The tough financial conditions in the UK and around the world are causing record numbers of horse racing trainers to quit the sport.
Newmarket handler Martin Smith is just one of a number of trainers to leave the sport in recent years – bringing the curtain down on a ten-year career.
His announcement came just weeks after Scotland-based trainer Keith Dalgleish, who has enjoyed more than 1,000 winners in a stellar career, confirmed he too was stepping away from racing.
Group One winner Harry Dunlop, Michael Blanshard and Lucy Normile are just some of the other trainers that have quit in recent times – all since the beginning of the health crisis, to be precise.
So what has been the root cause – are small-scale trainers simply unable to make ends meet these days?
From the Horse’s Mouth
There are plenty of trainers who have quit racing because they have found it simply too uneconomical to run their yards – more on them shortly.
But for Dalgleish, arguably the best-known handler to give up his licence in recent times, the reason was simpler: he just doesn’t want to train horses anymore, despite making in the region of £4 million in prize money.
“Some have been surprised but people change path all the time in every other walk of life. I don’t see the big deal,” he said.
“I want to be able to do some travelling.”
“I have quite a few sheep who need looking after so I’ll do that too.”
“I may come back in a few years’ time, I’ll see how it goes.”
But for less-prolific trainers, the reality is that the financial pressures of running a yard – no matter how big or small – are proving too much to bear at a time when the cost of living is increasing….at a rate greater than the rise in prize money in racing.
Dunlop, meanwhile, was forced to quit after struggling to make ends meet – despite running a successful small-scale operation. But that lack of size makes it all the more difficult to run a yard profitably:
“It is something I have thought about over the last few years and my main reason is that it is so hard to keep a business thriving in the current economic climate,” he said.
“When you don’t have a huge string of horses to cover the rising costs of staff, transport, feed, bedding, it is just not viable.”
Blanshard also confirmed that a lack of numbers meant that training was ‘not viable’ anymore – this is a guy who trained more than 400 winners and was Lambourne’s second-longest serving trainer behind Nicky Henderson.
“It was a straightforward decision because I didn’t have a lot of horses and it’s a numbers game now – I had under ten, which was no good,” he said.
Normile, who ran her Scottish yard for more than two decades, believes that the worldwide health emergency was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a number of already-struggling trainers.
“I think there’s a lot of small trainers that have been struggling along for years and this, unfortunately, might be the final nail in the coffin. Which is pants, really,” she revealed.
How Much Do Racehorse Trainers Earn?
One of the true problems engulfing horse racing at the moment – especially for those running small yards and targeting lower-grade races – is that it can be hard to train winners that essentially pay for themselves.
Staff have to be paid. Food, bedding and equipment has to be forked out for, as do electricity and other bills. And a trainer’s time is, effectively, money – they may give up hours trying to school a horse that will ultimately make very little (or nothing) in prize money.
Racing, like most sports, is a results-based business – even horse-loving owners are not always interested in wasting time and money on those animals that are doomed to a career of low-key handicap races on a wet Tuesday at Fakenham.
There are similarities to be found between horse racing and football: somebody like a Willie Mullins, racing’s answer to Manchester City, has raked in more than £15 million in prize money over the past five seasons. He is not struggling to make ends meet, but a small yard in Scotland – with all the associated costs – will be.
So how much does a racehorse trainer make? It depends on the quality and quantity of horses at their disposal. Mullins is the exception to the rule, while one anonymous Newmarket trainer has revealed a monthly cost of £23,000 to run their yard. That trainer will need to make some serious prize money to break even, let alone turn a profit.
With an annual bill of £276,000/€317,000 (£23,000 x 12), just 14 trainers in Ireland would have turned a profit during the 2022/23 National Hunt season. That begs the question: just how sustainable is it to be a horse racing trainer these days?