Racing: 'To win low-grade handicaps you have got to cheat'

Andrew Longmore hears trainer Bill Watts explain why he has been forced to quit
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No one has to tell Bill Watts about the parlous state of the British racing industry, highlighted so tellingly at the Gimcrack supper by the man who could send it in to free fall. After 30 years in the game, Watts was already striving to make the two ends of debit and credit meet somewhere halfway when a call from Sheikh Mohammed's racing manager, Anthony Stroud, added one more trouble to a mounting pile.

Stroud, always a loyal supporter of the Yorkshire-based trainer, had bad news. The Sheikh would not be sending any more fancy yearlings north; instead they would be heading south to the sunshine state of Dubai. "It was a big knock," Watts said. "I knew then that if I carried on I would be struggling to get more than 20 horses in my yard next season and I didn't want to go to a smaller place, so I decided to pack it in." A few months later, Watts drove out of his Hurgill Lodge Stables for the last time, severing a family connection with racing which stretched back four generations. Bill's father Jack trained Indiana to win the 1964 St Leger, his grandfather J E Watts won two classics and his great-grandfather John rode 19 classic winners between 1883 and 1897. "It was a sad day, but there we are," Watts said.

Bill - or J W as he appeared on a thousand racecards - also had his moments of glory: Waterloo storming home under Eddie Hide in the 1972 1,000 Guineas, and training Tele-prompter to win the Arlington million and a first prize of pounds 450,000. Watts has trained 855 winners, including eight at Royal Ascot. But, since the time he was able to number Robert Sangster, Lord Derby and Sheikh Mohammed among his patrons, much of his living has been scavenged from meagre pickings at low-grade tracks. Subsidising his own stable to the tune of pounds 50,000 was the only means of survival.

"I'm not the only one either. A lot more trainers are struggling than people know about. They're subsidising the business, buying yearlings and finding themselves with a half-share left. If you've got 100 horses, you're making good money. Below 50 is a big struggle. But if the Maktoum family pulled out of British racing, a number of big trainers would be left in a worse position than I was."

It is hard to know precisely why a good flow of horses slowed imperceptibly to a trickle. Like jockeys, trainers go out of fashion. "Wrong age", Watts says bluntly. "At 55 it's too late to change." Even if he wanted to. Different age too. "Owners want a first-class ticket for third-class money." Watts refused to compromise either on his standards or his ethics by shedding faithful staff, dropping his pounds 189-a-week training fees or deliberately running horses down the field in a maiden to fiddle the handicap. It is not the trainers he blames, but low prize money, the culture of instant return and a decrepit system which fills bookmakers' satchels rather than owners' pockets.

"To win low-grade handicaps, you've got to cheat. In maiden races, a maximum of 25 per cent are trying, the rest are out there to get down the bottom of the handicap. My owners were not prepared to do that and I didn't like it either. I couldn't win maidens because I didn't have good enough horses and I couldn't win handicaps because I didn't cheat. I could have charged pounds 120 a week, but you know what you'll get for that. Unskilled staff doing six or seven horses each. You won't get the right standard of horsemanship or stablecraft.

"The point people miss in all this debate is that owners don't complain about owning bad horses, they accept that. It's when they get a decent horse and they actually win a race or two and find that the only way to recoup their outlay is by selling not racing." An obsession with 20-runner handicaps, driven by the demands of the betting industry, has encouraged bad horses, bad racing and bad practice, Watts added.

The Jockey Club would be unwise to dismiss Watts' words as the parting shots of a disillusioned ex-trainer. However different the perspective, the analysis of racing's ills is not that far removed from the warning which sent racing into shock last week. Watts has taken what remains of his sanity into retirement and blessed relief. "It is a weight off my shoulders because it was getting me down," he said. "I probably made more mistakes because of the financial problems hanging over my head. But I can't complain. I've done something I've wanted to do for 30 years and been reasonably successful. Now I'm looking for a job. Sad, but there we are." Sheikh Mohammed himself could not have expressed it more eloquently.