Ralph Beckett described his friend Ed Vaughan as “the proverbial canary in the coal mine” when the Newmarket trainer revealed that he had resolved to quit the training ranks by the end of the year. Vaughan had savoured one of the biggest wins of his career just days earlier when Dame Malliot had landed the Group 2 Princess of Wales’s Tattersalls Stakes at Newmarket’s July meeting.
He also enjoys the patronage of several more high-end owners besides Dame Malliot’s breeder Anthony Oppenheimer, among them Phoenix Thoroughbreds, Khalifa Dasmal, Saeed Suhail, Rabbah Bloodstock and Sheikh Juma Dalmook Al Maktoum.
He might never have scaled the heights numbers wise, but he has always had a few horses for the bigger meetings, and he still has some bright prospects coming through.
If a trainer with the patronage that Vaughan enjoys can’t see a future for himself in the training ranks in Britain, what does that say about the state of our sport?
One of the first points Vaughan is keen to make is that while Covid-19 and the slashing of prize-money levels might have speeded up the process, this decision was already coming some time soon.
“I’d been thinking about it for a couple of years now and at the back of last year I was seriously considering that 2020 could be my last,” Vaughan explains. “The problem is that nothing has changed since I started back in 2004. We are running for the same sort of money, and yet all of the costs have gone up.
“I’ve got great owners and I’ve been making a living, but I’ve no dependents, which makes it easier, and I just don’t see anything improving.”
Many will share Vaughan’s view that racing is too factionalised, with too much self interest and insufficient effort made for the greater good.
He continues: “The business model is badly broken and needs a complete overhaul. For a start, the industry needs strong leadership; it would benefit everybody. We need someone like John Messara [the former Chairman of Racing New South Wales and also of the Australian Racing Board] – a very strong voice in Australia, who people respect and listen to. He’s done a great job over there, and Australia is one of the few countries in which racing is thriving. Whether such a character exists here though I’m not sure.
“The only hope we have is through the Tote, although I know it’s in private hands here now. In Australia, where they have the TAB, in France with the Pari Mutuel, and in Hong Kong where the Jockey Club has a monopoly over gambling, the money gets ploughed back into the sport, whereas here we have too many take-out merchants.
“The racecourses’ contribution is not what it should be and we need more transparency over media rights, and for the whole thing to come together. The people putting on the show are getting nothing out of it, and yet without owners and horses there is no show.
“It’s a broken model but I believe it could all be turned round with strong leadership, provided we all come to the table together for the good of the sport. It’s not just now and for the immediate future – it’s for the generations to come.”
Vaughan has yet to lose a horse or an owner through the economic downturn, but he knows plenty who have, and he can understand why trainers including Gay Kelleway, Richard Hobson, Sophie Leech and Paul George are setting up satellite yards in France.
“The people putting on the show are getting nothing out of it”
He says: “A couple of my owners have said they will be cutting back, and it is only going to get worse. I was astounded at how many people reached out to me after my announcement. It’s such an insult that nowadays you can go and win a race and you still haven’t covered a month’s costs.
“How lucky are we here that people do it because they love horseracing? They’ll put their hands in their pockets, go out and buy a horse without expecting to make anything out of it, and they’ll do it just for the enjoyment. We are so lucky to have that, but I don’t know how much longer it can go on when the rewards are so low.
“It’s nearly more of an insult getting the prize-money than it would be not to win the race. Even the winner of the Northumberland Plate took home only about £25,000, and that was obviously a good betting race. I know these are different times, and Covid-19 has obviously accelerated the situation, but I hope it’s not going to be used as an excuse to go back to the pitiful levels we had a few years ago.”
Vaughan agrees that it is far tougher for trainers who are renting their premises, as he is, than for those who own them or else have a wealthy backer.
He said: “If you don’t own your own yard the operating costs can be crippling, and if you have empty boxes you are still paying rent and rates on them. I’ve got the best landlord, who has been fantastic and even offered me six months rent free, but I said no thanks because it would only be like putting a patch on a puncture. It’s not going to fix the problem.
