A search for what the horse racing world has delicately described as "light people" began yesterday in the unlikely location of Hull, a city of relatively few turf accomplishments.
The former jockey and trainer Bob Champion was on hand to advise teenagers to take the all-important first step towards a career in the sport of kings - eat considerably less. The teenage desire for junk food and a place on the couch, the industry has claimed, is impeding its search for stars.
Mr Champion told 70 pupils at Kingswood High School: "People's diets are not what they used to be and there's not enough sport in schools. A lot of people have put on a lot of weight. I had to work hard at eating sensibly since I was a bit overweight - definitely not too many burgers."
The former Grand National winner has been asked by the Northern Racing College in Doncaster to take an ambassadorial role for the sport - addressing children at two schools a week in the Midlands and North over three months - because stable staff and jockeys cannot be found. The college hopes for entrants to a 10-week course, which can lead to a job in the stables and perhaps the racing saddle.
The staff shortage is so severe, some stables recruit from Mauritius and eastern Europe. American trainers are turning to Puerto Rico.
The odds on Mr Champion finding a immediate solution were long. "Racing is not usually mentioned in Hull and many people have never even visited a racecourse," said a spokeswoman for CityVision, a local regeneration organisation that was introducing him to the place. "Our nearest is Beverley but that's the next town and people are parochial."
Mr Champion, who became an inspiration to the nation after beating cancer to win the 1981 Grand National on Aldaniti, remained characteristically undaunted. "I got plenty out of racing and it's not badly paid either," he said. "Experienced stable lads these days get up to £14,000. You won't earn that stacking shelves in Tesco's. Just look at the ads in The Racing Post each week and see what a problem the lack of stable staff is."
Wisely, perhaps, Mr Champion did not talk much about food and his tales of 6am starts as a stable lad were the closest hint of the career's punishments. Privately, he admitted that lighter staff were desirable but said "heavier people" were welcome too. "There's plenty of work for them," he said. "Though heavier might not mean 15 stone."
His inquisitive audience demonstrated that he will be needing many powers of persuasion on his mission, because the welfare of horses turned out to be a considerably greater preoccupation for the pupils than the qualifications for a life on the turf. How many racehorses die in competition? asked one. Had any died the year he won the National? Mr Champion was not specific.
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