It’s been a long conversation in the industry, the need to stimulate and secure a workforce. There aren’t enough trackwork riders, the hours are unsavoury, or everyday people lack the experience required for stud work… these are significant issues that racing and breeding operations face daily.
In an effort to tackle this, Racing Australia, in partnership with Godolphin and Thoroughbred Industry Careers (TIC), hosted a Thoroughbred Workforce Development Forum in Sydney last week, an intense two-day conference at Royal Randwick. It was an opportunity for industry-wide discussion on obtaining, training and retaining a racing and breeding workforce.
In attendance were some of the biggest names in the business.
John Messara provided a strong call to arms, and Greg Nichols and Myles Foreman were there for Racing Australia. Lindy Maurice represented TIC, and Vin Cox was there for Godolphin, while Katie Page from Magic Millions joined Lizzie Jelfs, Chris Waller, Ciaron Maher and Toby Liston, from Three Bridges Thoroughbreds, on a Day 2 panel.
International event rider Brett Parbery gave input on reaching out to the equestrian community, while Debra Briscoe was there for Tabcorp’s Wagering and Media arm.
In total, 80 participants appeared across two days of workshops and discussions, all of which aimed to create strategies to secure the industry’s future workforce.
The genesis of an idea
The inspiration for the event came from the UK in 2019, when Godolphin hosted a similar conference that gathered breeding, racing and education professionals from six countries.
In its wake came an intercontinental alliance, Together for Racing International (TfRI), which now serves industry stakeholders, job seekers, and educators and parents.
The pillars of the TfRI are education, community engagement and workforce skills, with participation and input from Australia, France, the UK, Ireland, Japan and the US. At its essence, the TfRI is a platform to showcase work opportunities within the racing and breeding industry, and the Godolphin conference was something of a revelation.
“The thing I love about this most is that it has brought six countries together to share ideas in an industry which, if we’re honest, is full of factions,” said ITV racing commentator Ed Chamberlin. “When those factions come together and unite, my goodness this is a powerful sport.”
Guests of the conference said the racing and breeding industries had enormous potential to offer a future to young people, and TIC’s Lindy Maurice was in attendance.
“The way we look after our staff, and the way we respect our future workforce, is really important,” she said.
Sydney’s event last week covered a broad range of industry issues, including the dearth of workers for both track riding and stud employment. While the former is a much-discussed issue, the latter is equally serious.
In Victoria, Toby Liston’s Three Bridges Thoroughbreds shrunk its operation just to alleviate a staff crisis. The popular breeder used to employ 15 people, but is today down to just 10.
“We had to shrink our business because we can’t find the right people at the moment,” Liston said. “Our problem at Three Bridges isn’t necessarily retention, it’s attracting people. The pool is diminishing.”
“Our problem at Three Bridges isn’t necessarily retention, it’s attracting people. The pool is diminishing.” – Toby Liston
Liston said this echoed right across the Forum at Randwick last week, with Chris Waller declaring that people just weren’t knocking on his door for work.
“Katie Page, she’s a very successful lady, and she said the industry was booming,” Liston said. “But she also said if we think it’s been difficult retaining and attracting staff this year, wait until next year. It’s only going to get harder, which was a bit frightening to hear.”
Liston is a board member of Thoroughbred Breeders Victoria, and he joined Page as a panellist last week tackling staff retention. He said her insight was spectacular, with her grounding in both retail and bloodstock. However, from his perspective as a breeder, he said one of the biggest hurdles facing the sport was its social licence.
“We need to get to the children with our messages,” Liston said. “There’s a perception among so many people now that racing is cruel. But there was also an analogy made that kids that go camping with their parents are three times more likely to go camping when they’re older, and I think it’s the same with horses. The experiences you get when you’re young will echo when you’re older.”
Former jockey and licenced apprentice-coach Matt Pumpa was in the audience for the Workforce Forum. Pumpa made headlines earlier this year with the Lindsay Park riding school, an in-house program at Lindsay Park’s Euroa base which teaches existing staff the riding skills required to become work riders.
The school was an exceptional answer to the shortage of track-riders, with the program graduating its first set of riders in early March.
However, it’s not an easy model to replicate industry-wide, with Lindsay Park possessing a unique, all-encompassing setup that includes infrastructure and insurances, and Pumpa’s ticket to accredit new riders.
“The Forum was good because it discussed how to attract a younger community, and how we keep them,” Pumpa said.
