‘The First Thing We Do Every Year Is Make Sure We Don’t Go Out Of Business’

Widely considered as one of the shrewdest trainers in Britain, Stuart Williams discusses the major issues facing middle-to-lower-tier operators as well as his concerns for the wider industry as a whole in this week’s Starfield Stud-sponsored Q&A.


Brian Sheerin: The first thing that pops up when you log on to your website is a quote from Timeform, which describes you as, ‘A conjurer of a trainer. One who can transform an apparently moderate animal into a frequent winner.’ Another compliment that could be paid to you is that few trainers would contemplate trying to improve one that you trained.

Stuart Williams: To be honest, there are not many who have done better when they have left. There are plenty who have won races but they don’t usually improve so it’s something I’m proud of. We try to get the best out of every horse we have.


BS: What is the secret to rejuvenating and doing so well with the already-tried horses who make up the lion’s share of your stable?

SW: We try to train each horse individually. It’s easier to do that when you have a smaller yard like ours which is never home to more than 50 horses at any given time. It’s easier for us to train them individually and we try to work out what suits each horse individually and make it work best in our routine. It’s one of those things where I have gone down this route because I had to in order to survive. We started training with one horse. We’ve never had a big influx of yearlings so we’ve been forced to stock our stable with the older horses and the used horses at the sales. We’ve tried to do the best we can with each horse. It’s all about trying to work out what makes each horse tick and trying to make them as happy as possible. If you can get them fit and healthy, they will produce it on the racetrack.


BS: So was it a case of needs must or was it a conscious decision to try and target the middle-tier horses at the sales in the hope of improving them?

SW: A bit of both, really. It has changed a lot in that the foreign market has become so strong and now the used horses are very hard to buy at the sales. In reality, 80% of the horses-in-training are rated below 80, so that’s the standard of the breed and it has been that way for about 40 years. If we are looking at 80% of the horse population being rated less than 80 and everyone, including myself, wanting to operate in the top 20%, that’s hard to do when you can only afford to buy a few yearlings every year. You are not going to beat the odds very often and get many of those yearlings rated above 80 if you are only buying a handful of them. If you want to be able to run at the big meetings and to compete for decent prize-money, you can go to the horses-in-training sales. Ten years ago, we could go and buy a 4-year-old and upwards rated 80 for 20 or 30 grand. If we could just improve it a little bit, we had a horse rated 90 who had a chance of winning a decent pot on a Saturday afternoon.


BS: What impact has the strength of the sales had on your business? It’s obviously been a good avenue to trade horses for some people but the flip side of that is recruiting fresh talent has become arduous.

SW: The market has changed. We have a different funding system in Britain where they are basically relying on eight or more runners in all of these races and it’s turning into quite a big problem because the fixture list has grown exponentially since the introduction of these all-weather tracks, and the horses who filled that programme are now being sold. It is not just the top horses, either, as it is the second- and even third-tier horses who are being sold abroad. If you looked at the horses-in-training sales from last year, you’d be amazed by how many horses were sold to continue their careers abroad.


BS: What is life at the coalface as a trainer in Britain like right now?

SW: To be honest, I think it’s very difficult. It has never been a lucrative business, apart from if you are operating at the very top, and it’s the same for the jockeys. The top 15 to 20 jockeys are making a good living whereas the rest of them are just about breaking even. It’s the same for the trainers. It amazes me how many trainers manage to survive. It’s a great lifestyle but it’s very hard work and you put everything into it. I love it and I don’t know how to do anything else. But it’s becoming even more difficult to survive now than it was 15 or 20 years ago.


BS: In the face of that, I see you said you are expanding and are looking for more staff on Twitter.

SW: Everyone is short of staff. Any yard in Newmarket, there’s a vacancy. John Gosden, Godolphin, everyone. We’ve changed our working practices to try and improve the work-life balance. None of my staff do a complete full week any week. We try to balance that against the fact that we need to look after these horses 24/7.


BS: Is that your biggest headache as a trainer, the recruiting and retaining of staff?

