SUPPORTING THE lower tiers of Scottish horse racing is vital if the industry is to safeguard its future survival.

Licensed trainer and race yard owner, James Ewart, told the SF that the way Scottish horse racing is heading, there might not be an industry left in 30 years’ time in its current form.

He runs James Ewart Racing, near the Borders town of Langholm. A predominantly National Hunt Yard, he looks after around 50 horses at any one time, employing 17 full time members of staff and many more on a part-time basis.

He runs the yard on his family’s beef and sheep farm, where his brother looks after 2000 ewes and 80 cattle – a mix of Belted Galloways and Dexters.

When he returned to the family farm in 2004, it provided the perfect location for setting up a yard, with hundreds of acres of ground for grazing and training, derelict farm buildings which could be transformed into stables and state of the art training facilities. It is also only a 3.5 hour commute from 23 racecourses and only 5.5 hours from Cheltenham.

When Mr Ewart started in racing, the North was in its heyday and many of the best horses, trainers and jockeys were based in Scotland. Over the past 15 years, he has watched as racing focus and attention has moved south of the Border with ‘super yards’ springing up with multi-million-pound bank purses in tow.

Smaller and medium size trainers and yards like his own have melted into the background and with it, the racing landscape has changed across the country.

Point-to-points have been disappearing and that's where, he said, many people got their first taste and love for racing on the amateur circuit, before following a career up the ranks. Without events like point-to-points for people to visit and develop that initial fire for the industry, there are fewer people putting themselves forward to work in racing and ensure there is a vibrant future in the sport.

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Rising star Amy Elliot leading the gallop on recent winner The Blame Game (Form and Function Photography)

“The way racing is going at the moment, it isn’t supporting the lower tiers – the foundation of where people learn about racing,” said Mr Ewart. “Smaller owners and trainers are living hand to mouth, but they do it because they love it.

“With point-to-points drying up there is no diversity in racing and without diversity there isn’t the same level of opportunity. We have seen a significant drop in permit holders (licensed trainers) and similarly jockeys and horses are often going South where the big money and media attention is,” he explained.

“There is no way you can compete with a super yard in the South which could be buying in around 200 horses a year with an average annual spend of between £6-10m, whereas yards in Scotland might be spending 10's and 100's of thousands of pounds on a handful of horses.

“We are so lucky in The Scottish Borders, with a fantastic variety of tracks and lots of places to exercise horses, as well as exceptional trainers, but the main problem is with social media, people only want to hear about the big winners and the big meetings which are mostly southern based. If you are a smaller trainer without a Cheltenham horse or a high-profile jockey, you virtually don’t exist.”

Mr Ewart explained that some notable northern horse owners might be spending thousands on horses, but they are mostly being trained below the Border. This is not helped, he claimed, by the British Horseracing Authority favouring bigger yards which are easier to police than lots of smaller yards, which makes it harder for new trainers and jockeys to get a foot on the ladder.

He explained that racing families are experiencing some of the same problems as farming families in terms of succession. “There is generally an exodus from the countryside from farming folk as well as racing folk. Kids are growing up seeing their parents struggling to get by and are opting for an easier life where working weekends and nights isn’t a necessity.

“The problem is that there isn’t enough being given back to those smaller rural communities to help them thrive.”

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Steven Fox leading a cool-down hack after a morning on the gallops (Form and Function Photography)

He pointed out that through racing, every £1 spent in a racing yard on horses and trainers, creates a further £7 in employment in local rural communities. Mr Ewart added that his own yard employs more under 25-year-olds than any other business In the Scottish Borders. However, there are concerns about the future of attracting and retaining staff.

“At some of the big yards down South, new entrants fresh out of training are often lost in the masses and receive very little attention which is why so many leave in their first year.”

Mr Ewart explained that only one applicant in 500 who successfully completed the jockey course at the British Racing School will actually ride out their claim on a racecourse. In the first year of employment after the foundation course, the dropout rate is between 80-90%.

“They go to a big yard before they are ready and get lost in the system without the support and nurturing, they need to find their footing. On our yard, we are like a family. We buddy up younger members of the team with more experienced staff so they can learn the ropes and we look after all aspects of their training and mental well-being.

"Remuneration is key – if people aren’t paid well, they won’t stay, so there has to be a balance of making sure we can pay employees their worth.”

In Scotland, a big advantage over some of the larger yards in the South is that horses get more individual attention. Mr Ewart explained that his own operation is often referred to as a boutique yard as it prides itself on attention to detail.

“Our horses are trained here on an individual basis; they get a lot of TLC which you just don’t get on the bigger yards. Variety of training is really important, if you are looking after 300 horses, that can get lost.”

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Star Scottish rider Rachael McDonald taking her horse off the bespoke Monarch 10 horse walker (Form and Function Photography)

Earlier this year, Scottish Racing – which promotes the sport in Scotland – announced the creation of the Scottish Racing Academy, which hopes to reinvigorate interest in the industry by offering courses to young people to gain vital skills.

Wife and assistant trainer, Briony, commented: “It is so important to encourage the next generation into the industry and not many people realise that once you are in the system there is a huge amount of support and benefits involved. Through the Jockey Education and Training Scheme there is funding support for career development and through the Injured Jockeys Fund there is financial support to cover loss of earnings due to injury, as well as crucially physio and mental health support.”

Ms Ewart explained that it is not just jockeys who receive support once they join the BHA but funding is available for staff to complete things such as their HGV driving qualification and training in racing welfare.

Looking to the future of racing in Scotland, Mr Ewart remained hopeful that there is so much to offer but more awareness is needed to give the sport a boost and more support to ensure racing is seen as a rewarding and viable career choice. “Scotland has so much to offer people looking for a job in racing, we have mega tracks, super dedicated trainers and fantastic training facilities.

“There is a real need to increase opportunities in the early stages of racing where people can experience a range of jobs and find their fit, be that training, working in the yard, becoming a jockey etc. The same can be said for owners, most used to come from a point-to-point background where they grew up the ranks loving the sport having started at the lower end – that route is now not an option.”

“We need to start supporting the Scottish racing industry and championing the people who work here, the fantastic racecourses and scenery.

“I love this job and give to it every ounce of what I have and every penny that I earn, but unless there are some radical changes going forward, small trainers, breeders and staff won’t have the opportunities or a future in the industry we all love,” Mr Ewart concluded.