Racing: Trainers in trouble: Wolves gather at the stable door

Balancing the books is now a greater problem than getting the horses fit and winning races; Difficult times for Britain's trainers could see their ranks dramatically reduced.

AT THE last count, there were approximately 520 professional racehorse trainers in Britain. If John Gosden, one of their number, is correct, then you would be a fool to lend money to about 410 of them. "What you have to face," Gosden says, "is that, conservatively, 80 per cent of trainers in this country are insolvent. If you cashed them tomorrow at the bank you would be in a considerably negative situation."

It might sound an exaggerated claim, until you consider some of the familiar names which will be missing from racecards this year. Bob Champion, Graham Thorner, Julie Cecil and Lord Huntingdon - the Queen's trainer, no less - are among those who have not renewed their licences for 1999. Cash-flow problems, to a greater or lesser degree, were a factor for all four. Lord Huntingdon, who had almost 70 horses in his yard, was estimated to be losing pounds 40,000 a year, despite charging his owners about pounds 150 per horse, per week for his services. When the chill wind of financial reality finally blew him away, few of Britain's trainers did not shiver in sympathy.

A trainer has three principal sources of income: training fees, their cut of any prize-money won by their horses, and, if they are lucky, commercial sponsorship of their stable. They may also try to turn a profit from buying and selling horses, or betting on them.

The list of potential outgoings, by contrast, runs into dozens. Staff wages, transport costs, feed bills, mortgage or rent repayments, vets and blacksmiths' bills are the most obvious, but everything down to the paint on the stable doors needs to be billed and paid for.

One trainer who takes the accounts book as seriously as the form book is Simon Dow. The son of a bank manager, he was taught from a young age that "to be in business, you've got to stay in business". His charges at present are pounds 25 per day per horse for single owners, and pounds 26 per day for those owned in partnership, which reflects the extra work involved in keeping multiple owners up to date.

Significantly, though, he offers a discount of pounds 1 per day for any owner who pays a bill within 21 days of its arrival. About 80 per cent of his owners take advantage, and while bad payers are as much of a problem in racing as they are in any other industry, Dow's income streams are less likely to dry up than most.

"The most important thing is cost recovery," Dow says. "Every single pound that's spent on the horses, we are as certain as we possibly can be that it gets invoiced out. It's easy to lose a pound here and there, but if I lost pounds 2 on every horse every month, I'd be out of business by the end of the year. That's the sort of margin that I'm working on, a thousand pounds either way can make all the difference."

Dow employs a member of staff specifically to look after the accounts. "I regard that as being as important a job as there is in the stables," he says. "Obviously it's important to make sure that the horses are in good health, but it's no good if you're not going to be able to buy the food or pay the staff."

The pennies are looked after to the last detail. "I work on the basis of one lad looking after three horses, so a third of his wages come from that fee. The horse will eat about pounds 40-worth of feed each week, including hay - it depends on the individual animal. There's the shavings for bedding, the rent and rates, all the individual items of expenditure which we itemise such as telephones, electricity, water rates, all the way down the line. Once the balance goes the wrong way, you've got a hell of a lot of time to get through until it tips back your way."

Even at the pinnacle of the profession, training can be an uncertain business. "It's not a great way to make money, or to make your family secure," Gosden says. "I do it because I have a passion for working with horses, which can be remarkably fulfilling and incredibly frustrating. You wouldn't logically tell anyone to go into it."

But people still do, either for the love of the game, or because they are qualified for little else. And for many, the first cash-flow problems will emerge within a matter of days, because while staff must be paid from the moment the stable doors open, the owners may prefer a more flexible arrangement.

After a while, the prospect of a "knocking" owner is met with as much resignation as anger. "All you say every year when you're a trainer is, well, we're into a new year now, so who's going to knock me this year?" Rod Simpson, in his 25th season with a licence, says.

"They know that you can't just let the horse starve to death, if you've an animal in your care you have to take care of it. Instead they tell me I'll get a cheque next week, or that they'll see me at the races and give me some cash, as if they're doing me a big favour."

Simpson believes that the problem runs from top to bottom. "Those that have an Arab influence, well lucky them," he says. "They've had a right nice few years. But the day it stops, they won't be around for two minutes, because their overheads will kill them. I wish Sheikh Mohammed had pulled the plug a couple of years ago because I wanted to see them all cringe and whine."

An obvious solution to the problem would be for Weatherbys, racing's "civil service", to deduct training costs centrally, just as they do for jockeys' fees. Yet while the mechanism for this already exists, many trainers continue to work without any formal contract at all.

"They find it embarrassing," Grant Harris, of the National Trainers' Federation, says. "You're trying to persuade someone to part with pounds 20,000 and then another pounds 15,000 a year, and you say, `would you mind signing this so if you don't pay I can take you to court'. These people might be friends."

When money is tight, the thick rolls of cash inside the bookmakers' satchels can be an irresistible temptation. For many trainers, a successful punt once or twice a season makes all the difference. But as Simon Dow says, "you're on very thin ice and you're not really running a business if you have to generate money from something like gambling in order to stay solvent."

It may be that the message is starting to filter through to bright-eyed young horsemen and women with an eye on the winners' enclosure. Since last November, all would-be trainers have been required to attend a three- week course in stable and business management before the Jockey Club will issue their licence. The next course, with space for 10 people, is due to start in March. As yet, not a single application has been received.

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