Tackling the staff crisis (Part 4)

13 min read
Across the winter, TDN AusNZ will be addressing the industry’s most pressing crisis, its staff shortage, finding out what individual operators are doing to mitigate labour problems. In Part IV of the series we look at the situation from the perspective of metropolitan trainers and their staff. We’ve talked to some of Australia’s leading trainers about the problem and their proposed solutions. Their answers may surprise you.

Whether or not it’s the nature of their occupation which lends itself to making ostensibly lucid and convincing arguments about complex topics, you’d be forgiven for leaving a conversation with any one of the trainers interviewed for this part of the series with an impression that the answer to the staffing crisis in training stables is a clear-cut one. However, combining their takes on the matter leaves a picture littered with contradictions.

Trainers disagree on the causes of the crisis. Most commonly cited are: working hours, COVID and pay - in that order. Some say the early starts and working 13 days in a fortnight are putting people off, others emphasise the lack of international arrivals since COVID and one even pays some of his staff more than some of his owners earn.

The reality is: delaying early starts will likely cause great disruption to some trainers, even though the current hours are unsustainable; pay, even where it’s higher than you might expect, is fully justified and; COVID’s main contribution has been to expose and exaggerate a long-existing problem.

Where there is agreement

On the plus side, if you can call it that, there is unanimous agreement amongst trainers that a school (or training facility) for staff is an absolute necessity. More on this later.

Another point of agreement is that the gradual detachment of human and horse via urban migration is a driver of the dearth. “There’s no kids growing up on farms with ponies anymore,” said Paul Snowden. “The whole landscape has completely changed since I was a kid.” Gary Portelli echoed this sentiment, saying: “Kids used to… venture into the racing game because they loved horses, but they don’t grow up with them anymore.”

For some trainers, this has led to a change in practices. “We’ve had to learn how to train people, we’ve never had to do that before,” said Portelli. But this isn’t a comprehensive solution, as he explained: “Because we’re smaller we can put the time into it but the big trainers can’t.”

Gary Portelli | Image courtesy of Portelli Racing

Moreover, whilst ground staff can be trained in-house, the same can’t be said for riders. The manifestly more advanced skill of controlling a racehorse around a busy training track, and the cost of the animals involved, means it’s next to impossible to teach a complete novice at a metropolitan training centre. Portelli summed up: “Riding is a different thing entirely.” This, on top of riders already being identified as the greatest occupational shortage facing the sport, as outlined in Part III.

Just how bad is the situation? Before we dive into the causes of the crisis, and what trainers are doing and proposing to fix it, take the following, stark example: TDN AusNZ came across one established trainer, with multiple Group 1 victories to their name, who has around 60 horses at their Sydney base and has recently been left with just one rider.

Early starts

According to many trainers, the required hours are a big part of the problem. To have horses prepared for exercise when the tracks open, it’s not uncommon for staff to start their working day at 3am. “...they don’t want to get up in the middle of the night,” said Richard Freedman. “They can get other jobs where they don’t have to do that. You’re depending on people that are so keen on horses that they’re prepared to do that, but they’re a small pool.”

“...they (staff) don’t want to get up in the middle of the night.” - Richard Freedman

Freedman is one of the Rosehill trainers (also including Chris Waller) who is in favour of delaying the track opening time. Last year, Rosehill trialled a delayed start of 5am instead of 4.30am. At the end of the trial the time was moved back by just fifteen minutes.

The meagre adjustment is telling of the politics behind such decisions. As Freedman explained: “You get a small minority of, usually older, trainers who resist change of any nature. The (Australian Turf) Club defers to the minority because it’s not unanimous. The Club is quite happy to stand still because then they don’t have to change any of their staffing rosters.”

Richard Freedman with Tommy Berry | Image courtesy of Dynamic Syndications

Randwick trainer John O’Shea is more succinct. “Older trainers who don’t want to change,” he said. “Their only excuse for that is: ‘That’s how we’ve always done it.’”

However, James Ross, the Australian Turf Club’s executive general manager racing and wagering, points to a more complex situation; he explained that, because many of the most invaluable staff (i.e. highly skilled riders) are part-time and treat their role for trainers as secondary to other occupations, a move to a later start would push them out of the industry in favour of their primary jobs, which is exactly what we saw Part III where the change didn’t suit several members of the Lindsay Park team.

