By Nicholas Godfrey
How does a rising trainer in British racing keep their head above water during the coronavirus crisis? Epsom-based Adam West is one such trainer – and, with a recession on the horizon, he reckons things might get worse before they get better.
Businesses, from international conglomerates to corner shops, face drastic economic consequences in the wake of the pandemic and his experience shows trainers are no exception.
“There are massive business worries,” says West, who trains the largest string in Epsom at historic Loretta Lodge. “It’s a sobering time; it’s hard to find a positive spin.
“The seriousness will resonate for a while and if I really thought about it, it would zap my focus and I’d be under within two or three weeks.”
After eight years as Roger Teal’s head lad, West, 31, struck out on his own in 2013, opening a pre-training yard where he honed his horse-whispering skills preparing and breaking in ‘problem horses’. He estimates he has successfully broken in over 600 horses with his modern methods.
He took out his training licence in late 2016, starting out with eight horses; after quick growth, he expected to have more than 50 horses in training this term.
“Every year we’ve grown,” he says. “We’ve done better and better, so it’s a real kick in the guts to have to stop that momentum. It’s gonna be hard to kick back up again. I think this will be felt for a long time. You have to remain positive and do what you can to adapt but at the back of my head, it is a big concern.”
‘Thankfully my owners haven’t panicked’
West’s anxieties are all the more striking because it takes 20 minutes of conversation on the subject for him to articulate them. In the short term, he says, despite the suspension of racing since March, it hasn’t been devastating for him personally; longer term, though, he can see only significant damage.
“Our council was very quick and efficient getting business rates cut and getting the grants to us,” he says. “That was instant relief – otherwise it would have been panic stations.”
That’s not to say that he hasn’t taken a hit in economic terms. Under normal circumstances, West would now be expecting to be operating at full pelt.
But instead of a stable with 55 horses, a third are no longer with him since the coronavirus outbreak – they are now back with their owners or ‘out in the field’ in racing parlance.
“I say it hasn’t been too painful in the short term because they’ve gone back home and hopefully they’ll all come back to me,” explains the likeable trainer. “Thankfully my owners haven’t panicked but I’m not getting any income for those horses.”
However, the monthly lease money – hardly cheap in Epsom – plus all the associated expenses of running a medium-sized yard remain largely the same. Still, though, West reckons others have had it far worse than he was.
‘Other people aren’t so lucky – it’s been tricky for them’
“The thing is, everybody’s circumstances in this are very individual,” he says. “In my case, I’m very lucky because I was able to furlough the part-time staff and the other seven of us that live here on-site have been able to do what we’ve needed to do.
“We were ring-fenced for the first three weeks or so. We weren’t even going out on the Downs but we were able to use our own gallops. I know other people aren’t so lucky and it was really tricky for them, and other businesses aren’t so lucky either.”
West, though, fears trouble down the line for a business model dependent to a large extent on partnerships and syndicates.
“If the short term wasn’t horrendous because everyone pulled together, then longer term the damage is going to be devastating with recession and small businesses struggling,” he says.
“My owners are small business owners and families put together for syndicates. If those businesses are struggling, the horses are going to have to go.
“I’ve already had two or three syndicates that always have a new horse every year saying that although they’ll keep the ones they have they’ve got to skip the two-year-old this year because of all the uncertainty. Ultimately, they won’t be buying.”
Then come the specific issues about a 2020 campaign ripped into shreds. “I can’t say that I was going ‘whoop-de-doo’ when they announced the date for the restart,” he admits. “This would be our critical time as we were training just for the start of the turf season and that’s gone completely. We almost had to cut and start again.”
‘I like to plan well in advance – so I’m in limbo now’
Adding insult to injury, West had earmarked the start of the 2020 campaign for an assault with some early-season juveniles. “We had a couple of owners who were keen for that and we had a couple of new syndicates and we got some smaller, compacted types,” he explains.
“For example, I had a beautiful Brocklesby horse [Pasta La Vista] that looked quite promising and they’d done a barrier trial just the week before everything got put on hold.
“They’re putting on plenty of two-year-old races – they’ve done a good job with that – but the chance has gone now as the rest of the guys will be catching up, while the horses who are out in the field won’t be ready until later in the season.”
A bumper horse due to run the day after the lockdown won’t see the track until the autumn now; stable flagship Peggie Sue was due to be covered after a couple more races in the spring. Now her ground has gone.
“I’m someone who likes to plan well in advance so I’m in limbo now,” adds West. “Mind you, I admit I am concerned about how it’s going to work so we probably won’t be having runners for a couple of weeks.
“I’m sure there will have to be a bit of trial and error so we’ll wait until it’s settled down again and the procedures are sorted out.
‘It is hugely concerning … there’s going to be carnage’
“Don’t get me wrong – I know a lot or people are in the same boat but it’s just not as easy as saying we’re okay because racing has started again,” he says, adding that he also suspects the remainder of the season will be super-competitive, with everybody wanting a run.
“In the past, whereas you might have found a weaker two-year-old race up north, you’re not going to get that. There are a lot of narrow-margin handicaps, but ultimately the owner of a 49-rated horse who dearly wants to see their horse run won’t be seeing them run as often.”
At the same time, prize-money is down, while feed prices are up after winter rainfall hit the grain crop. Not far off a perfect storm, in some ways.
“It is hugely concerning,” West admits. “All of it combined … there’s going to be carnage. The top tier probably won’t really be affected – the good horses will still come to those big trainers – but smaller owners or hobby breeders are going to be tightening their belts.
“For me as a newer trainer, I have to keep the margins very close. It hits the margin very quickly and there’s not much hope recouping it. If an owner wants to sell or can’t keep the horse, you’re at a £1,000 loss straight away every month.”
‘Ultimately, I’d just like to get back that family feel’
Still, he insists other people have had it worse – and he has one single overriding wish for the future of his friendly Epsom operation.
“Ultimately, I’d just like to be able to get all of our owners to be able to come back to the yard and see their horses so we can get back that family feel we have, which obviously isn’t possible during quarantine,” says West.
“The winning means a lot to everybody but I’ve always thought there’s so much more to owning a horse or a share in a horse than just that. Once I can open my gates and welcome everyone in for a big party, that’s what I’m looking forward to.
“Then I can look at buying and selling and training,” he adds. “But until we’ve got that family together again, I feel very apart from everyone.”