Mark Johnston is the most successful trainer in terms of winners that British racing has seen, with nearly 4,500 on the board so far. Ralph Beckett has saddled three Classic winners and earned at least £1m in prize money for his owners for the past five years. Their judgment is clearly excellent – when it comes to racehorses and preparing them for the track.
Reading the room, though, seems to be more of a challenge for the pair of them. Johnston, who has recovered from Covid-19, and Beckett were the most familiar names on emails sent to Annamarie Phelps, the chair of the British Horseracing Authority, in recent days, calling for the immediate resignation of Nick Rust, the BHA’s chief executive.
We know this because somebody then forwarded the emails to the Sunday Telegraph, which splashed with a story claiming Rust faced “explosive calls to quit”, seemingly because of “dismay at the sport’s lack of preparations to get back on track”.
Racing stables, of course, do not stop just because racing does. Horses need to be fed and exercised, staff need to be paid and so do the vets, the farriers, the feed merchants and so on. And the spring is perhaps the busiest time of the year in a Flat yard, as many new faces arrive to peer over the stable doors.
But even so, did these trainers not get a spare 10 minutes over the last few weeks to switch on the news? It is not just racing. The whole country, the entire economy, is in lockdown. Millions are wondering whether they will have a job to go back to when the restrictions eventually ease. Every sector in the travel, tourism, leisure and entertainment industries, including racing, is experiencing a devastating loss of business and revenue while also facing up to the likelihood – the near certainty, in fact – that a deep recession is just around the corner.
In these circumstances, special pleading from any one sector, suggesting that its needs are more urgent than those elsewhere, is a terrible look. It is also one that, thus far, the locked-down racing industry has managed to avoid. The message has been clear and consistent (even when the line from government has been anything but): racing in some form will be ready to resume as soon as the national restrictions in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic allow it to do so.
When the moment arrives, it will be days, not weeks, before the first horses go to post to race behind closed doors, thanks to an immense amount of work at BHA headquarters to pick a path through the most challenging circumstances the sport has ever faced. Beckett, above all, should be aware of what has been happening, since he will be the president of the National Trainers Federation in 2021 and he has been in the loop from the start.
It will not look like racing as we knew and loved it this time last year, or even as it was three months ago, and in some respects, it probably never will be. Owners, trainers and horses will be lost to the sport over the coming months and years, and possibly several racecourses too. An annual fixture list with 1,500 meetings may well be a thing of the past. But it will be a vital first step on a very long road towards a new normal, and quite what any of the trainers who emailed Phelps to demand Rust’s head expected to achieve in doing so is all but impossible to divine.
There was never any chance that Phelps would ask for Rust’s resignation, nor any valid reason for her to do so. Quite the opposite, in fact: the BHA board confirmed that Rust has its “full and unequivocal support”, while racing-minded MPs from both sides of the house have also rallied around.
Everyone in racing is suffering during lockdown, including many in a much more challenging situation than trainers like Johnston and Beckett. If special pleading is a terrible look, it is worse still when it is initiated by some of the (relatively small) group of trainers whose major owners include a few who will emerge on the other side of the current crisis with their sovereign wealth largely intact.
There are some in racing who have never accepted Rust as the sport’s chief executive because of his previous life in bookmaking. That does not necessarily include any of the trainers whose emails were leaked, but the BHA employees who work under Rust seem fiercely loyal to the CEO and have been working tirelessly as a team to come up with a plan to get racing again as soon as possible. That a cabal of trainers should seek to undermine him at this time above all seems perverse.