Racing’s new governance structure, which was unveiled in November, may or may not address the sport’s issues over prize money, field sizes and more. The government’s White Paper on gambling reform, if it ever sees the light of day, may or may not be as much of a potential disaster for racing’s revenue from betting as some predict. Tyler Heard, though, was not minded to hang around to find out.
Heard rode 56 winners from around 800 rides as an apprentice in Britain between 2020 and 2022, but his win total dropped from 27 in 2021 to just a dozen victories in 2022 as he steadily worked his way from a 7lb claim to 5lb, and then just 3lb. He decided to try his luck in the United States instead, and signed off in the UK, for the immediate future at least, in a Class 6 Classified Stakes worth £7,000 at Southwell on 29 December. It was his only ride on the card and he finished second, earning around £160 on top of his riding fee (£143), but minus his travelling and other expenses.
He has made an immediate impact. Heard’s second ride, in an optional claimer at Charles Town in West Virginia, was a winner, in a race with a total worth $36,000 (£29.5k). Heard subsequently told the Racing Post that he had earned more from that ride than he had in any month in 2022. “I didn’t make a penny last year, it probably cost me money to ride,” he said, adding: “I feel as though racing in England is withering away.”
Grace McEntee, who set off for the States at around the same time and, like Heard, is based at Turfway Park in Kentucky, has so far drawn a blank from 10 rides, but has picked up nearly $20,000 in prize money from a second and two third-place finishes.
In addition to the excellent prize money on offer, even in relatively low-grade races, Heard and McEntee do not face the countless road miles that grind away at most senior riders and apprentices alike in Britain. It is, of course, early days for both riders in the States, but for the moment at least, their endeavour is being rewarded.
Plenty of young riders with few or no firm ties to the UK are likely to be following their progress with keen interest, and that is a situation that should cause real concern for the sport. A top-tier racing industry – and despite its woes, Britain is still at that level – needs a significant community of talented, motivated riders to match its status. Owners and punters alike – the two groups that fund the entire, billion-pound industry – need confidence that their horses will, whenever possible, get the rides they deserve and run up to their best.
It has always been the case that an apprentice losing their 3lb claim, having ridden 95 winners, faced a struggle to maintain their levels of support when moving into the senior ranks. In a highly-competitive sport, that is only to be expected.
Over the last 20 years, however, there has been a steady rise in the proportion of Flat winners ridden by 7lb claimers, from 5.72% in 2003 to a new high of 8.92% in 2022. At the same time, the sink-or-swim moment for apprentices seems to have shifted to the loss of their 5lb claim, at 50 winners, presumably as trainers look to the next generation of 7lb claimers instead. The proportion of handicap winners ridden by 7lb claimers in 2022, meanwhile, was 9.34%, also a new record after a series of year-on-year rises since 2017.
It could be a trend that will correct itself in time, but there must be at least some concern that the system for training future generations of jockeys is becoming unbalanced, with too many young riders who are simply too good, not just to get 7lb from seniors but also to be getting 2lb or 5lb from other apprentices.
British racing has been bringing on young riders this way – with the occasional modification to help it emerge from the Victorian age – for generations. It may be time for another tweak, however – a cut in the number of winners which drops the claim to 5lb, perhaps, or perhaps an end to the 7lb altogether – to stop the trickle of 3lb claimers heading elsewhere from turning into a flood.