SW: Staff is a huge problem for everyone. I’ve been in Newmarket for a long time. When they had the stable lads strike, the wages doubled overnight, which resulted in a huge influx of Irish people coming over to work in England. Very few Irish people work in England now. There’s more money, less racing and less hours by working in Ireland. The jockeys come over, and Ross Coakley and Oisin Orr are a good example of very good jockeys who haven’t quite made it at the top tier of Irish racing doing very well over here, but very few staff come to work in England. In the 1980s, we’d a huge influx of females getting into the sport and, while they still come, it’s not in the same numbers. In 2004 we’d a huge influx of Asian workers but now they can’t come anymore. We have an indigenous population who are encouraged to stay on at school until at least 19 or 20 years of age and not many have ever ridden ponies as kids. Most of them are too big to ride Flat horses as well. There’s a perfect storm developing where there aren’t the people there to do the job.


BS: Obviously there’s going to be turnover in the training ranks, as there is with any profession, but I know you were sad to see Chris Wall call time on his career.

SW: We’re going down the route of the super trainer where everyone wants to have their horse with William Haggas, John Gosden, Roger Varian or the new kid on the block. Really good trainers like Chris, who is a smashing fella, saw his numbers dwindle down through the years. It’s hard to see the logic behind any owner, who may have two or three horses, sending them to a big stable. You are going to be such a small fish in a big pond. When my owners want to ring up and find out about one of their horses, they ring me, they don’t ring one of the assistants, the head lad or an agent. I think that should count for something. You have people like Rae Guest, George Margarson, Chris Wall, who wouldn’t have had big strings, but proved that they are perfectly capable of training group horses once they have the right ammunition.


BS: How do you go about leveling the playing field?

SW: They brought in the one meeting a day rule for jockeys. Some of them like it and others don’t but, for safety reasons, I think that was a good idea. A lot of the time, we have Lingfield on a Friday afternoon and Wolverhampton later that evening. It was a mad rush to get up the M6 on a Friday afternoon but everyone was doing it. If you could bring in something to help trainers in a similar way, I don’t think that would be a bad thing. I’m not sure how feasible this would be but perhaps limiting trainers to a certain number would be a start. Two years ago, for example, the Gosdens had 253 horses in the horses-in-training book and that excluded 2-year-olds. They’ve 191 boxes at Clarehavan so you know that all of those horses are not stabled there. A lot of the horses are based at pre-training facilities and come in when they are ready. If you were the BHA, you could possibly say that, ‘we are licensing you to train from this many boxes,’ plus a few in and out of training. If you wanted to train 500 horses, which some do, you’d need close to 500 boxes. That would make it slightly more difficult.


BS: The role of the satellite trainer has never been as important to the super powers.

SW: And they require staff as well. The pre-training yards have got the staff and they don’t have the overheads or the restrictions or the BHA inspecting their yards. It’s a lot cheaper for them to run their business. I was talking to Malcolm Bastard about this recently, as one of my owners has a couple of horses down there with him, and he would make far more in a year pre-training than I would make as a trainer.


BS: A lot of guys’ backs are against the wall and would say that, outside the top bracket, it’s impossible to make a living as a trainer if you are not a trader. So what is it that entices so many people to soldier on?

SW: Listen, I enjoy it. I enjoy being with the horses and talking with the owner and going racing. I left school when I was 14 and have never known anything else. I’ve always wanted to be in racing and, I’ve been doing it so long, I probably wouldn’t be able to do anything else! It’s difficult and the first thing we do every year is try and make sure we don’t go out of business.


BS: What measures do you take to ensure that doesn’t happen?

SW: We don’t go on fantastically-expensive holidays and we don’t have a lavish lifestyle. We make sure we break even on the training fees and try to vet all of the owners who come to us in order to make sure we are not left with any bad debts. We’ve been very lucky in that regard and most of the people pay on time. We put a lot of work into that on a daily basis and the last thing you want is someone not paying at the end of the month. We also try to be as cute as we can with the placement of horses in order to win as much prize-money as we can for the owners and ourselves.


BS: We could be here all night talking about prize-money. It’s obviously quite bad in Britain, as it is in Ireland, compared to all of the other major racing jurisdictions. You associate your stable as being well able to land a gamble. Has that propped up the business in light of the terrible prize-money?

