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Stables in Crisis

29 November 2016

Wanted: full-time stable staff and work-riders. Long hours. Poor salary. Must be available to work on bank holidays. No prospect of promotion. Must be prepared to work during busy Christmas period. No pension. No health insurance. No benefits.

If you read the above advertisement in the recruitment pages of this newspaper, would you apply? Of course you wouldn’t.

Not all stable staff work under such conditions, and there are trainers who treat their staff impeccably, keeping them for long periods, but the stark reality is that it has never been more difficult to attract people into yards. The situation is no longer stable – it is critical.

“This is the worst it’s ever been. I’ve never had so many requests from trainers for staff,” says Bernard Caldwell, chairman of the Irish Stable Staff Association. “Something needs to be done and done fast. If we have the world-class horses everyone says we have we need world-class people looking after them. HRI are now at least beginning to realise that there is a big problem. A massive one.”
Struggling to compete

Since visa restrictions were implemented in 2008, which stopped the flow of foreign nationals coming into Ireland, there has been an outcry from the majority of trainers who cannot find suitable Irish staff. Racing is no longer an attractive option for teenagers. Third-level education is more affordable now and that provides an avenue to a more dependable living down the line. Racing struggles to compete and, at the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association AGM last week, a recruitment drive was proposed.

The minimum wage for stable staff in Ireland is €9.75 per hour. That is a weekly wage of €380.52 for a basic 39-hour week. However, a brief survey of stables suggests that a 39-hour week is a luxury rarely enjoyed by anybody, and getting paid overtime for extra hours is not straightforward.

“The big problem is the 39-hour week,” admits Caldwell. “You cannot compare this to other normal jobs. It is different. But stable staff don’t have a problem working more than 39 hours. They just want to be paid and looked after for the extra hours they do work. They need cash for it. I would like to see the minimum wage jump to €11.40 per hour and more expenses for those travelling to the races.”

The expense rate for travelling to a day meeting during the week is €40. It is €50 for an evening fixture. That rate jumps to €75 for Saturday evenings, Sundays and Bank Holidays, while an overnight stay pays €100.

“I worry for the smaller yards. Post offices in small villages in Ireland are just as important as the GPO and it is the same with trainers,” Caldwell adds. “We need to cater for the small man. Why not have races dedicated to trainers who have not won more than €50,000 in prize-money so far that season? Have a 7f, mile and 1m2f handicap at Dundalk for those trainers. Would that not help? Would that not create extra funds to pay stable staff? We need to do something fast.”

'Where would I get staff?'

Fethard-based trainer Joe Murphy has enjoyed his best season. He has sent out a dozen Flat winners in 2016 and one over jumps. Flying Fairies upset the previously unbeaten Zawraq in the Listed Trigo Stakes at Leopardstown last month, while the speedy Only Mine won the Group 3 Lacken Stakes at Naas in May.

Murphy is going places but in order to take it to the next level he needs to increase numbers. The demand is there from owners but there is another stumbling block.

“We could build another 15 stables and we would fill them,” says Murphy. “But where on earth would I get the staff? They’re not out there. Why would I build 15 more stables when we can’t find anybody to do the work that would be involved with those extra horses. I’m not even frustrated, I’m beyond that. I’ve accepted the reality of the situation and I just have to get up and get on with it.

“These are different times to when I was growing up. There’s no incentive for any young fella or girl to get involved in this game any more. No mother wants to see their son get into racing. If I went into Fethard looking for someone to work for me, they wouldn’t take a job because they’re on the social welfare and afraid of losing their medical card.

“Life has changed too. I remember when Jamie Spencer was going well as an apprentice with Liam Browne many moons ago. He was all set to head home to his parents for the weekend but Liam came out with a toothbrush and told him to paint the front wall and to ring his parents and tell them he wasn’t coming. It was just a test. Once he started painting, he let him head home. If you did something like that now you’d get into big trouble. Racing needs to move with the times.”

‘Extremely difficult’

Times have changed for Tom Taaffe. The man who saddled Kicking King to win the 2005 Cheltenham Gold Cup sent out just two winners last season and, while there are various factors that have contributed to the decline, the lack of suitable staff is certainly one.

