The Winners 2016 Under 26 Winner

To the best of my knowledge, I am not currently the father of any children. Nor do I plan to produce my own offspring anytime soon. But I was, like you, once a child and I am reasonably sure of the aspirations my parents harboured for me. (Hark, cry the doubters. But how many winners have you ridden?). Safety, good health, happiness, success, freedom, love: nothing original, but the basic foundations of a fulfilled life.

There can be few more fulfilling professions than working with racehorses, be it in a practical or administrative capacity. And there can be few better places to nurture a burgeoning love of the racehorse and the industry as a whole than Newmarket, where the beating heart of the beast overshadows all other concerns. If you have a problem in this town, you better hope you walk on four legs and not two.

And therein lies the issue. For all the rose-tinted portrayals of Newmarket as simply expensive hooves beating across luscious green turf, such an archaic caricature neglects the murky undercurrent of vice that is unmistakable to all of us who live here.

Bookmakers operate in binary along the High Street, the major players in the laying industry vying for the lunchtime trade as morning stables draws to a close. If all those souls who rise at sparrow fart six mornings a week (seven every other) were able to profit out of the latest set of whispers, Paddy, Fred and their contemporaries would surely be more cautious with their opening ploys, even if the relentless chimes of the roulette wheels continue to draw in the crowds.

And if bookmakers deliver the zero elements to the binary sequence, then the pubs provide the one (bar the obligatory Greggs). There is certainly no shortage of ale in Newmarket, both over the counter and on the black market.

Sat outside one of the less glamorous watering holes in midsummer, I was confronted by a gentleman selling knock-off bottles of Bombardier because it was "better than the shit they have inside". When I politely declined his rather ill-thought-through offer (£1.50 each or three for a fiver), he must have been overjoyed, for the inebriated octogenarian sat at the adjacent table could not clear out his stash quick enough. And, just for good measure, he placed an order for eight steaks to be removed from the shelves of M&S the following day at 12. "The security guard nips out for a bit of lunch then", apparently.

If the gambling is the thrill, and the drink is the fun, then the cocaine is the fuel, because there are not many toilet cisterns in Newmarket that have failed to resemble the sleek slopes of Mont Blanc on a Saturday evening. Charlie is not merely the name of the stable cat.

This is not to take a pompous moral high ground, or to try and dictate to those who work extraordinary hours dedicating their life to the game how they should spend their free time and cash. I enjoy the thrills of this town as much as the next man, but you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing exists beyond this microcosm of gambling, booze, drugs and sex.

For a sport where children and adults are thrown together from day dot, that has to be a concern. There is no gradual ascendancy through age-group level like other mainstream sports and, while pony racing and the apprentice and conditional programmes nurture young riding talent, those taking their first steps in the game are still thrust immediately into the yard environment. Innocence does not last for long.

This is no longer simply a moral or compassionate concern, either. Racing faces a very real recruitment crisis and the grassroots of the sport are yellowing as the number of fresh faces dwindles alarmingly. I have tried to envisage myself packing a son off to the BRS at the tender age of 16, igniting his dreams of becoming champion jockey. But would I want my child, or my sibling, exposed to this very adult world, filled with very adult problems, so young? It is hard not to be sceptical.

Children need to be children for longer, to be given an opportunity to read, think, grow and see the world. For the vast majority, any dreams of reaching excellence in the saddle are extinguished pretty quickly, with the rest left at the mercy of an industry that still exhibits a pretty murky core when it comes to living a rounded and fulfilled lifestyle. And the educational process needs to be open-ended, so there is a life beyond the yard for those whose bones ache too much to thump half a ton of wired horseflesh around the Heath each morning.

The likes of the BRS, NRC and Racing Welfare do a fine job, but the resources are simply not there for complete coverage. The issues at hand are clearly complex, but trainers could take more responsibility for providing their staff with opportunities beyond the saddle and the pitchfork. Lunchtimes are long in racing, and it would not take much to offer lessons, advice and the opportunity to see beyond the confines of the yard before the afternoon snooze kicks in.

Nobody works in racing for the money - stacking shelves in a supermarket would offer a more financially-wholesome living. They do so for the love of the animal and the love of the game, and working with racehorses offers many young people a cathartic release. In that respect, a career in the industry fulfils those basic aspirations that parents harbour for their children. But in Newmarket, the water is muddier than we are prepared to admit. That cannot simply be regarded as an acceptable norm, for the health of the sport and, more importantly, for the health of its workers. We owe it to them.


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