“Life goes on but not quite in the same way,” says Chris Wall, who trains 40 racehorses from his Induna Stables on Newmarket’s Fordham Road.
Like his colleagues in the town and around Britain who were building up to the start of the Flat turf season, Wall found the rug pulled from under his feet when racing was halted in March due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Race meetings may be off the agenda, for the time being at least, yet the thoroughbreds in the trainer’s care require feeding and exercise as they would in any other season, with staff members having to adhere to new health and safety protocols.
“The government recognised that we have to look after the horses so my staff are still coming to work,” Wall says. “I have 12 full-time employees and three part-time. I haven’t had to furlough anyone because we haven’t lost any horses.
“We have 40 horses in training and I think the owners are hoping that a resumption isn’t too far away. But the longer it goes on without racing, the more chance some will say it’s wasting money and could ask to give the horses a break.
“If we do lose horses then that will lead to people being furloughed or even laid off if it’s a longer term thing.”
The government has introduced a number of initiatives to help the many UK businesses that have been affected by the lockdown. Trainers, denied the opportunity to earn prize-money on the track, have been accessing different forms of assistance.
“I think the owners are hoping that a resumption isn’t too far away”
“We were able to defer payment of our business rates, which is a big help as the cost has gone up considerably in the past few years. That helps a lot with the cash flow in a small business,” Wall says.
“While we have horses here and they are being paid for then the basis of the business is fine. We have all our costs to pay, though some things are less, such as transport and blacksmith fees, as the horses don’t need racing plates.”
He continues: “Like a lot of trainers we’re making sure that owners aren’t overburdened with costs. We were planning to put rates up but we’ve held them down. We’re trying to help as best we can.
“I think if we’re not racing by the end of May then it will start to become serious because at that point owners will say it’s getting silly. That’s when we’ll have to re-evaluate what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Wall, who has trained at Induna Stables since 1992, sent out 25 winners in 2019, at a strike-rate of 18% – better than in all of his previous years with a licence. He is continuing to build up his string without pushing any buttons.
He explains: “We were starting to crank things up for the start of the season so the first thing we had to do was unwind our horses – you can’t keep getting them race-fit if you’re not going to race them – and go back to getting them ticking over.
“Our horses canter every day. When you have a race in mind you build them up with sharper canters and gallops – so we’re not doing that. The idea is to have them three-parts fit, so when we know the restart date, hopefully with three or four weeks’ notice, they are only two or three bits of work off being ready to run.
“This is a strange situation because you’re floating along and don’t know when the sport will start again. We have the horses to look after and take each day as it comes.
“You need to keep your staff motivated, healthy and happy, and ensure all the right measures are taken around social distancing, hygiene and hand-washing.”
With all sport in Britain forced into hibernation, Wall has his own view on when racing should resume, one influenced by the widespread criticism towards the Cheltenham Festival’s staging in March.
He says: “Much as I would like to restart racing as early as we can, I don’t think we should contemplate resuming until it looks as though they will start playing football again. We would be shooting ourselves in the foot to go it alone.
“It was the right thing to do to hold Cheltenham – all the right questions had been asked and answered – but subsequently it’s been a bit of a PR setback for racing. Starting up on our own would add to that and not put us in a good light with the general public at a time when we need as much help as we can get.”
Over six weeks of the Flat turf season have already been lost and the first four Classics have been pushed back in the calendar. A reduced programme, staged behind closed doors without spectators, is the plan when horses get back on a racecourse, though when that will happen is still uncertain.
“The vast majority of Royal Ascot races are not essential to the Pattern”
“I saw an outline of a plan for quarantined racing but I didn’t like the look of it,” Wall explains. “It looked like racing for the sake of it and would only benefit one racecourse group and the bookmakers.
“I think we will need to start with regionalised racing but you could have three or four tracks in each region – Newmarket, Yarmouth and Chelmsford for example – that could race a couple of days each week and benefit us all. That would give everybody something to look forward to.
“We need an even amount of opportunities across the spectrum. I think we should start with a blank sheet and the courses will have to buy into that idea.
“If we’re not racing until June, you won’t get eight runs into a horse this year but you might get five. At least it’s meaningful. Then at least owners won’t feel like they have been cheated out of an opportunity.”
Wall believes it’s important to “think of the British bloodstock product” and protect the Classic programme, but isn’t keen to see Flat racing’s biggest meeting, Royal Ascot, go ahead without spectators, as has been mooted by the track’s management.
He says: “We have a precedent for Classics being moved during wartime but I don’t see why you can’t run the Guineas races at the July meeting and stage the Derby at Epsom in August, with the St Leger in its traditional slot at Doncaster.
“We all love the Royal Meeting and everyone wants a winner there but what’s the point of Royal Ascot without a crowd?
“I think there are only three races there, including the Gold Cup, that aren’t replicated in the rest of the calendar. In the overall scheme of things, the vast majority of Royal Ascot races are not essential to the Pattern.”
