Harswell won a two-year-old novice at Musselburgh last April.
Harswell didn’t win again and has been sold to race in Greece, but in a vote of confidence Bailey’s stables – owned by Colin and Ailsa Stirling – now house four more two-year-olds who will race in the same colours, including the Cable Bay colt Harswell Prince and the Kodiac filly Harswell Princess.
Bailey had another eight Flat winners in 2019, plus three over jumps, and he was quick to build on the good impression he made with those early runners once the lockdown eased, scoring with the sprinter Quanah at Newcastle at the end of the first week.
He says: “It was difficult enough but we didn’t miss that much, as a lot of ours like some dig in the ground and it was unusually dry.
“I’m lucky in that Colin and Ailsa deal with the wages and the money side, while I concentrate on the training, and thankfully we kept going without anyone being laid off or furloughed.”
Bailey, who started with the late Peter Beaumont, was a key member of the team when David O’Meara’s numbers rocketed from eight horses to 101, so it’s no surprise that it is his time there which has left the most indelible impression upon his thinking.
He says: “If I’m in doubt about something I often ask myself, ‘What would Dave do?’ It was an unbelievable experience with him and one year I think we had 139 winners, including the likes of Blue Bajan, Penitent and Smarty Socks.”
Trainers like O’Meara don’t come along too often, but Bailey knows he won’t go far wrong if he applies the same principles.