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So many ways stable staff can get more recognition

29 June 2016

This week marks Stable Staff Week, backed by Racing Welfare and Betfair and with that in mind, Lee Mottershead once again discusses issues facing some of the sport's most vital players and ways their lot could be improved.

THIS column has regularly shone a light on the work of stable staff, the conditions of their employment and the reward they receive, plus the ongoing problem of there being simply not enough of them. This week, quite rightly, they become the focus of the entire sport.

Racing Welfare should be congratulated for creating Stable Staff Week, as should all the organisations and individuals who have come on board to help.

Such a collaborative, joined-up approach is heartening to see, for racing can only flourish when all its various groups work in tandem.

One such group, the sport's owners, will tomorrow come together at the Racehorse Owners Association's annual general meeting, during which it is hoped we will not hear the regularly repeated line that "without owners there would be no racing".

It is clearly true, but it is also horribly misleading, for nor would there be racing without trainers, jockeys, breeders, racecourses, punters and, of course, stable staff.

There is something that connects owners and those of us who spend a day at the races inside a press room. Generally, we are given complimentary food by the racecourse, be that in the form of a hot meal or sandwiches.

Some tracks even provide a pudding. The free food is not something we should expect to receive but we are - hopefully, at least - grateful to receive it. This week, as a thank you for their efforts, some members of stable staff will receive it as well.

Jockey Club Racecourses are providing all grooms, travelling head grooms and box-drivers with a voucher for a canteen meal. Similarly, grooms working at Musselburgh this afternoon will not have to pay for their lunch.

These acts of generosity nonetheless highlight that stable staff at other times are required to pay for their breakfast, lunch or dinner when on racecourse duty.

'Patently wrong'

Stable staff pay is improving, certainly in places where demand for labour is high. Even so, it is likely all owners and most racing journalists will have a higher income than stable staff, some of whom live off what most would consider to be very low pay.

It therefore seems patently wrong that reporters and owners get free food when racecourses believe grooms either should not get it or, perhaps more accurately, are not as entitled to get it as those who own the horses or work in the media.

The National Association of Stable Staff points out three British racecourses do now provide staff with a free meal at every meeting, namely Chelmsford, Hamilton and Ascot. They are leading the way. Other racecourses, one would hope, will follow.

More can be done

With Ascot in mind, the recent royal meeting allows me to get three things off my chest in relation to stable staff, how they are treated, recognised and respected.

Firstly, it seems wrong that, Group 1 races aside, winning grooms at Royal Ascot have traditionally not received a podium prize from whichever celebrity, dignitary of member of the royal family is handing out trophies.

To prepare a horse for the Wolferton Handicap requires every bit as much hard work as to ready one for the Gold Cup. The winning groom should be publicly congratulated after all 30 races.

The second and third gripes have been mentioned on this page before. They deserve to be mentioned again.

The Racing Post always seeks to put the name of the winning groom in the result box that appears alongside a big-race report. This depends on the writer being allowed access to the winner's enclosure in time to ask the groom for his or her name or, where that is not possible, obtaining the name from the trainer.

Following one of this year's Ascot Group races the triumphant trainer was able to provide no more than the groom's first name. On most occasions a trainer knows the groom's full name - and some trainers go out of their way to praise the team member - but there are still too many times when that is not the case.

As a trainer is not simply responsible for his or her horses but also his or her employees, it is surprising and disappointing when a licensed individual cannot put a name to the person who has been entrusted with the care of an extremely valuable animal.

In this regard all trainers should seek to emulate Aidan O'Brien. During the era of Rock Of Gibraltar it was reported how Sir Alex Ferguson was left deeply impressed by the relationship between the Ballydoyle boss and those who work for him.

He knew not only their full names but also the names of their wives, husbands, partners and children. He even remembered birthdays. There are many reasons why O'Brien is the best at what he does. This is just one of them.

Groom should lead horses back in

Last, but definitely not least, a reissuing of a frequently delivered plea to owners. As the person who pays the bills, you deservedly receive the biggest chunk of the prize-money and also the largest and most valuable trophy when your horse wins.

The groom will sometimes get a small memento and a slice of the stable pool money, while a kind owner will slip the groom a few quid in notes.

A kind, decent owner will also insist the groom leads the horse into the winner's enclosure. That is absolutely how it should be.

The groom will nearly always know the horse far better than the owner and, indeed, anyone else.

The groom will have forged the closest bond with the horse and is the one who gets out of bed at some ungodly hour to shovel up the faeces, brush the horse, clean the horse and then, often, ride the horse.

The groom does not own the horse but will do everything one would expect an owner of anything other than a racehorse would do. It should therefore be the groom's right to have that priceless winner's enclosure moment.

Most owners understand and embrace this, but not all, and certainly not the handful of owners' wives who after one Royal Ascot contest formed a line to lead a winner into the victory circle. To my eyes and, more tellingly, to the eyes of many stable staff, it was a somewhat crude, distasteful display and one that was sorely lacking in class.

Contrast it with the behaviour of Quiet Reflection's numerous syndicate owners following the Commonwealth Cup. For them this was the glorious highlight of their racing lives, yet none of them for a second seemed inclined to deprive apprentice jockey Jordan Vaughan, who also looks after the filly, his moment of glory.

Quite right, too. In this Stable Staff Week there are major issues to be discussed. Those who work at the sport's coalface desperately need and deserve to be given more time off.

More trainers must move away from the 12-and-a-half-day working fortnight that to many potential applicants makes the job completely unattractive. We need to find ways of retaining existing staff and recruiting new ones. Belatedly, but thankfully, concerted efforts are now in place to tackle the crisis.

The industry needs to think big. Little things, however, can also make a difference. Never forgetting at all times to afford those who do most of the dirty work the respect they fully deserve would be a welcome start

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