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Rich, poor or somewhere in between: how much does a trainer really earn?

Stuart Riley crunches the numbers

Middleham trainer and registered pilot Mark Johnston with his Cessna aeroplane
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Trainers live the good life, don’t they? Nice clothes, fancy cars, big houses, long lunches and champagne celebrations. But how much do they actually earn?

Yes, if you have 200-plus horses in training – several of which are Group/Grade 1 class – you can probably keep the wine cellar well stocked, but the same is true of the leaders in any industry.

The recent retirements of big names such as Charlie Swan, Colm Murphy, Sandra Hughes and Brendan Powell, as well as John Oxx and Patrick Prendergast joining forces and Oliver Sherwood selling off his yard and renting it back, all highlight it is more difficult to make it pay than many assume.

Nicky Richards in front of Greystoke Castle: his horses are trained on the estate

But putting a number on it is a bit of a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question, not just because every yard has a different number of horses which perform with contrasting levels of a success over the course of a season, but because every trainer’s business is set up differently.

Some have inherited facilities which involve little or no cost, others rent or pay a mortgage, factors which increase overheads massively. Some buy horses to sell them on, others get sent homebreds or horses already purchased elsewhere.

Those in the major training centres can benefit from the lower costs of shared transportation, whereas those out on their own have to use their own horseboxes on top of the upfront cost of building their own facilities. However, once the trainer who is out on their own is up and running they only have to worry about maintenance rather than paying monthly to use communal gallops.

So what are the costs?

Trainers have four main costs: staff; variables such as feed, hay, bedding and medication; fixed overheads such as bills, rent or mortgage repayments; and incidentals – such as maintenance around the yard or a tractor breaking down.

Staff are the most costly of these, with an accountant for a number of trainers estimating wage bills run to more than 40 per cent of running costs. Consequently the days of one member of staff for every three horses are long gone – full-time staff are generally looking after four or five horses. The use of additional part-time work-riders is common in the major training centres.

Read Bruce Millington's take on the economics of running a training yard

Outlining some of the costs, a Newmarket trainer with 30 horses said: “I provide free accommodation and pay my lads £500 a week. They start at 6am and finish at 11.20am. They come back for an hour and three-quarters in the afternoon and are done in the yard by 6pm. I’ve got 30 horses and six full-time staff, the rest are part-timers. It’s £20 a lot for a good part-time rider, so if they do three lots that’s £60.”

That works out at £13,000 in full-time staff per month, with the added expense of two or three part-time work riders taking the monthly wage bill to roughly £17,500.

Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby (right) in his car on the gallops with jockey William Buick

“For 30 horses it costs me over £2,000 a month for bedding, hay’s another £700," the trainer adds. "You need the muck heap taken away twice a month, that’s £350. Then you’ve got feed – that’s £1,500, while products and supplements would be another £400. Ulcer powders and that sort of thing would be £400.”

The Newmarket handler's monthly bill is now up to £23,000, and the trainer says: “that’s before anything breaks or needs replacing – and then there’s electricity, gas, water”.

We’ve yet to factor in rent or mortgage repayments, which will vary from yard to yard, but trainers in Newmarket can pay roughly £3,000 a month in rent for such a facility. It is £120 per horse for access to the Newmarket gallops, so that is another £3,600, so we are over £30,000 and we have not even got a horse to the racecourse yet.

It would cost the trainer in question £750 to get three horses from Newmarket to Beverley, that’s £250 per horse for a 320-mile round journey, or 78p per mile per horse.

Therefore, a 30-horse yard averaging 25 runners a month and slightly more than 6,000 miles of travelling would amount to another £4,750, taking us to almost exactly £35,000. If you factor in the additional staff costs of going to the races then that figure rises further and if the trainer chooses to attend – and travel separately to the horsebox – that number rises even higher.

Yes, a 200-horse yard will benefit slightly from economies of scale, but a lot of these costs are fairly linear. More horses require more staff, more feed, more bedding, more rent and more transporting. A jumps trainer with a little more than 100 horses in training last year estimated monthly costs to be £100,000, which is only slightly more economical than the 30-horse yard.

But what about prize-money?

Trainers do get a share of prize-money yes, but for all bar the top echelon it is not a significant contributor to their business. They get just a smidgen less than ten per cent of winning prize-money and just less than six per cent of placed prize-money. Flat championship winner John Gosden saddled horses to amass £8,516,014 in prize-money last year, meaning his cut would be roughly £750,000.

John Gosden at Clarehaven Stables: the trainer saddled horses to amass £8,516,014 in prize-money in 2018

That is a very healthy figure, but given he had almost 220 individual runners last year – and based on the calculations outlined earlier – that is probably going to cover little more than three or four months of costs.

Jonjo O’Neill finished 20th in the jumps trainers' title race last season, and his share of the £639,240 his runners amassed would have been around £50,000. For a yard that sent out 125 individual runners last year that wouldn’t even cover one month.

But they do make money, right?

They can do, for sure. Every yard has four main sources of income: a share of prize-money as already mentioned; training fees; buying and selling horses; and transportation. Most trainers claim to at best break even out of buying and selling horses, although the opportunity to make money is greater on the Flat.

Trainers who do their own transportation have another potential income stream. Mark Johnston advertises on his website a cost of £1 per horse per mile, while Tim Vaughan's rate is 75p. While a full lorry will definitely turn a profit, sending just one horse to the races would mean the margin would get a lot tighter.

To answer the main question, it all comes down to a trainer’s fees, a subject commonly shrouded in mystery.

A hypothetical 30-horse yard in Newmarket

Anecdotally fees can range from £30 a day per horse up to £90, but the vast majority do not advertise what they charge. If we take the 30-horse yard mentioned earlier, the illustration above highlights that at those costs the trainer would make a loss if charging £30 a day per horse, and would have to charge £38.36 per day to break even – and that is if all 30 horses remained in training all year round, which is unrealistic.

A trainer charging £40 a day would cover their monthly costs and make a profit of almost £8,000 in a month – but that does not take into account incidentals. If anything breaks, or a horse gets injured, or an owner removes a horse, that £8,000 would evaporate very quickly. To build up a buffer to cover the few months off a horse will have, a daily rate closer to £45 would be necessary for a yard of such size.

Some trainers are open about fees, however, with Vaughan (£37.50, plus veterinary fees at cost), and Johnston (£78, veterinary fees included) at opposite ends of the scale. The rates at Grand National-winning trainer Lucinda Russell's Kinross yard fall in the middle.

Tim Vaughan decides to celebrate with two bottles of champagne

Russell’s website reads: “For 2018-19 our training fees for full training are £47.40 per day, or £1,910 all inclusive per month. We offer generous discounts for those with multiple horses. Our transport fees are among the lowest at 75p per mile for owners covered by the 'Edinburgh Gin' yard sponsorship.

"We have reduced fees for walking, conditioning work and out-of-training horses. Unlimited use of our water treadmill is charged at £75 per month for those in training, and £55 per week for recuperating horses under veterinary advice. All fees are subject to VAT but this can be reclaimed under the VAT scheme.”

There are some trainers doing very well, but for the majority it comes down to the fee being charged and making sure as close to every box available is full.

When the number of horses drops it becomes very difficult to break even.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might like others from this series:

How much does a jockey earn?

True or false: the truth behind popular punting myths

The art, rules and rudeness of naming racehorses

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It all comes down to a trainer?s fees, a subject commonly shrouded in mystery
E.W. Terms