After Rogue Trader won a handicap chase at Punchestown this month, Taaffe queried whether this correspondent (15 stone and sat on a horse twice) might throw away the pen and start riding out for him. The comment sparked laughter, but the funniest thing of all was that the trainer was only half-joking.

“It’s extremely difficult to get any staff at all and it is impossible to get top-notch staff now. The restriction on foreigners coming into the country has been a major factor,” Taaffe said.

“It’s a labour of love and you have to adopt a trial and error policy. There’s no point looking at CVs – you have to get someone in and see what they can do. You need someone who can be your eyes and ears when you’re not there.

“Then other times you might get young, aspiring jockeys in but once they start progressing and riding well they’ll be quickly snapped up by the bigger yards. It’s a catch 22 really. You want to make a rider better but then when you do they move on.”

Ado McGuinness is based in Lusk in north Dublin and, while he might be nearer to the capital city than anyone else, he is further away from the core racing areas than most.

“There are weeks I could work up to 90 hours. I’m the secretary, the truck driver, the gallops man, the trainer. You name it, I do it. If I was on a McDonald’s wage and doing those sort of hours I’d be getting some pay cheque at the end of the week. My 15-year-old son is a huge help and I’m not sure I would be able to survive without him. I’m trying to ensure his future won’t be in racing but I’m banging my head against a brick wall as he loves it. I’ll make sure he has an education, though. He’s doing his Junior Cert this year and there’s no way he’s leaving school after it.

“I need two more staff badly. I can’t find them anywhere. I have a really good Romanian guy working for me. He’s heading home for Christmas and I begged him to try to find me two fellas to come back with him and work for me.

“I should be charging my owners more. But if I charge an extra fiver or tenner in order to pay stable staff more I’m taking the chance owners might pack up and leave. I need to keep the owners I have. But what I’m doing now is not sustainable and I might have to bite the bullet in mid-February and put up my fees in order to pay staff more.”

‘It’s so much worse now’

Up-and-coming Curragh trainer Johnny Levins is in his third full season and says: “It was bad when I started but it’s so much worse now. I find myself constantly looking for staff. There was a time when the bigger yards would let their staff go for the winter and you might get them for a few months but that’s gone now. They don’t let them go for fear that they won’t come back.

“We need to draw up a plan to try to get foreign nationals back into the country. When the Brazilians stopped arriving in numbers that was when the big problems started.”

There are people trying to solve the problems, none more so than Keith Rowe, who is a director with RACE, the racing academy and centre of education located in Kildare. For 12 years he has been trying to ensure there is a constant supply of talent filtering through their academy but he stressed that the stable staff situation is worse now that it was in the height of the recession.

“There are more people working in Intel in Leixlip than the core stable staff in Ireland. The warning signs have been coming down the track and it’s now worse than during the recession,” Rowe says.

“There needs to be strategic thought and investment put in to try to solve the problem. It cannot be ignored for any longer and, because of the scale of the industry, there’s an opportunity to get a really good model in place.”

Education can help

Paddy Ryan, from the Careers And Racing Education Department in HRI, has been exploring different avenues to attract more staff into stables.

There was an education day for second-level students at Naas racecourse last week, and Ryan has been burrowing away behind the scenes to complete a career trainee programme for racing yards.

“I’ve been working with the IRTA and the Kildare & Wicklow Education and Training Board to explore the feasibility of running a career trainee programme for racing yards,” he explains.

“The programme would involve four days working in a yard and one day in the classroom per week and we intend to run it on a trial basis in Kildare initially. If there proves to be merit in the programme we’ll look to bring the model to other ETBs around the country. Ideally the programme would help to alleviate some of the staffing issues that racing yards are experiencing.”

In April of this year RACE, in conjunction with HRI, ran an eight-week foundation-level course for grooms and exercise riders. There were 20 applicants initially but only 12 went forward to take part on the course and 11 graduated in June. They were all placed with trainers and six are still riding out for them.

HRI has indicated its intention to run further training programmes, but the fact only 12 took the course tells you all you need to know. The stable-staff situation in Ireland is at crisis point, but finding a solution to the crisis is looking an increasingly tall order.


