Friday, February 09, 2018

Excuses, excuses!

I probably ought to come up with some sort of explanation why I have not filed any copy in this blog since 19th December.  (And today is 9th February).  There isn't one, really.  I just didn't really feel like putting finger to keyboard.  I tried to make the period between Christmas and New Year as idle as possible, which isn't saying much but one way of doing so was spending as little time on the computer as possible.  And then I was very low in January, physically and mentally.  I had actually been very low mentally through December too; and when you're finding it hard to summon up the enthusiasm to do anything which doesn't have to be done, your creative juices tend not to be flowing freely.

Last year we had a good year on the racecourse with 13 winners at a strike-rate of something slightly over 20%.  I say that vaguely because we had 11 winners on the Flat and two under National Hunt rules.  The Racing Post tells us that our strike rate on the Flat was 20%.  Our National Hunt strike-rate would have been higher than that as we would not have had as many as 10 runners in the year (I think that it was seven - four by White Valiant and three by Delatite).  And that obviously means that our overall strike rate would have been slightly higher than our Flat strike rate.  That's all well and good, but unfortunately financially it was a very bad year.  But what was keeping my morale up through the autumn as the books were consistently failing to balance was that Kilim was entered in the December Sale, where she would surely right the ship for a while.

Anyway, that didn't happen, and that nasty shock did knock the wind out of my sails.  Kilim has a beautiful pedigree (the Dansili x Sadler's Wells cross is lovely, and her dam isn't just any old Sadler's Wells mare, but a full-sister to a Classic winner) and now that she had found her form, I reasoned that she would be viewed as a lovely broodmare prospect.  She was in great form in the autumn, and went to the December Sale only half a length off having won her last three races.  She had won, then finished second beaten half a length, and then finished second beaten a short head.

And to give the form a real solid feel, the horse who had beaten her both the times when she was second (Esspeegee) continued winning afterwards and now, having broken his maiden when he beat her the first time, he is now the winner of his last four races.    She was still every bit a racing prospect as she was 100% sound and genuine, and was only just finding her form and looked certain to continue to improve, so she would be pretty much nailed on to win more races if she stayed in training.  But, much though it pained me, I felt that I had to sell her now that she was clearly a valuable broodmare prospect, just to keep the show on the road.

Best laid plans of mice and men, eh?  I was very happy when her year-younger half-sister Dubara made 180,000 guineas the day before Kilim was due to go through the ring.  Dubara is a better racehorse than Kilim, but not massively so: she isn't a black-type performer as, although she has run in one Listed race, she finished 13th of 13 in it, beaten 27 lengths which is a long way in a seven-furlong race.  I wasn't expecting Kilim to fetch anything like as much as Dubara, but her fetching 10% of her sibling's price didn't seem to be an unrealistic hope.

The problem was, of course, that we are operating in a two-tier market.  There is no domestic demand for horses as racing's economics are shot to pieces in this country; but there is a very strong export market.  If you sell a horse when there are overseas buyers there, you'll get plenty for him/her if he/she has credentials sufficient to appeal to the international market-place.  Otherwise, you'll get virtually nothing.  A classic example of this is our own dear Hope Is High.

There is a mare very closely related to her (both are by Sir Percy, and it is something like that their dams are half-sisters) who was sold at the December Sale a few years ago (in foal to Bahamian Bounty, but he was just a bread-and-butter stallion, and the covering would have added very little to her value) on a day when there was strong international representation and she fetched 100,000 guineas for export to New Zealand.  Hope Is High went through Tattersalls a year or so later on a day without many overseas buyers there, and Emma bought her for 800 guineas.  The further irony is that Hope Is High is a better racehorse with a better racing record than the mare who went to New Zealand (who won one race) although admittedly that was unknown at the time as it was still early days in Hope Is High's racing career at that stage, and it was not yet known how much ability she did or didn't have.  But we can still see the point: a horse's value goes up or down by an almost unbelievable degree depending on which day he or she strolls through the ring.  It makes no sense whatsoever.

Tattersalls appear to put their less preferred horses and/or less preferred vendors on the last day of the December Sale, and the overseas buyers don't stay for it.  There are four days of selling that week, and less than 1% of the week's aggregate was spent that day.  Inexplicably, Kilim was put on the last day, and the highest bid made for her in the ring was 3,500 guineas.  I subsequently sold her for 4,000 guineas, which really pained me as I really didn't want to see her go.  But, much as it pained me to sell her for that sum, I pretty much had to do so as I had run up significant pre-sale costs and had already bought two replacements.  (And even as I was buying them, the thought was haunting me that this would be a major debacle if Kilim ended up not selling well.  But at the time I really couldn't see that happening, so I thought that I was safe enough).

