Treatment of Apprentices, Staff, BHA Regulation and you…

December 18, 2019

Daniel wonders if the latest furore surrounding the contract between trainers and apprentices has implications for the wider workforce in racing, the potential role the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has to play and what you can do.

The debate surrounding the changes to the agreement between trainers and apprentices rumbles on, painting the sport in a negative light. Clearly there were issues with the previous system and it seemed likely that whatever the final draft of changes were, there was likely to be disquiet in some quarters. Lots of people on different sides of the argument have made valid points and the purpose of this piece is not to rehash that debate. It is ultimately an issue that has affected only a few people involved.

What is really interesting and of more relevance to the bigger picture of racing is a point made by fellow trainer Hughie Morrison on Twitter, who expressed the view that the trigger for this debate to reach the stage it has was the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA)

“failure to regulate their own rules”

in the past. The issue of the apprentice agreement would not have been an issue had there been proper enforcement of the existing model at its inception, or a better model would have been found long before now. The issue should not have festered as it has.

There was a clear advantage to those trainers who openly broke the rules, their costs were lower than those of trainers who agreed to follow them, or like ourselves felt that having analysed the likely cost implications that employing and developing an apprentice was not viable. What really compounded this was that certain trainers despite breaking the rules became established as unofficial “apprentice academies”, able to attract the brightest talent, and were even supported by the racing schools. With the most talented students to pass through them sent to these yards. Perfect, a stream of talented, ambitious young riders to exercise your horses every morning, all facilitated by the BHA effectively turning a blind eye.

It would be unfair not to point out that in a lot of cases these trainers did and continue to do an excellent job mentoring aspiring jockeys. It’s also worth pointing out that most of these apprentices were a long way from the breadline. As a young assistant at Roger Charlton’s I remember sharing a lift with a young teenage claimer based at Andrew Balding’s in his very smart Mercedes as opposed to going in my own rather worn out Ford Escort. The use of the word exploitation that has been bandied about generally doesn’t sit quite right either. Although there are a handful exceptions and some of what has gone on is frankly shocking.

Those trainers may well have a valid point that if the rules were enforced they wouldn’t have been able to develop the talent that they had. The fact remains they were breaking rules and as a result getting an unfair advantage over those who chose to comply.

So why bring this up yet again?

The BHA’s failure to regulate their existing rules occurs in regards to staffing. From my perspective this has much bigger implications for the whole industry.

A memorandum exists between the National Association of Racing Staff (NARS) and the National Trainers Federation (NTF). The agreement sets out employment conditions that must be met in order for a trainer to be licensed. There are trainers who regularly break these conditions and are still licensed. Not only are the BHA failing the staff working for these trainers, they are failing the many trainers who do meet them. We are undercut on price and face an overall shortage of staff in the industry due to the bad reputation created by these unreasonable employers.

The NTF, NARS and the BHA can thrash out the details of any agreement, and we are happy as we have done in the past to comply with them. In general the conditions are fair and in many areas we are well ahead of the minimum requirements. I wouldn’t be overly keen on masses of prescriptive regulation, allow us to run viable business with as little interference as possible. Put basic conditions in place that are simple to follow and fair to employer and employee and beyond that allow market forces to dictate.

Ultimately an agreement is meaningless without the rules being enforced. The BHA need to learn from their initial failure to enforce the rules in regards to apprentices and get much tougher on trainers who break the employment rules that govern our industry, or the efforts of those trainers who wish to better the conditions of their employees, NARS and the NTF are worthless.

Before this is written off as simply an attack on the BHA, Chief Executive Nick Rust has mentioned being stricter in this area in the past, although action is lacking. More importantly though, should the BHA really have to be taking action?

Fellow trainers, you need to wake up! Look at your employment practices – just because you had to come through a different regime does that mean you should repeat the mistakes of the past? The modern workforce is different and we are all in a battle together to attract and retain talented, ambitious people in this industry.

Owners, please support trainers who do things properly, even if it costs a bit more. Surely it is better to know your enjoyment is as the result of the efforts of a team that are looked after properly. The NTF run a scheme called The Team Champion Award which allows yards to demonstrate how they support and look after their team. If a trainer can’t be bothered to enter or in one case refuse to enter because they didn’t win the year before, what does that say about how much they care about their staff ?

Racing media, promote the yards that do it well, tell their stories, help market them, visit yards, investigate the issue, spread the word on good practice, call out bad. Let the punter know, let the owners know let the racing fans know. Spread the word there are great jobs out there in the sport.

Staff, if your boss is unreasonable, discuss your grievances with NARS, it may be difficult but they can’t help you until you help them call out bad employment practice. There are lots of trainers out there who will treat you fairly, contact us or other trainers that will. We won’t always have a vacancy but if you have the skills and the right attitude there’s a great job for you in racing somewhere. If love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.

Racing fans and bettors, support yards that care about staff where you can. Focus on courses that care about staff. Chelmsford give staff a free meal and great turn out prizes in every race. Even your choice of bookmakers can make a difference. Jenningsbet sponsor a training course that helps experienced staff develop mentoring skills so they can develop the next generation. Racing needs a workforce that is appreciated for their efforts. Visit the winners enclosure, applaud the winning groom. The thrill of watching a horse cross the line and to have played a part in its development is what the job is about, those well done’s on the way in linger in the memory and create the motivation to keep going to create the next winner.