Financial insecurity and long slog forced Bowes to leave dream job

Helena Bowes-Brady has an illustrious racing CV. Every thoroughbred she touched turned to gold.

She worked for Dessie Hughes when Hardy Eustace won his Champion Hurdles in 2004 and 2005. She was in the Jim Bolger camp when New Approach won the Epsom Derby in 2008 and, during her two-year stint with Barclay Tagg in America, Funny Cide won the Preakness and Kentucky Derby in 2003.

She had a spell breaking yearlings in Ballylinch Stud and did the Irish National Stud course in 2007. She loved every single second she spent around horses and wanted to devote the rest of her life to them. But, when she reached her late 20s, she faced a dilemma.

“I started to think about having a family and buying a house and grown-up things like that. I needed some stability,” she explains. “I wanted to stay in racing in any way I could. I rang Galway racecourse to see if they had anything for me. I got in touch with the Turf Club and RACE too but there was nothing for me. I had a tough decision to make.

“I needed to provide for my family. Financially I needed something better. I needed to have a better work-life balance. The hours in stable yards are long and the money is not great. I had to make a choice.”

Bowes decided to break out of the stable. She took a Legal & Medical Administration Course in Galway Community College and now works for Alliance Medical – a diagnostic imaging company who do MRI scans in Galway. 

“I loved my life in racing and it never felt like a job but it was a long slog,” she says. “The difference now is that I work Monday to Friday and actually have a life. I have three young kids and I am able to spend time with them. I would love to be still working in a yard but financially it was not suitable and the hours are too long when you have small kids like me. It kills me that I am not around horses but what can you do? You have to make a choice and I have made mine.”


'I couldn’t imagine a life away from horses – I don't do it for the money'

It has just ticked past 7.15am, roll over and snooze again time for many of us, but Emma Connolly is already tacking up the first lot at Noel Meade’s Tu Va stables in Castletown, County Meath. It is a toe-numbing two degrees.

Connolly is now into her eighth year with Meade and this particular Wednesday is more manic than most. She is riding Snow Falcon, Wounded Warrior and Texas Jack in the first three lots. She has to wash down all three afterwards and put them on the walkers. Once all that is done, it is off to Dublin Port to catch a ferry at 2.15pm.

A seven-hour drive to Newbury awaits when she docks in Holyhead as Snow Falcon is running in the bet365 Long Distance Hurdle at the Hennessy meeting. She hopes to arrive at the track by 12.30am and might get to bed by 1.30am if she’s lucky.

“I couldn’t imagine a life away from horses,” says Connolly, who has even given retired Grade 1 winner Pandorama a home. “I love horses. I don’t do it for the money. I don’t think anyone does. In fairness to Noel, he’s a dream to work for. He looks after me and you couldn’t work for a sounder man. Everything is done properly and above board. We get on great.”

Damien ‘Les’ McGillick has been Meade’s right-hand man since 1989.
“I didn’t even know how to ride a horse when I arrived here,” he laughs. “It was Gillian O’Brien and a few others who spent the time teaching me how to ride. You couldn’t do that now. It’s all about being ready in the here and now.”

McGillick won the leadership award at the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff awards ceremony at the Dunraven Arms last April and no-one argued with it. He was on board Le Martalin and Road To Respect in the first two lots earlier and now he’s clipping horses for the afternoon.

“Noel wouldn’t let anyone else clip them. That’s my job,” says the 43-year-old, whose enthusiasm remains infectious. “I have about 115 to do and most of them will be done before Christmas. This is the time of year for it.

“I still love it here. I’ve been with Noel for 27 years and I could count on one hand the number of disagreements we’ve had. You have to be committed, though. There’s no point getting into something like this if you’re not dedicated. The hours are long. There’s a good bunch here and everyone seems happy.”

If keeping good stable staff happy is the secret to success, Meade has cracked the code.


The approximate number of full- and part-time stable staff in Ireland

The number of hours which dual-purpose trainer Ado McGuinness can work in a week due to a lack of staff

The number of people who attended the RACE foundation-level course earlier this year

The current minimum wage per hour that stable staff are receiving

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