Racing: Death of fourth stable lad lays bare 'feudal' system

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The Independent Online

Eric Clamp warned colleagues he would probably not make it in for work early on Saturday as he was planning a night of drinking.

Eric Clamp warned colleagues he would probably not make it in for work early on Saturday as he was planning a night of drinking.

True to his word, he headed for the New Astley Club, a favourite haunt of fellow stable lads in Newmarket. By 1am, the 33-year-old was dancing between the tables, his usual boisterous self. "He was jiving away with a 75-year-old. He was the life and soul, not drunk but merry," said a barman.

The next morning Newmarket woke up to the first day of its racing season. When the lads at trainer James Fanshawe's Pegasus Stables gathered to ride out at 6am, Mr Clamp was nowhere to be seen.

Not for the first time his friend Eddie Guest was sent to get him out of bed. But Mr Guest found him hanging from a bed post in a room above the stables where the legendary Victorian jockey Fred Archer shot himself. A note beside him said, among other things, "sorry".

The death of one of Newmarket's longest-serving stable lads on 30 April came as a shock. For Mr Clamp is the fourth stable hand to be found hanging in the small elite racing community in two years. It also stunned his friends, who remember him as happy. "I have gone through it a thousand times," said his flatmate Tom Symonds. "If he had problems, he concealed it incredibly well. Even if he was really drunk, he would say life was pretty rosy. We'll always wonder why."

On Monday a memorial service will be held for Mr Clamp at St Mary's Church in Newmarket. At the same time an inquest will be continuing into the death of one of his oldest friends, Jeff Brown, 40, a stable lad at David Loder's stables, who was found hanging at his home in January.

The racing world is divided between those who believe the deaths are a case of tragic coincidence and those who think it is time for the industry to examine its working practices.

Few could argue the stable staff live the privileged life of their charges. This month the charity Racing Welfare, in co-operation with the Samaritans, is launching a helpline for those in the industry. The premature death of four stable hands in two years is way above what might be expected from national statistics and it may indicate an inherent problem.

In Newmarket statues portray horses not men. "Horses are given priority in traffic. They have their own pavements, which human beings aren't allowed to walk on. The stable lads come a long way down the line," said one local.

Cedric Burton, chief executive of Racing Welfare, agreed: "There is a pyramid. At the pinnacle is the horse and jockey and at the base are the stable staff." He conceded something needed to be done after a damning report last year.

The Independent Stable and Stud Staff Commission highlighted the fact that staff, who often join at 16, can work 60-hour weeks for as little as £122, with free or subsidised accommodation. It also revealed that almost half complained of bullying.

While acknowledging that much progress had been made in many yards, the report's author, Bernard Donoughue, said: "We found some racehorse trainers who looked back on what they regarded as a golden earlier age when staff ... were deferential to their masters and worked uncomplainingly."

Andrew Appleby, who transports horses, agreed: "It is feudal. The trainer is everything and they seem to be unable to embrace a lot of business practices to look after their staff."

Mr Clamp's flatmate Tom Symonds insists that Fanshawes is a good place to work: "We are treated well. It is a nice family atmosphere, relaxed," he said. "Newmarket is better wages and better hours than most of the country and we get cooked breakfasts."

But across the industry, stable hands who go into the job for the love of the horse can often find that passion exploited. The lifestyle itself is also far from healthy. Up at 6am they work until around midday when many head to the pub or the betting shop for four hours before resuming their duties.

With the long hours and constant need to keep their weight down, it is openly acknowledged that many take drugs. An inquest into the death of Justin Harris, 31, a groom at the David Loder stables who was found hanging at home two years ago, found he had cocaine in his system. While the coroner recorded an open verdict, police insist there is nothing suspicious about any of the deaths.

Most stable staff live away from home, with little opportunity or money to visit their families. Marriages fail to survive the long hours and travelling. Friends said that, as well as money worries, Jeff Brown, 40, greatly missed his 10-year-old son Nathan after his marriage broke up. Like Mr Clamp, he had been a stable lad since his youth.

For Mr Clamp, his five minutes of fame came when one of his horses, Hors La Loi, won the 2002 Smurfit Champion Hurdle. He described the win as "the biggest thrill" he'd ever had in racing.

But three years on, the man who had once been a head lad was content to be just another member of staff. He rarely talked of his family in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders, and while he had girlfriends he never settled with one person.

Sarah Nelson, of the Samaritans, said: "Racing strikes me as a job which, because of its unsocial hours, could leave some of its workers feeling very isolated." Or, as one of Mr Clamp's colleagues put it: "Maybe he was just lonely. I know how he felt."