SW: When we first started training, it did. It’s not part of the business anymore because it’s almost impossible to get any kind of money on these days. When I first started training, we built landing touches on horses into the business plan if we could hopefully identify a few horses who we felt could win and then we’d back them accordingly on the right days. But now we just try and place the horses where they have their best possible chance to win. It annoys me a little bit that people brand me as a gambling trainer. If you land a gamble, you get praised on one side for knowing the time of day but it’s a black mark on the other side because some owners won’t want to go to you because they’ll think all you want to do is try and land gambles all of the time. That’s not the case at all. We do the best we can with each individual horse.


BS: As you said in the Racing Post the other day, it has become a lot harder to get big money on. You also spoke about the impact the affordability checks are having on the industry.

SW: I think we need a radical change. Our two main income streams are from the owners and the punters. At the moment in Britain, our owners are recovering between six and eight pence in the pound on average. The money spent by punters comes back through the levy and the media rights and comes back into racing through different avenues. In the gross profits era that we’re in at the moment, we need punters to lose. So, your owners are losing 92 to 94 pence in the pound and your second biggest customer is the punter and you want him to lose as well. That’s a crazy way to run a business. It’s just bonkers.

We need to somehow get nearer to the Australian model. It’s more accessible now than it’s ever been because the big bookmakers are mostly owned by American companies that are casino-based. They are the same people who own the big bookmakers in Australia. If we could convince the government that we are fighting this overseas drain with both hands tied behind our back right now, because of the funding system, we could hopefully get them to legislate in favour of an Australian-based system. I think it would be hugely beneficial to us and might also bring the on-course market back to life because there’d be bigger bets struck on the track.

That’s one thing that is unique about British and Irish racing, is the bookmakers on the racecourse shouting the odds. It’s part of the experience and is an exciting place to be. You go racing in France, the prize-money is better but there’s four men and a dog sitting there watching the smaller meetings with no atmosphere at all. If we get the product, the prize-money and the competition right, then get people betting on it, then it all snowballs into a higher level altogether.


BS: You’ve spent time all over the world. Did you ever flirt with the idea of basing yourself somewhere other than Britain?

SW: I always think to myself that I should have stayed in Australia! I might retire out there one day. I was with Bart Cummings out there and I can remember going to Brisbane for the Carnival and basing one of our horses there with a small trainer who had a row of eight boxes behind his house in a suburb of Brisbane about a mile from the track. We used to walk the horses to the track every day and just work them like that. Well, that wouldn’t be a bad retirement, having three or four horses in the back garden. He used to take them to the track and pay a work rider to ride them for him. That would appeal to me when I get too old to do it here! One day.


BS: Hopefully that won’t come anytime soon as you’ve proved yourself to be one of the shrewdest operators in Britain down through the years. But if I was to ask you what provided you with your biggest kick in the game, what would you say?

SW: We had a horse when we first started training, Concer Un (GB) (Lord Bud {GB}), who was owned by a farmer who couldn’t get 500 pounds for him at the sales. He was out of a mare who won once from as many starts, in a bumper, and William Haggas had trained it. Concer Un won a hatful of races for us, including a big handicap at the Ebor meeting at York, where he broke the track record and beat a horse who went on to finish second at the Breeders’ Cup. To do that with a horse who couldn’t get sold in the ring for 500 pounds provided us with a great buzz. We won 10 handicaps in the same season with Sendintank (GB) (Halling) and he won four handicaps in the same week in two separate weeks. That was pretty good as well.


BS: Finally, what does 2023 look like for you?

SW: We’ve got some nice horses and have picked up some new owners. George Gil is one of them, and he runs Opulence Thoroughbreds. He asked if I’d buy him some yearlings a couple of years ago and some of those look quite promising. We bought 14 in total in 2021. I trained seven of those and Roger Varian trained the rest. They didn’t buy as many last year and they went to a few different trainers but the syndicate is growing and is modeled on Middleham Park. They’ve been fairly successful and, luckily, a few of the horses look quite promising so it’s all quite positive.

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