AMONG all the niggling problems in SA racing, here is arguably the biggest one: We’re in grave and immediate danger of becoming a small niche industry with perhaps the 10 leading owners and trainers racing against each other in a single centre, writes CHARL PRETORIUS.

Dozens of small trainers in South Africa are in such financial trouble that they are considering giving up. Over the last year several have handed in their licences. Today, some are working for basic salaries in industries they hate just to keep food on the table. Others are out on the street, battling to survive. We are losing horsemanship and variety. Also, lest we forget, it is devastating and extremely humiliating for a horseman to give up the job he loves and the thoroughbreds he has looked after, even when the reasons for doing so are beyond his control.

If we don’t take action to curb this disturbing erosion of our industry fabric, a further sharp decline in turnovers will follow. If the wealthy and influential owners in racing don’t start spreading their love, or if the administrators and operators don’t come up with a support plan of sorts, it will be tickets and tax for all of us!

Before you argue that ours is a dog-eat-dog sport in which the strongest will always justifiably survive, remember that this is an industry that employs over 150,000 people. In our multi-faceted game, all the cogs of the wheel have to be greased for it to flourish.

If things get worse, if more trainers give up, horseplayers will lose even more interest than they already have, racing’s betting pools will suffer serious damage and may eventually just bleed to death.

So how does the small trainer influence the betting pools? Consider this: The average horseplayer loves it when the small man wins. He loves variety and big fields, because the payouts from those are generally better and racing is more exciting.

Punters enjoy variety and they support the underdog.
Punters enjoy variety and they support the underdog.

Our grass-roots punters, those who make the pools swell because they’re betting in numbers, love their horses and adore the smaller industry players, for the simple reason that we live in a poor country with a shocking, thieving government. The punters’ mind works in strange ways. Anyone who can give the fancy man in a suit a finger-up is a hero! When the underdog goes one up on the top dog, it’s a victory on its own. The punter returns to bet on his small trainer next time, because, above all, the ordinary guy’s victory is a “feel-good” thing more than a money thing!

Before you dismiss this argument, just think about it. If the R20-per-weekend racing punter sees two high-profile stables competing in, say, an eighthorse race, he is limited in his betting options, he gets bored of seeing the same horses and the same faces and – and if you know the heart of the punter – he will suspect dishonesty the very minute the ‘wrong’ horse wins. And, sure as hell, it will happen like clockwork, because that’s racing.

Old-school trainers often warn the younger trainers: Never put two of yours in the same race, the wrong one often wins! To the punter, when this happens, the first thing that springs to mind is crookery. One horse was ‘pulled up’ for the other, the crook stable took the cash and the punters had to pay in!

How long before the disgruntled punter takes his twenty bucks to the Liverpool vs Watford match? Well, Liverpool vs anybody but that’s not the point. Diminished variety in a horse race leads to diminished interest and, let’s face it, the opportunity for the race participants to be dishonest.

We are not accusing any of our top stables of being dishonest, but when you have five entered in a six horse-race and you can ‘pull a fast one’ for big money, you’d consider it, won’t you? It’s human nature, and easy to achieve in some cases. It’s happened in horse racing throughout the ages, still does and forever will. But with bigger fields and more horses ‘trying’ to win, a planned coup becomes harder because there are more factors to get in the way of the scheming trainer and his intentions. The more competitive things are, the better all round.

Veteran Cape trainer Piet Steyn highlighted the plight of the small trainer in an interview with Sporting Post this week, and he told Turf Talk: “We had a Cape meeting cancelled this week due to a paucity of entries. Today, too, we had a 1000m race in the noms that received three entries and won’t stand up!

“We, the smaller trainers, may well have had one of our handful of horses eligible to compete in that race, but we can’t run them every week. That’s what it comes down to. We are battling to compete; we are at the mercy of the big owners who’d rather give one yard a huge number of horses instead of re-directing two or three of them elsewhere.

“Of course we understand loyalty to one stable and common choice. Owners can take their horses anywhere they want, but our industry is at a juncture where we need to work together and help each other. Giving a few runners to smaller trainers will help the trainers and by implication the races will be better, the pools will be steady and the industry will benefit all-round. As a result, a bigger percentage of people will survive in an industry they’ve served for decades!”

Steyn, who started training in 1981, has 18 runners stabled at Milnerton, including a number of older runners. He won Race 1 at Kenilworth on Wednesday with newcomer Katak (Potala Palace), who passed through the sales ring of his year unsold and was eventually given to Steyn with a generous payment plan by breeder Graeme Koster of Rosedene Stud.

“I sold half of the colt to Marsh Shirtliff for R10,000 plus costs and Katal won first time out. Marsh generously agreed to help me again, and Bryn Ressell has been a stalwart. But that’s the way I’ve had to operate. I know nothing better, horse racing is my life. I’m fighting on, I don’t want to give up but it’s tough without support from owners and there are a number of my fellow-trainers in the same boat. We’ve given our lives to racing and we’re getting no help from the industry now.

“Lately, we have owners based in Cape Town sending their more moderate runners to Port Elizabeth on a Friday. Perhaps they think it’s easier to win there, but PE racing is well on a par with the rest of the country. They should keep them here, nominate them to keep our fields alive!

“Alternatively, and we’re hoping, the chuck-outs from the bigger stables can come to us. In every annual draft from a big owner to a big trainer there are many horses that don’t make the grade. But they don’t seem to end up with us in Cape Town, they go elsewhere or are retired. There will be similar situations in all centres and what it comes down to just a spreading around of owners’ horses. We’re not going to take food off the big trainers’ table, we’ll be relieving them of runners they actually can do without, and other training yards and battling households will be saved.

“You see, it’s something like this: We can win with their weak horses, but they can’t win with ours!” Steyn said.

The matter is more complicated, sure, but it’s hard to disagree with Steyn and the many others in his position. As an industry, we need to come to the aid of all our workers. It’s time to iron this one out. Let’s place it on top of our agendas!

Photo: Wayne Marks.