New rules which will mean apprentice Flat jockeys keep a greater percentage of prize money and riding fees have prompted a series of complaints from leading trainers.
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced the revised structure last week, but Andrew Balding, whose former apprentices include Derby winner William Buick and the new champion jockey, Oisin Murphy, has voiced his disapproval after Richard Fahey and Richard Hannon did so on Wednesday.
In a letter to the BHA’s chief executive, Nick Rust, which was also sent to the Racing Post, Balding complains that trainers have been taken for “fools”, and warns that in future, “nepotism” will be the only incentive for a trainer to “give young, inexperienced jockeys rides”. Balding added that four young riders who were due to start at his yard next year have been told the jobs are no longer available.
In response, the BHA said on Wednesday that it will be “disappointing if the decision is cited as a reason for not employing apprentices, but the new simplified system is very close to that used for conditional jockeys and does not prevent their employment by jumps trainers.”
The Professional Jockeys’ Association (PJA) says that the new rules address a persistent complaint that some trainers are not sticking to their side of the current bargain and reimbursing apprentices for mileage and some other expenses.
Paul Struthers, the PJA’s chief executive, said in a letter of his own to the Racing Post on Wednesday evening that when talks between the PJA and the National Trainers’ Federation broke down, it “would have been a total dereliction of duty by the PJA to agree to the status quo”, and therefore it was left to the BHA to decide on a way forward.
The BHA’s solution was a new regime under which apprentices are now responsible for their expenses, but receive a bigger slice of riding fees and prize money. Under the current system, a trainer receives 50% of all prize money won by an apprentice, regardless of their claim.
Trainers also get half the riding fee of a 7lb claimer, dropping to 45% for 5lb and 20% for 3lb. The new system will be a flat-rate 80-20 split of prize money and riding fees between jockey and trainer. Apprentices with a 3lb claim will receive 90% of the total prize money.
The PJA’s figures suggest trainers made a combined total of around £430,000 per year from apprentice riders’ earnings under the current system. This will now reduce to around £206,000, but without the requirement to also refund expenses. It is a significant sum to lose. So far in 2019, 25% of the horses in Britain’s 4,000 Flat handicaps have been ridden by apprentice jockeys, with 20% of winners (around 800) won by apprentices.
It will potentially be a big loss for aspiring jockeys too if trainers like Balding, with a proven track record for bringing on young riders and giving them good opportunities, follow through on the threat to stop taking on apprentices. Some trainers believe, with some justification, that they are paying the price for their colleagues’ less principled approach, when the support of a top yard can be crucial for a talented apprentice.
Ultimately, riding for a trainer like Balding can be the difference between a jockey getting all the way to the senior ranks or being forced to abandon their dream of a full-time career. But at the same time, it is hardly a one-way street.
Owners are understandably keen to use a “hot” apprentice who is worth a pound or three more than their claim, so having one on your books can work as a useful advert for your stable. In a valuable handicap at a marquee meeting, a claim could be the difference between £100,000 for first place and £30,000 for second. And if the best apprentice around is riding for you, they can’t be riding against you.
For these reasons, it seems likely that if the very biggest stables become more reluctant to employ apprentices as a result of the new regime, those on the next tier down will be more than happy to do so. And if the top rank then find that they are not picking up quite as many big handicap pots as they used to, they may come around to the idea that while a good apprentice no longer puts quite as much money straight into their pocket, there is still a net positive for their overall business.
If the old regime was working in most cases, there was still a Dickensian feel to a trainer taking 50% of everything from a 7lb claimer. The trainers’ annoyance, while understandable in some respects, should not be allowed to undermine what looks like a reasonable alternative.