“Racing will bounce back” says Newmarket Trainer John Berry.
In our latest blog by Stephen Wallis, Palace House speaks to John Berry, a former Newmarket Mayor and Sky Sports Racing presenter who believes the economic effect of Coronavirus will have a significant impact on trainers’ viability and racehorse ownership.
With flat racing currently suspended for an indefinite period, I spoke to Berry about how the current lockdown was affecting his daily job at Beverley House Stables together with his thoughts on what lies ahead for racing.
He confirmed that at the moment work is no different for his small yard where he trains sixteen horses. He is still starting at 6.30 am and finishing work at about 11.30 am, while he and one of his stable staff come back at 3.00 pm for afternoon stables. As for social distancing, Berry says “When we are riding out we go one behind the other, whereas before we might have ridden side by side. If we do go side by side, such as when the horses are working, we make sure we are on different sides of the gallop. So you’re probably a good three metres apart at all times. We are conscious not to get close to horses in other strings but it’s not normally any different to what we have been doing”.
The experienced trainer, who has been working in the industry for over 35 years and training for over 25, remembers the days when there was no all-weather racing in the winter and flat trainers had no runners between early November and the end of March. All-weather racing began in the UK in 1989.
Berry is philosophical about the current training situation. “We are training horses as if they are going to run in a couple of months. From the outset, I’ve thought that a resumption of racing before the end of May might be unrealistic, so I’m working on the basis that the horses might need to be ready from June onwards. It’s as if it’s pre-season training, in January or February. The horses are three of four gallops away from a run” said Berry.
As for the work riders, what has changed for them? “There is nothing of significance while they're at work, bar the fact that a smaller proportion than usual of the work ridden is strong, galloping work. However, there will be significant changes to their home life, like all of us” said Berry.
Berry said there was at present no problem with supplies. “It hasn’t made any difference at all. My hay gets delivered by a local farmer, shavings arrive locally and I get my main feed once a month and that’s still coming. Feeding animals is the same as feeding humans. The supply chain is good”, the trainer confirmed.
He also visits Newmarket Horse Requisites for other feed and supplies, who operate a one person in the shop at a time policy, similar to small pharmacies, which works well. “There is 100% social distancing in the shop,” said Berry.
One change that Berry is finding is the removal of the daily pressures a trainer experiences. “I am probably untypical of people because I love training horses and I don’t get the bulk of my pleasure from being successful; mine comes from training horses. I’m actually enjoying not having runners for a while because there is a lot of pressure getting horses ready to run. Even the most successful trainer trains three losers out of four. I am still doing a full day’s work but it has taken this situation to highlight the pressure a trainer is under when you’re having runners and I have only just realised that. I feel more relaxed than I have ever done. Financially, it is even harder to balance the books but on a day-to-day basis I am enjoying the hiatus and feel more relaxed but I don’t want this to drag on” said Berry.
Berry believes that when racing does resume it will be a skeleton programme where getting a race for a horse could be a serious problem. “In each race put on, there are going to be 60 or more horses eliminated. There are massive backlogs of horses needing a run and you will be lucky if you find two suitable races in a month for anyone horse. We are all going to be in the same place” said Berry.
However, Berry is more concerned about the devastating worldwide economic effects of the pandemic to businesses and individuals. “Millions of people are losing their jobs and/or their businesses. Nearly everyone is going to be hit financially by this, which will mean there will be a lot fewer people with disposable money to spend and the racehorse ownership base will contract significantly. Whether racing is off for six, eight, ten or twelve weeks it is a short-term problem; the long-term problem is that at the start of 2021 there will a lot fewer racehorse owners than there were at the start of 2020. That problem will not be influenced by how long racing is off for but by the national economic situation” said Berry.
Staff-wise Berry was more hopeful for workers’ employment prospects with the industry under-staffed at present, but he feared there will be a significant number of trainers, most likely smaller ones, going out of business. “I don’t think there will be staff job losses because the ones who work for those who go out of business will go to work for someone else. Many trainers were running to stand still even before this, but the problems in our world are small compared to the wider world. We are not in the hospitality or retail industry. It could be lot worse” said a thoughtful Berry.
Looking ahead, Berry is of the opinion that racing will start again before we are allowed to have large gatherings, probably behind closed doors, and he can foresee the authorities nominating racecourses, one per region. He hoped this season’s Classic races could still be run, which they still were during two World Wars.
Racing has faced and survived major challenges in the past, world wars, foot and mouth disease and other economic crashes. The current situation is likely to be the worst of them since the Second World War but Berry was confident that “overall racing will bounce back”.
Photos courtesy of John Berry.
Blog by Stephen Wallis