“It talked about flexible work hours, working conditions and pay rates. It also spoke about these riding schools that people are talking about, but it all comes down to funding. There’s a lot of people who have tried to get that sort of thing off the ground, but it doesn’t get anywhere because of lack of funding.”
“(The Forum) talked about flexible work hours, working conditions and pay rates.” – Matt Pumpa
Pumpa’s motivation to attend the Sydney event was based on the Lindsay Park program, but he’s been in the business a long time across two continents (Australia and Asia), and the staff crisis isn’t lost on him.
“The trainers are concerned,” he said. “Chris Waller and Ciaron Maher, they spoke about it. But the whole thing was about creating pathways for staff, whether they want to ride trackwork or head down some other avenue within the industry. That particular part of it was very good, because not everyone wants to ride work. They might want to do something else.”
Singing from different hymn sheets
The Australian Thoroughbred Workforce Development Forum wrapped up its two days after lively discussion.
Project co-ordinator, Arrowfield’s Anna Power, said it was a success, with no personal agendas and a widespread acknowledgement that things have to be done.
“Most impressive was the participants’ collective understanding of the issues we face, and their willingness to share ideas and commitment to achieving real outcomes,” she said. “There is a growing recognition that the supply of racing’s wagering and entertainment product cannot be maintained much more without focus on the workforce.”
She added that the Forum was a vital step towards building the unified approach that was key to progress. However, there were varying ideas about the definition of unity when it came to the issue of ‘what next’.
Was it up to Racing Australia to adopt strategies, or did that fall in the laps of Principal Racing Authorities (PRAs)?
We have to remember that education is state-based in this country, by its very nature,” Myles Foreman told Sky Racing’s Bred To Win. “Within that context, we continue to look at what we can do as an industry, and Racing Australia’s role in that, to co-ordinate and bring people together where it makes sense to do so.”
Foreman said there were exciting things happening at a state level with the PRAs.
“The fact that it happens at a state level creates great outcomes, because we’re looking at it from different angles and achieving different outcomes,” he said.
But this wasn’t the opinion across the board.
“We can have as many meetings as we want, but if we’re not on the same page with a national collaborative approach, we’re wasting our time.” – Toby Liston
“For me, the goal from the whole couple of days was to have a national approach,” Liston said. “We need to have one nation, one body and one voice. For two days we spoke about the national approach, and then the last address basically said it was up to the states to look after their own education system within the industry. We can have as many meetings as we want, but if we’re not on the same page with a national collaborative approach, we’re wasting our time.”
Lindy Maurice has long been a champion for this issue.
She created TIC with an eye on protecting the future of the billion-dollar racing and breeding industry, and her organisation, with limited funds, has been responsible for some of the brightest stars of the sport, mentoring and training close to 90 young people over the past two years into vital roles.
Maurice said there was no reason why the industry couldn’t look to existing platforms when it comes to tackling workforce problems, flagging Defence Jobs Australia as an example.
“Defence Jobs represents the Army, Navy, Airforce and Reserves, a one-brand platform for recruiting into the Defence Force,” she said. “Imagine how complicated that is, but they’re overseeing that the right people are recruited and that the educational pathways and development are available for many factions of the Defence Force. I’ve said many times that this is what we need for our industry from a marketing perspective.”
For Maurice, the strategy is simple, even if the execution of it is complicated.
“We just need to sell ourselves. Why not go out there with one voice and make it more powerful? It’s simple marketing, that’s the way I see it.” – Lindy Maurice
“We just need to sell ourselves,” she said. “Why not go out there with one voice and make it more powerful? It’s simple marketing, that’s the way I see it.”
The official wash-up from the Forum was that a collaborative approach was required, but it didn’t define whether that was national or state-based.
This isn’t a new thing in racing, or even in Australia generally, but it’s often a challenging one when it comes to tackling issues that affect a nation-wide industry.
Nevertheless, the Forum recognised a great cross section of many key topics in its two days of robust debate, including career pathways, staff registration and horse population data, and also diversity and inclusivity within the workforce.
Additionally, it flagged perceptions of the sport and a need for consistent marketing.
The working group, which comprises Racing Australia, the PRAs Racing NSW, Racing Victoria and Racing SA, plus Godolphin, TIC and Arrowfield Stud, will meet once again this week in a further effort to bring together the content, ideas and information shared at Randwick last week.