James Ross | Image courtesy of the Australian Turf Club

In this sense, trainers have inadvertently backed themselves into a corner. Trackwork riders are well-paid, but not so well-paid that they can forgo employment elsewhere, especially given the high cost of living in areas surrounding metropolitan tracks.

That said, those trainers that are well-organised enough that they can start later and still exercise all of their horses before the tracks close are, according to them, consequently well-staffed. Take John O’Shea’s compelling point: “We start later (than other trainers) and I don’t have any staffing problems, simple as that.”

“We start later (than other trainers) and I don’t have any staffing problems, simple as that.” - John O'Shea

COVID and the internationals

“We’ve relied on the internationals massively but over the last two years they’ve obviously struggled to get in,” said Annabel Neasham. As has been highlighted throughout this series, COVID has exposed the industry’s dependence. As John Sargent explained: “They used to walk in off the street, sometimes literally. Now you just don’t get them.”

Snowden didn’t disagree, but warned that the problem is more deep-rooted. “It (the lack of staff) was a problem before COVID, it’s just an excuse,” he said. His point is supported by a small but typical cross-section at Randwick which reveals that this dependence is yet to be addressed; 11 of 32 riders surveyed by TDN AusNZ are Australian.

Apart from three from New Zealand, the remaining 21 are overwhelmingly European. If this is the picture in the wake of COVID, one has to wonder how much the pre-pandemic ratio was dominated by non-Australians.

Pay and conditions

Richard Freedman believes that COVID has been so damaging because it is those internationals who are willing to endure the early starts. He said: “They’re only here on a working holiday (visa) so that’s just part of the game, they’re happy to work those hours because it’s not their career.”

The competition for the (ever-fewer) remaining riders has induced what Freedman termed “an arms race” in terms of pay. He explained: “Most trackwork riders are earning in excess of $70,000 a year, and most of them would work fewer than 20 hours per week.” Or, as Portelli put it: “I told some of my owners what my staff are earning and they said, ‘He’s earning more than me!’”

“I told some of my owners what my staff are earning and they said, ‘He’s earning more than me!’” - Gary Portelli

On face value $70,000 might sound like an excellent wage for fewer than 20 hours per week, but there are some considerations to add in. Take, for starters, the early mornings limiting possibilities for one’s social and family life. As Neasham argued: “These young people we’re trying to encourage into the sport have to go to bed at 7:30pm and they’re not even going to get their eight hours doing that.”

Annabel Neasham is in favour of a later start for stable staff | Image courtesy of Ashlea Brennan

And then there’s suitability – it’s generally a young person’s game, and it doesn’t come naturally to all. Some people simply aren’t made for the job, quite literally given that trainers ideally want riders to be under 70kgs. Which leads into the physicality of it - to earn that quoted wage a rider would, in many cases, be expected to sit on up to 10 horses per morning. Make that 15 or 16 in some cases observed by TDN AusNZ.

Then there’s the precarious nature of the employment - you will likely be taken on as a casual, meaning no paid holiday, the pay doesn’t reflect working night-time hours, as it would in any other industry, and it’s dangerous; one trainer interviewed has seen six riders side-lined by injury since March this year, with anything from ligament damage to multiple fractures.

A fair summary of how things have changed over the last couple of years is evident in the story of Swan, a French native who arrived in Australia in March 2020. “I emailed four trainers at Randwick but everyone was full for riders,” he recalled. Although he soon found employment as a full-time rider, the two years that followed saw his job change. “When I started I was riding eight, maybe 10 horses on a bad day. Now 10 is a good day.” He has nothing bad to say about his employers, but admits that the gradual increase in his workload is partly why he feels the need for a change, and is returning to France next week.

Leading the way

Trainers are not blind to the toll all of this is taking on their employees. Aside from those who have already moved to a later start time (and are fighting behind closed doors for further progress on the matter), plenty report giving full-time staff an increasing number of afternoons off to assuage the relentless early alarms.

One of those is Chris Waller, whose Racing Manager and Assistant Trainer, Charlie Duckworth, spoke to TDN AusNZ. “We’ve recently given our full-time staff an additional afternoon off per week, they now do four afternoons per week instead of five,” he said. “It’s just trying to give them a better work-life balance which is important.”

