Racing cancellation was 'far too early', says Borders trainer Thomson

Horse welfare also a concern.

  • Thursday 19 March
  • News
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Frustration and a stoic determination to handle adversity are contrasting reactions among trainers as they face up to at least six weeks without racing because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sandy Thomson and Sam England have yards with small yet successful strings – and both have explained how they and their staff are coping with the reality of a sport in shutdown until at least the start of May.

While the Flat summer is about to endure a major delay, at best, before it could even begin, Thomson and England belong to a National Hunt fraternity whose season has come to an abrupt end.

For England, based in West Yorkshire between Bradford and Leeds, the prospect of another productive summer jumping campaign may be in jeopardy – while up in the Borders, Thomson has had to accept there will be no Scottish National meeting or other spring targets this year.

He believes the British Horseracing Authority’s decision on Tuesday, to halt all meetings initially until the start of May, was premature.

“Racing has been cancelled far too early, in my opinion, but then I don’t think the BHA have been given much option by the Government,” said Thomson.

“To me it sounds like the UK Government are not willing to provide medical support for sporting events – but because the BHA aren’t actually saying this, they’re taking a huge amount of flak, especially now racing is continuing in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“If the whole thing gets as bad as it might do, and they had to stop racing because they needed that extra medical support, then that would be understandable.

“But I don’t think we’re at that stage yet – and we now have a lot of people, who would be racing, sat at home twiddling their thumbs.”

Thomson, who like England was in flying form when racing was shut down, believes colleagues on the Flat may be hit harder than he will be.

“It’s not as bad for us as it will be for a lot of the Flat trainers,” he said.

Admitting nonetheless that there will be harsh consequences for some of his employees too, he added: “We have nine members of staff, and we’re going to have to lay off one full-time person and let four or five part-time people go.”

Thomson fears equine well-being, such a central theme of the BHA’s Welfare Strategy published last month, may be compromised in some cases too.

“I think one of the major points nobody has mentioned is horse welfare,” he said.

“It could get to the stage where a trainer has to decide whether to put food on the table for himself and his family, or buy food for the horses.

“It’s not going to be a major issue for the big boys, but for the medium to small trainers that might be a decision they’ll have to make.

“On the Flat in particular, there’s a lot of horses owned by syndicates, and a lot of these people will just stop paying if their horses aren’t running.

“We’re relatively lucky – because once we get Ayr and Perth out of the way in April and get into May, a lot of our horses would be going out to grass and some of our part-time staff wouldn’t be here anyway.

“But what the Flat trainers will do, I’ve no idea.

“We’re keeping horses riding out for now, but it’s hard to see a situation where we get to the end of April and the Government suddenly say we can start racing again.”

Almost 160 miles south, England is going through many of the same heart-and-mind processes at the yard she and husband Jonathan run on her father’s farm near Guiseley.

Her instinctive reaction carries an archetypal Yorkshire tone.

“You’ve just got to get on with it – there’s not a lot else you can do,” she said.

“It’s a shame, because our horses were running well, and there was a load of horses we’d saved for a little bit of better ground.

“You just have to have a sit down and chat with the owners, which ones are going to stay in – if it’s just six weeks, you keep training them, or if it’s going to be longer do we rough them off?

“Luckily, all my owners have been really supportive.”

While Thomson’s last four runners all won, England’s last two – at Wetherby, on the final day of racing before the shutdown – finished first and a close second.

Her yard is always a notable force too through the summer jumping campaign at tracks such as Cartmel and Market Rasen.

She said: “We’d saved horses to run on the better ground, that had January and February off.

“They were just getting geed up for the summer. But this is out of our hands – you can’t worry about it, you’ve just got to roll with it.”

England trains 18 horses during the winter peak, and employs two full-time and one part-time staff.

She said: “The girls just might have to take their holidays a bit sooner than they’d planned – but there’s always stuff to do.

“There’s no point worrying about it. You’ve just got to stick at it and see what happens.

“I hope in two weeks’ time we might be a little bit clearer on that.”

Racing cancellation was 'far too early', says Borders trainer Thomson
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