“Unfortunately the model that works so well in America for example doesn’t work here, although it’s been tried to an extent. For a start you might be running there for $70,000 or $80,000 in a maiden. You don’t have daily transport costs, unless you want to run out of town, and your stalls, water and electricity are all provided. You can just hire your staff as you need them, and so cut your cloth accordingly.
“In the States that’s the way it’s been forever, whereas here part of the whole dream for owners is coming to the yard, seeing Newmarket, or wherever you might be, going out to lunch, and so on. It’s not the same here if you train out of Lingfield or Southwell or wherever it might be.”
Vaughan knows he won’t be the last to call it a day as a result of the current extreme economic squeeze. He says: “I’ve had plenty of calls and texts. There are a lot of trainers out there who are barely surviving. When you start you just want to train horses and that’s it, so you probably don’t care so long as you have enough to survive on. But life changes the older you get, and there comes a point when you have to ask if you want to keep bashing away not making money.
“Not long after my announcement a guy rang up and offered me a job as a private trainer over here but I said no, even before he had told me anything more about it. It wouldn’t change the fact that it would be a day-to-day grind for very little.”
“I was astounded at how many people reached out to me after my announcement”
As a widely respected 47-year-old with no dependents, offering experience in the breeding industry and in horse trading as well as his 17 successful seasons as a licence holder, Vaughan should be in a position to go on and do something rewarding with the second half of his working life. He is certainly a lot more optimistic about his own future than he is about the sport as a whole.
He says: “I’ve been able to put a few quid away, but that’s from dealing rather than training. I’ve got nothing lined up, and that’s the honest truth, but the door is wide open and we’ll just wait and see what comes up. I’d rather wait for something I know I’ll be happy doing than rush straight into something. I wouldn’t mind training again, but it won’t be here.
“I’m actually excited about the new challenge, and I’m ready to go wherever it takes me. I’m very optimistic about it and we might even go out with a bang. Now that Dame Malliot has won a Group 2 against males, she ought to be competitive at Group 1 level against her own sex.”
‘You need to win three or four races to break even’
Alan Pickering has been an owner with Ed Vaughan since day one and has won more than 50 races with him, enjoying an unforgettable day in 2014 when Robin Hoods Bay won the Group 3 Winter Derby at Lingfield, his home course.
An owner initially with Vaughan’s former boss, the late Alec Stewart, he is also a former Vice President of the Racehorse Owners Association, serving under both Rachel Hood and Nicholas Cooper, before he was timed out under the terms of his tenure.
Not only does he know Vaughan almost as well as anyone, he has a deep understanding of the sport and how its finances work. Nobody could be better placed to comment on Vaughan’s loss to the training ranks, and also the reasons behind it.
Pickering says: “As Ed has said himself, our relationship has always been that of two friends, rather than that of trainer and client, so his decision makes me sad personally as well as professionally.
“I keep my ear pretty close to the ground and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him. He’s always had a way with horses that are not entirely straightforward, and he’s a great character – and all sports need their characters.
“I’m sure he will find a rewarding role in racing, and when I say rewarding I mean emotionally, as well as financially – you do need both. Like any trainer with 20-odd horses, he has found it very difficult to make it financially rewarding, and if it isn’t financially rewarding it’s very hard to make it emotionally rewarding.”
While accepting the unprecedented circumstances pertaining to 2020, Pickering is adamant that poor prize- money has long been an issue, though despite that he is “much more a fan of the BHA than a critic”.
He continues: “It’s wrong to use this year as a yardstick, but if you compare the real value of winning with a horse at my level, which is generally class 4 or 5, it’s way, way below what it was when I became an owner.
“I’m in the sport because I love it rather than to make money, and for me owning horses is a pastime rather than a business, but it becomes a prohibitively expensive pastime when prize-money is as depressed as it is and I definitely get fewer legs for my money now than I did.
“If you were to draw a graph there was a bit of an uptick in recent years, owing to a lot of hard work from the BHA and horseman and a benign set of circumstances, but in real terms you need to win three or four races a year now before you even break even, let alone start a kitty towards the next generation of purchases.”