Anyway that debacle floored me for a while, the disappointment of my miscalculation coming at the end of what had been a financially disastrous year.  And a very tiring year too.  I believe the norm is to have 132 days (52 Saturdays + 52 Sundays + 8 Bank Holidays + 20 days' leave) off a year and, while one knows as a trainer or a jockey one is never going to have anything like that, ending a year with the realisation that one's total of days off has been zero, and that one has nothing but exhaustion to show for it, is sobering.  And then things got worse in January.  I had a very bad dose of 'flu from which I haven't yet fully recovered, but at least I am able to function normally again now, even if I am still permanently exhausted.  Jana was unwell with a similar virus at the same time, which meant that we had to grind to a halt for a while.  And the further complication is that we are very short-handed anyway, for a reason which really vexes me.

Unlike all too many trainers, I do everything I can to try to minimise the risk of injury to those under my command.  And yet we're a woman down for a couple of months as the result of a serious injury.  The person concerned (and I'd rather not mention her name, just to save her from any embarrassment) was lucky enough to be invited to Henry Spiller's wedding in Ireland last month because her boyfriend works for Henry.  When they went off we felt slightly uneasy as there was anecdotal evidence to suggest that he might drink a lot and that violence might ensue; but, even expecting the worst, I still was not prepared for the full extent of the upshot.

On the Sunday evening she appeared in the yard, clearly in a lot of pain, and told me that she had been the victim of domestic violence over there, and had broken bones in her hand and broken ribs.  Unbelievable.  (I should add, in the interests of fairness, that her boyfriend says that she is lying and that he did not injure her.  I went to see him to ask whether he might be prepared to make a contribution to her wages while she was off.  I wasn't surprised when he said that he wouldn't be; but I was taken aback when he told me that she was lying, that he was the victim here, and that she had injured herself falling over.  So taken aback, in fact, that I ended up telling him what I thought of him, which probably wasn't very wise - but there you go.  I have to say that I find her version of events easier to believe, not least because I can't see what motivation she might have to lie about it; and also because, while I could believe her either breaking ribs or breaking her hand by falling over, it's hard to see how she could have broken both that way, and overall her story that when she was on the ground he stamped on her hand and kicked her ribs seems more plausible).

Whatever - this coming at a time when I was physically and mentally at a very low ebb was hard to swallow.  It bothers me, over and above the fact that it has put the rest of us under a lot of pressure, and is costing me a lot of money at a time when I'm not really in a position to have the books becoming any more unbalanced than they already are.  The problem is that I have never been afraid of hard work, but I am a little bit frightened of it now after having been so unwell, and this is now a time when the work is very, very hard.  (Of course, over and above everything else, this type of work always seems harder when the weather is bad; and since Christmas the weather has been dreadful).  I had a similar dose of 'flu in 2006 and it flattened me, and I took a long time to get over it.   But I was only 39 then, and I'm 51 now, and I am struggling at present, physically and mentally.

But I'm getting healthier now in every respect.  Against the background of a recent spate of tragic suicides, Emma did seem to be on some sort of suicide-watch for a time when I was really low, but she needn't have worried.  That's not something I'd ever do.  I think it was Cecil Rhodes who said that to be born an Englishman was to win first prize in the lottery of life.  I'm not English so that counts me out; but, even so, I don't think that I'll ever lose touch with reality enough to forget that, in the great scheme of things, I was dealt a very good hand by fate, and that it would be ridiculous for me ever to try to claim that my hand was an unplayable one.  Clearly not everyone feels this way, but for me one of the axioms of life is that life is a precious gift to be cherished, and not to be surrendered willingly in pretty much any circumstances.  I would be surprised and disappointed if I ever lose sight of that.

And I can prove my intention to be around for a while.  When I was very bad, I wasn't eating but I was making sure that I drank plenty of Lucozade.  I went one day to Waitrose to stock up on Lucozade, and as I also needed to go to Horse Requisites to buy a few bags of feed I took the car rather than walked.  When I was in the soft drinks' aisle in Waitrose looking for the Lucozade, I saw that bottles of Bundaberg root beer (which I love - it's a soft drink but it isn't sweet like, say, coke or lemonade, so is much nicer and much easier to drink) were much reduced 'to clear'.  As I had the car outside and wasn't limited to buying only what I could carry, I bought the lot.  I had no wish to drink root beer at the time (and still haven't drunk any of it) but it's lovely in the summer when it's hot and one is thirsty.  That's when I plan to drink it, and I wouldn't have bought it unless I was anticipating being around then.  So, anyway, don't worry - if I'm not around to drink the root beer in the summer, it won't be by design.  And I hope that I'll be writing chapters more regularly again henceforth.


glenn.pennington said...

Great to have you back John - your musings have been sorely missed.

John Berry said...

Cheers, Glenn. Much appreciated. They'll be appearing regularly again henceforth!