‘Hats off if Royal Ascot is saved’
Richard Fahey is hoping that Royal Ascot does go ahead. His powerhouse Musley Bank stable supplied 178 winners last year, his 12th consecutive century, hitting the double century in 2015 and 2017.
“Royal Ascot is the pinnacle of our season,” Fahey says. “If they can save it then hats off to everybody. But we need to be running before then. Or if we just turn up on the day we’ll find out who can actually train!”
In charge of one of the biggest strings in the country, Fahey is continuing to build up his team towards an as yet undetermined resumption date.
He says: “The uncertainty is the problem but it’s the same for everyone and it’s nobody’s fault. We’re in an impossible position.
“More or less every owner has kept their horses in training – we cantered 170 the other morning.
“Horses are athletes; you can’t switch them on and off like cars. They need cantering and exercise. You don’t see many athletes being roughed off, putting on two stone and then being expected to perform. I always think from being in the field to getting a horse fit enough to win is three months.
“If an owner decided to take a horse out of training now and stick it in a field, they won’t be able to run until August. So they’ve got to stick with me. But if the lockdown goes into June then owners will be peeved.
“The uncertainty is the problem but it’s the same for everyone”
“We’re keeping them ticking over and making sure they are happy. The immature, young horses especially need to get their strength up and build bone density. I’ve breezed some of the two- year-olds.”
With a considerable cost base, Fahey is aware his business will come under increased pressure the longer the sport is on hold.
“We’re set up to have between eight and 15 lads away racing every day, so we’ve furloughed a few staff members, including two of the box drivers,” Fahey explains. “We asked our jockeys not to come in; they’re riding out for different yards and I’m trying to protect my stable. There’s a duty of care to the staff.
“The trainer’s profit is generally his percentage of prize-money. At the moment we are more or less breaking even – but we need to start getting some prize-money soon.”
Fahey supports a plan for Britain to stage regionalised racing and, like his colleagues, is hoping for some positive news after the government announced it would hold a series of meetings with senior medical directors of the major sports to discuss resumption.
He says: “I’ve been in touch with [Arena Racing Company Chief Executive] Martin Cruddace and he’s worked hard to ensure we can race behind closed doors at Newcastle and Lingfield as soon as we get the green light. It sounds the safest environment.
“There will be a huge backlog. The race programmer will have to be a genius because he won’t keep everybody happy, I’m afraid. Whatever racing they put on they’ll get maximum fields.”
‘Flat trainers hit hardest’
As a predominantly jumps stable, Grand National-winning trainer Lucinda Russell was in a different position to her Flat counterparts when the hiatus was announced.
The Kinross-based handler may have missed out on sending runners to the festival meetings at Aintree, Ayr and Perth yet can plan with a greater degree of certainty with the BHA announcing that the jumping programme will resume on July 1.
“I think we have been less badly hit than the Flat trainers,” says Russell, who has around 85 horses in her care across two yards. “The July 1 date has given us some certainty.
“Saying that, April would generally have been a month where we pick up plenty of prize-money.”
She continues: “When racing was stopped there was a feeling of incredulity – I felt so flat and it was such an odd thing to happen. But you have to be very careful. We live in a bubble where you think horseracing is the most important thing in the country. Obviously it’s not. As the coronavirus pandemic escalated we realised we had to look at the big picture.
“We are lucky in that we work from two yards with a team of 40; half have been furloughed and the rest are split between the two yards. As my staff share accommodation we’ve divided it by houses – the only person that moves between the two yards is myself.
“The main yard at Arlary is where we keep the horses in training and do the breaking, with an outdoor school and railed gallop. My store horses are broken at two and [jockey] Stephen Mulqueen is in charge of that side.
“Our second yard is a farm and [jockey] Blair Campbell has become a farmer! He’s doing a lot of tractor driving, rolling and harrowing, helping with the grass management and maintaining the schooling fences.”
Russell always keeps a close eye on how her business is performing and the shutdown means that her stable’s finances are under scrutiny like never before.
She explains: “All 85 horses came out of training immediately when the BHA announced that jump racing was on hold.
“We know our usual income in May and June is very low and this year that’s been extended to April, May and June. We also have extra costs during these months, as that is when we do the refurbishment of the stables and gallops.
“My average training fees for horses [out of training] are a quarter of what they would be normally. That’s the hit we’re taking.
“A lot of our owners are in the drinks and hospitality industry – we are sponsored by Edinburgh Gin. Each owner has been looked at individually to see if we can help with things like offering to delay terms of payment.
“We have around 35 jumpers to go through the summer and most came back in on May 1 to get ready for July, plus a small team of Flat horses.”
Russell, who has decided to make up her furloughed staff’s wages by paying the extra 20%, also received the government business grant.
“It’s £10,000 in the bank,” she explains. “It helps offset the extra money we’re paying staff.”
Russell adds: “I’ve been so impressed by my team. We employ a lot of jockeys and we have had to alter their job description in a major way.
“This break has given me time to look at the business as a whole. I’ve tried to trim down costs and make the business even more efficient. That’s been a very useful exercise.”