Stable staff crisis: groom highlights the concerns of employees
Kate Tracey, a groom with Philip Hobbs for five years, gives her take on the sport's stable staff crisis following this week's Racing Post news analysis
I work at Philip Hobbs Racing and am fortunate to have been provided with a great job that I love. My thoughts in this article are a general overview of the racing world collated from speaking to other stable staff and are not specific to any particular yard.
As the jumps season hits the summer lull most yards will be trying to recruit new staff to fill the places left by departing members of their teams.
In the past this task was relatively simple, with a huge pool of potential candidates clamouring to work in racing, but in recent years this has become less and less the case.
The prospect has lost much of its allure for today's youngsters, and from the point of view of a groom there are many reasons why.
It is well known that such work is not highly paid; in fact in many cases it is remunerated with the minimum wage – hence a lack of older, experienced staff in yards.
Stable and yard work has never been about getting a big pay slip at the end of the week. Far from it. It has always been about the love of the horse, no matter how little the pay. And when you are young and new to racing the fact you get paid to do what you love can seem like a bonus; it's a job you would almost pay to do.
But there comes a point when you perhaps start to feel advantage is being taken of your enthusiasm. Once the novelty has worn off saving for a future becomes the focus and life becomes very difficult.
Almost everyone wants a house, a car and a family one day, or at least to be able to afford to live comfortably. This is hard to achieve when you are on the minimum wage with not much chance of a significant pay rise.
There is so much money in racing, but it feels as though it is just being shared out among the already wealthy – and the age-old hierarchical system is still very much with us.
There simply must be a pay increase for staff, as the current levels are far too low to be able to make a life in the modern world. If this does not happen staff will be in racing for only a couple of years, and with the current employment crisis there is not a large pool of candidates to keep filling the jobs.
Further to that, those leaving are the more experienced, or at least those becoming more so, which leaves the less experienced to take their place.
The hours are difficult
Surely the industry would benefit – most importantly the horses and the trainers in charge of them – from having experienced staff who know what they are doing.
These people would be able to work without close supervision and offer detailed feedback, but they would need to be paid a fairer wage to acknowledge and reflect their expertise.
Inexperienced staff might be cheaper, but they have to be supervised more closely and it often needs two or three to do the work of one experienced staff member.
In many ways it could be argued that paying inexperienced staff a lower wage is a false economy.
The hours also represent a difficulty. The job is highly demanding and everyone knows there will be early starts and sometimes late finishes, especially if you are going racing. These are unavoidable, but it's the time not being made back up that is the issue.
Those in most racing yards work every other weekend, meaning the staff are split into two groups and take it in turn to work the yard duties for the Saturday afternoon and Sunday.
All staff must work the Saturday morning as the horses need exercising at least six days a week and they also need to be fed and looked after in the same way as a weekday.
Saturday is also the busiest day of the week as it is the day yards have most runners, with people race-riding and taking part in point-to-points, so every member of staff is needed.
The Saturday afternoon and the Sunday tally up to a total of only five hours working, but in many cases this system is just not physically sustainable as you are sometimes unable to catch up on sleep lost if you have been racing late throughout the week.
Most staff work 13 days in a fortnight with only a break of a day and a half in between, and even then this time off may be lost to go racing.
Little time away from work
Because staff have so little time away from work this can create a sour feeling towards the job and racing as a whole.
Obviously, the horses do need looking after over the weekends, but there are many other ways of doing this.
One is to have weekend staff, with young people looking to get into the industry doing paid work and getting a feel for what the sport is like. If so, they should be mentored by a few older staff who take it in turns to supervise them.
Another idea would be to spread out the working weekends more, so staff are working only one in four, or even five.
Also, more of an incentive should be offered to work weekends. Don't make weekends obligatory, but instead offer money to anyone who wants to work them. Anyone who may be looking for a bit of extra money would then have the means to earn it.
On another front, appreciation often goes under the radar, but it is so important to maintain a happy staff. Just the acknowledgement of doing a good job sometimes equates to more than a financial gain.
Two of the best trainers for acknowledging their staff's work are Oliver Sherwood and Aidan O'Brien.
Mr Sherwood, in all his updates on Facebook, mentions everyone in connection to the individual horse he is referring to, and when a horse is running that day he gives an in-depth preview of the race.
In that preview he acknowledges the person who looks after the horse, the one who rides the horse every day and the one who will be leading up at the races.
Mr O'Brien has long been renowned for thanking every member of the team after Ballydoyle have a winner. In his interviews you can see he is furiously thinking of the horse's connections to make sure he hasn't forgotten a single person.
He is especially respected for this as Ballydoyle is such a huge operation and for him to consider everyone who has helped the horse win is remarkable.
On the subject of acknowledgement of stable staff, ITV Racing came up with the brilliant idea of trying to get the grooms more media attention by interviewing them before and after the races.
Sometimes this doesn't work, as stable staff aren't generally media trained and may not enjoy the attention, but one thing is for certain: every groom loves the acknowledgement of a job well done.
This innovation is a definite step in the right direction, with the bonus that it also gives a more in-depth look at life behind the scenes from the people who know the horses best.
Tied in with respect is the matter of incentives. Every workplace, no matter what the industry, requires incentives to get the best out of its staff, whether this be financial, progress in the role or simple appreciation.
The most appropriate way to incentivise staff is to give them a platform from which to better themselves. Just as you give a horse a pat after a win, your staff should get credit in some form after doing a good job. This lesson needs to be heeded more by trainers and owners, as it is the stable staff who provide the foundation for their horse's success.
There must be some change to the long-standing system currently operating if the sport wishes to keep growing and progressing with a more knowledgeable, valued and happier workforce, which can only be to its benefit.
Racing is a huge operation with many cogs, each just as important as the other. Yet, if one of these cogs ceases to work the whole system will fail.
Stable staff are just one of the cogs playing a key role and they need to be kept happy to provide our sport with a successful future.
Better pay, more time off and more respect are the holy trinity for retaining people in racing and keeping the industry thriving for generations to come.
I've enjoyed my time in racing, met some wonderful people and had many fantastic experiences, but I worry that with things as they are fewer people will stick around long enough to get out of it what I have. And that's a great shame.