Charlie Duckworth | Image courtesy of Chris Waller Racing

And they haven’t stopped there. A bone of contention for a number of Sydney trainers is the 1.5 per cent bonus, drawn from total prizemoney earned by the stable, enacted by Racing NSW. The contention arises in the conditions of eligibility; aside from various stipulations which essentially ensure that those awarded the bonus actually work for the stable in a reasonable capacity, there is the rule that the bonus is only available to those who earn less than $64,350 per annum (or equivalent for part-timers).

Emma Coleman, sales and marketing assistant for Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott Racing, feels passionately about this. “It’s all well and good having prizemoney increases but why isn’t it going to the staff? Half of our staff don’t qualify for the 1.5 per cent because they earn too much,” she noted.

“It’s all well and good having prizemoney increases but why isn’t it going to the staff?” - Emma Coleman

Chris Waller Racing, whilst also fighting for a change in Racing NSW’s rules, have levelled the playing field by charging their owners an equivalent percentage of earned prizemoney in Victoria and Queensland, so that they’re not neglecting their staff based outside of their Sydney stables.

But Duckworth highlights the absurdity of the situation in NSW as it currently stands; “In a stable like ours it can be up to $4000 per quarter so in some cases people would be better off if we dropped their wages, which is back-to-front.”

Pathways into racing

Even if it’s born of necessity, trainers are generally intent on improving conditions for their staff, and certainly this trend won’t (or can’t) slow since the pathways into racing remain noticeably lacking.

As mentioned in Part II, there are a number of pathways providing entry into and training within the wider thoroughbred industry. But for racing stables, and specifically for riders given the reasons outlined above, there is one organisation which has been particularly beneficial. Before its closure, Richmond TAFE’s equine facility was relied upon by Thoroughbred Industry Careers (TIC), because it had the facilities to teach people to ride from scratch. And therefore, much like the racing schools prevalent across Europe, it was a vital pathway.

We caught up with TIC graduate, Marley Mezi. “The course is an amazing way to get right into the centre of racing,” she said, adding, “The facilities at Richmond TAFE were perfect for us Cadets learning what it’s all about, I was very disappointed to hear that they closed down the equine section recently.”

Marley Mezi with Verry Elleegant (NZ) and her Melbourne Cup at Chris Waller's Rosehill base

The foundation she describes led straight to a job with Chris Waller Racing, meaning she could go from “riding lessons a couple of days a week” before she chanced an application to one of TIC’s programs, to a very capable trackwork rider today.

TIC still exists and will surely find a way to flourish again under the guidance of determined CEO Lindy Maurice, but there is no immediate replacement in the pipeline. Part of the problem is the level of investment such facilities require. As Snowden explained: “This should have been spoken about 10 years ago, not now, because it’s going to take another five to eight years to get it off the ground. It’s a long-term investment not a short-term fix.”

Robbie Griffiths is the Australian Trainers' Association President and would certainly agree. “We’ve been saying that (we need more pathways) behind boardroom doors for many years now,” he said, adding, “we’re lacking workers from our own backyard.” Griffiths sees the myriad opportunities for linking these pathways to existing institutions, such as TIC did with TAFE.

“We’ve been saying that (we need more pathways) behind boardroom doors for many years now.” - Robbie Griffiths

“There’s 300,000 jobs nationally in the racing industry… there’s so much scope for people to go into all sorts of areas,” he said. “There’s a massive opportunity if they create a school to have many tentacles to it.

“We need to start letting people know that there’s plenty of careers available and plenty of money too,” said Portelli. “There’s all sorts of different avenues that weren’t there years ago for someone that wants to make a career in racing that just aren’t publicised.”

For Marley, who was able to take advantage of a now-closed pathway, the career prospects are evident. “There are incredible opportunities as an employee at Chris Waller Racing,” she reported. “You could be anything from a strapper, trackwork rider, apprentice jockey, assistant trainer, bloodstock agent to a travelling foreman,” and she references the recent trip to Royal Ascot as a highlight for those involved.

Envisioning a shift-change in stable employment, however utopian or seemingly far-off, Duckworth summarises with a compelling sentiment: “At the end of the day we all work in a sport and while we all understand that it’s big business and there’s a massive amount of money and pressure involved, it’s a sport that the owners are all investing in for fun so it’s wrong that the owners are the only ones having fun. You should be able to make working in racing an enjoyable experience.”

Staff Crisis Part 4
Staff Shortages
Racing NSW
Chris Waller Racing
Gary Portelli
John O'Shea
Richard Freedman
Robbie Griffiths
Charlie Duckworth
James Ross