Racing: There's muck and little brass

Against the odds: When even high-rollers go out of business, the struggle hardens for the lesser lights; Trainers like Conrad Allen must live on the edge.
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IT WAS the fictional huntsman Jorrocks who advised: "Beware of presents wot eat." That is the trouble with horses: they have to be fed. And watered, clothed, exercised, brushed and mucked out. Getting the best from them them is labour intensive and therefore expensive; high production costs for a luxury product in an iffy financial climate make for an unbalanced financial equation.

In recent weeks, three high-profile racehorse trainers - Lord Huntingdon, Julie Cecil and Lynda Ramsden - have decided to call it a day on the grounds that their businesses are not economically viable.

It depends, one supposes, on expectations; whether or not training should be regarded as a job that will automatically provide for children's private education and luxury foreign holidays. But there is no doubt that there is a fiscal imbalance in racing in Britain, largely brought about by the fact that the huge profits from betting benefit bookmaking firms virtually to the exclusion of the sport that generates them, though owners, who are the ones who pay the bills, would probably mind less about chucking their money into a black hole if they were not suckling another, much larger, industry.

But the question is begged that if the above-mentioned trio, all well- connected, cannot make a go of it, what hope is there for those further down the rankings. For every Henry Cecil, with his palatial pile on top of the hill, there are 20 trainers sitting closer to the precipice.

Not all go over, though. Conrad Allen, who has charge of 26 horses at Shadowfax Stables in Newmarket, is not only still standing, but has even taken a few paces back from the edge. "These days, I can sleep," Allen said. "But there have been times in the past when there wasn't much in the fridge and no pocket money to give out."

Allen, 39 today, took out a licence 11 years ago after a career as, variously, a child star in TV ads, a bank clerk and a jockey. He bought his present base in 1989 - the height of the property boom - and built his 40-box American barn and bungalow from scratch.

One of the rules of thumb as to whether a trainer is any good or not is if he or she can win races with moderate horses and, given the ammunition he has had through his hands over the years, Allen is more than competent. But still, without a high-profile owner or that one good horse, running what is basically a small family business (wife Bobbie rides out and mum-in-law looks after new baby Jordan) does concentrate the mind.

It is difficult for any trainer to make a living from training fees alone. Allen, who charges pounds 189 a week basic per horse, said: "To make that part truly cost-effective I would have to cut corners with the horses or ask the owner to pay more, and neither is an option. I am not prepared to take short-cuts with the horses, either in terms of feed or attention or exercise; you get out only what you put in. Neither can I put my fees up. I'm one of 70 trainers in the town."

Trainers get roughly 10 per cent of their horses' prize money, which is fine when you are Saeed Bin Suroor aiming at a cut of more than pounds 2m. Allen, with six winners and 27 runners placed so far this year, supplements his income by transporting other people's horses, buying and selling on commission, preparing yearlings for breeze-up sales and running successful corporate days at his stables, where anything from 12 to 200 guests are fed, watered and entertained before being sent to the races. His was one of the first sponsored yards. But though he will have a bet on a horse he particularly fancies he does not run a gambling stable. He has read about eight-hour days and five-day weeks in books.

Allen has just returned from the yearling sales in Ireland and will be scouring the catalogue at Tattersalls this week as the carousel begins to wind up again. At his level of the market it is a matter of deciding what faults can be lived with rather than looking for perfection, but he has a good eye. Lively Jacq, a dual winner this season, cost just 1,000 guineas.

At the end of a highly successful 1996, Allen was on the wrong end of what could charitably be called a kick in the teeth when several winning horses - including a bad-legged filly whom he had carefully nursed to multiple success - were removed. But hard graft has brought a core of loyal, happy owners and all eight yearlings he has bought so far this autumn have been placed already.

Training horses involves long and mostly unglamorous hours but the job is an affair of the heart that overrules any dictates of logic and reason from the head. "Sometimes when I look at the figures I wonder why I do it," said Allen. "Then I go out to the gallops or walk round the barn and I remember."