With racing shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic and no date as yet set for resumption, it’s a challenging time for the owners of the thousands of thoroughbreds in training in Britain, which must still be fed, exercised, and cared for despite the lack of competitive action.
Figures released by the British Horseracing Authority suggest that the number of Flat horses in training has fallen by around 13% year-on-year, from 10,810 to 9,443 (April 1 data), while the jumping programme has been put on hold until July 1.
Owners, many of whom are seeing their own businesses in other sectors being severely impacted by Covid-19, are facing the reality of literally not getting a run for their money.
We speak to six owners involved at different levels of the sport to find out how they have been managing their bloodstock interests during lockdown.
David Armstrong’s vivid red silks will be familiar to all who enjoy sprinters thanks to the exploits of July Cup winner Mayson and Prix de l’Abbaye heroine Mabs Cross, both of whom were bred on the family’s Highfield Farm Stud in Lancashire.
He has 13 horses in training across seven trainers, two of whom are training for him for the first time, plus another 12 in pre-training, and he has around 30 mares on the stud, although not Mabs Cross, who has been sold privately to Qatar Racing and is now at Tweenhills Farm and Stud.
A handful were due to go back into training after being covered, but that plan will almost certainly be shelved now.
With his dedicated staff observing strict social distancing rules, the day- to-day running of the stud has so far been largely unaffected, and to his surprise three mares sent to be covered by Birchwood in France have all been allowed to travel home. However, plans to sell yearlings for the first time later this year are now on hold.
His quarrying business is “nearly 90 per cent shut”, with one of the first customers to cancel being the iconic Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the completion of which was at last in sight but the funding for which depends largely on tourism. Armstrong refuses to feel sorry for himself, but of course he has concerns.
He says: “It’s messing plans up, but we’ve got to keep things in perspective. I don’t like to say it, but while people are dying every day, horseracing is immaterial, so long as the horses themselves are being looked after. It’s unbelievable what nurses and care workers and so on are all doing for us, putting their own lives at risk.”
He adds: “We breed to sell, but we usually like to race them first to enhance their value. We can’t race of course at the moment, and I’ve decided not to have all of the mares covered this time. This year we were planning to sell some yearlings for the first time, but I think we are in for a rough ride at the sales.
“I’m anything but upbeat, and the longer racing is closed the worse it will be, but I think some of the talk of racing behind closed doors is premature. The main thing in the racing world is that the horses aren’t suffering, and while so many people are dying we should sit tight and not complain.”
Laurence Bellman has had 85 winners in his own silks since 2011, plus others in partnership. Teodoro, who he owned in partnership, was a Group 3 winner, but the majority have operated closer to the bread and butter level, often on the all-weather. They cost just as much to keep, however, and the expense adds up.
Bellman would reckon to go racing around 100 times a year under normal circumstances, so it’s a massive part of his life, but under current restrictions he is confined to his London home owing to underlying issues.
He says: “I’ve got a nice house and a garden, so it could be a lot worse, but I’m really missing racing – both going to the track and going to the stables. I’ve got 24 horses in training and I own most of them outright, so that’s a lot of expense every month.
“The good news is that I’ve paid a lot of my trainers in advance up until around November, and for that I get a small discount. I also breed on a very small scale, with two mares at the Trinity Park Stud who are both due to foal shortly.”
Racing, he says, “is more than a hobby now, it’s a passion”, and in the current climate he admits he might have gone in too hard.
He explains: “I’m feeling it now, as these horses all have to be looked after, fed and exercised even when they aren’t racing. Just because I could afford it doesn’t mean I’m not affected, and although I’m semi-retired I’m still in the property business, and that’s obviously being impacted.”
Last year, Bellman bought eight yearlings – now two-year-olds and unraced of course – but he is far from certain to be so involved at the sales again this autumn. He adds: “I don’t expect to be buying again this time, but who knows. It will all depend upon what the economic climate is in the autumn.”
In the meantime good communication from trainers is more important than ever, and some, he says, are better than others when it comes to videos and photographs and so on. However, even the least tech savvy of them is getting better all the time. They have to.
Gail Brown’s many years managing the Goodwood Racehorse Owners Group (GROG) and a decade as the principal of her own syndicates give her another perspective upon how the pandemic is impacting owners and what can be done to offset the lack of live action.
GROG has two horses with William Knight, with around 150 members in each syndicate, some of whom are in both. Gail Brown Racing has six horses this year, all of them with David Menuisier, and each has around a dozen owners.
Keeping everyone informed and enthused, while at the same time managing expectations, is more vital than ever.
She says: “I’ve already had to cancel three stable visits, and the one for GROG is a particularly big day, with breakfast on the gallops for around 200. We’ll make up for it when we can but for the time being I’m relying on the trainers for more video footage and day-to-day reports than I would normally.
“David has a new person doing his website, which has been a big help, and he has taken a small cut in fees, which are now invoiced as ‘emergency training fees’. It’s a gesture that’s much appreciated, and when racing resumes they will go back up again, which is fair enough.”
“I’m relying on the trainers for more video footage and day-to-day reports than I would normally”
Many syndicate managers may be starting to worry that members will drift away, either because they simply can no longer afford to continue, or else because they feel they are not getting any return on their investment. However, that is not an immediate concern for Brown.
She says: “It will be interesting to know how other syndicates are managing, because a lot are set up with a down payment followed by a monthly payment, so they do rely upon members coming up trumps every month.
“My Goodwood syndicates all pay up front and we have a robust budget covering two years, at the end of which there is a nice payout. The Gail Brown Racing syndicates require a heftier investment because of the smaller numbers, but I still ask for everything up front. I don’t want to leave myself, or my trainer, in a situation whereby people could default, and again, the budget is set and there’s a nice dividend at the end.
“There’s a concern still that people will become disillusioned if racing doesn’t return soon, but we all know where we are, and why. Some might not return, but I’m not convinced about that as they’ve been denied other pleasures and will want something to look forward to.”
Knight is on the move, from West Sussex to Newmarket, but GROG is sticking with him. She adds: “We like to keep our horses in the south and run them in the south, but it’s a bold move for William and we will stick with him for the year and hope that Newmarket might be one of the hubs being talked about for when racing resumes.”
Yvonne Jacques tasted success at the very highest level as a member of the Highclere Racing syndicate which raced King George winner Harbinger. She has since enjoyed many wins with runners in her own colours, among them dual Grade 2 winner Grandeur, who won the Easter Classic at Lingfield in 2014, and last year’s Haydock Group 3 scorer Klassique.
Her involvement in the sport took on another dimension when she completed on Lady Whent’s Raffin Stud three years ago, and she now has 21 mares on the renamed Carisbrooke Stud, with coverings this year by some of the world’s most expensive stallions, including Frankel, Kingman and Kodiac, plus first-season sires like Blue Point.
While conscious that millions are suffering far more than those of us in racing’s bubble, her personal investment in the sport is massive and so she is understandably anxious about the future.
She says: “I’m lucky to live on a beautiful stud, with lots of space, and I can’t imagine how difficult it is for people living in apartments in cities with children and no gardens.”
Jacques continues: “For me, there’s the day-to-day impact on the stud obviously, and an even bigger impact on the racing side.
“Most of my people live on the stud, but those who come in from outside are subject to a lot more checks, disinfecting and isolation and so on. It’s not overwhelming though in comparison to what some people are suffering. Our issues are more with what is going to happen in the future.
“Not having any racing has a mega impact. The younger horses are missing out on getting experience, and my older ones include Stylistique, who was second in the Rockfel and who we hoped might run in the Guineas. We don’t know if that’s going to happen now and that of course has a great impact on future breeding lines.”
She adds: “I get very involved normally and one of the pleasures is going to see my horses in training, but now of course I can’t. Most of them are in Newmarket, and I can’t even see those who are in pre-training just up the road with Malcolm Bastard.”
While it’s the current lack of racing that is having the biggest impact, Jacques is understandably concerned by how the economic climate might look once we are out of the pandemic.
She explains: “I made a big investment in the stud itself, and all of the infrastructure, and I’m investing heavily in the coverings.
“I’m not dabbling at it and I’m trying to compete at the top level in my small way, but I don’t know whether there will be a market for my yearlings in the autumn or for the foals that are being conceived now. It’s already impacting those involved in the breeze-up sales and it’s a big worry for people at every level.
“We mustn’t be too sorry for ourselves when the situation is so much worse for so many, but let’s hope we get racing back as soon as it’s safe, even if it’s behind closed doors.”
Businessman Robert Moss was a relative latecomer to racehorse ownership and says he is not a racing fan in the conventional sense, but he is involved both as an owner and as a breeder. He has 16 horses in training with Simon Dow in Epsom this year and three mares down the road from there at Woodcote Stud.
He says: “I love my horses and normally I would love visiting them every Sunday and seeing them race, but I’m not one who would go racing if I didn’t have a runner. I’m missing seeing them, but Simon sends me videos every day.”
Moss’s monthly outlay is substantial, and although he had a good payday when Mr Scaramanga won a Group 2 in Qatar in 2017, there has been zero return since his two all-weather wins before lockdown. His electrical wholesaling business has remained open through the pandemic, but he admits that it might get difficult if the current scenario continues for much longer.
“I’m getting close to the bone and the cost is impacting quite significantly now”
He explains: “We are trading, because we supply quite a lot of products to the health service through electrical contractors and construction, but business has been impacted quite badly nevertheless and commercially my spending on the horses is just money out the window.
“I’m spending between £15,000 and £20,000 a month just on maintaining them, and with no income at all it’s a dire situation financially. Fortunately I can just about make it, but I’m getting close to the bone and the cost is impacting quite significantly now.
“Hopefully we’ll survive though and when we get through this I’ve got a few good ones to look forward to.”
Alan Spence is no different from any other owner in that he can not wait for racing to resume, and with a live QIPCO 2,000 Guineas contender in Solario Stakes winner Positive, it’s no wonder his itch is felt particularly intensely.
However, whereas most are cautious about the timing of resumption and fear racing jumping the gun after the adverse reaction to allowing the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead, Spence argues that racing should be the first major sport out of the blocks.
An owner for the best part of 50 years and an ROA board member, Spence has enjoyed top-level success with Jukebox Jury and Profitable and is a keen follower of a broad range of sports.
He is a Vice-President of Chelsea FC and points out that whereas in football and most other major sports the participants will need weeks to get match fit, racing is ready to go. It has also been proven to work well behind closed doors in other jurisdictions.
He said: “I think racing is ready and willing to start as soon as we are allowed to, behind closed doors at tracks like Newcastle and Lingfield to begin with, where staff can stay on site on the course.
“Horses and jockeys are ready to go and we are the one sport in which the participants are fit. They have to start with something, and human athletes won’t be match fit.
“They haven’t stopped racing in Hong Kong or Australia and they are still racing in some states in America. There’s nothing else going on in those countries, and the government should see that.”
Spence has ten horses in training on the Flat to run solely in his own name, plus another seven in partnership, as well as out of training jumpers currently with Tim McCarthy in Godstone. He also breeds on a small scale, with a foal and a yearling by Dubawi out of his Group-winning sprinter Priceless, as well as mares covered by Profitable, in whom he retains breeding rights.
It’s a very expensive hobby, particularly in lockdown, and the one saving grace is that he is completely retired from the corporate travel business in which he made his money. He said: “For the last 15 years my business was entirely corporate travel.
“We survived the Gulf War but this will be worse. It will be six months or more before people even start thinking of travelling to America or the Far East again.”