Ralph Beckett: A freelancer’s freedom? [H&H VIP]

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  • Since my last column, I have managed to lose my stable jockey. A mite careless you would think, but on this occasion he, Jim Crowley, decided to go freelance.

    Trainer-jockey arrangements are often made at the beginning of August. I am not sure why, maybe because it is the halfway point of the turf season, but traditionally it has generally been the case to announce any future changes at or around Glorious Goodwood, then to have the change in place for the start of the following season.

    In this instance, Jim decided to go freelance for the following day. He didn’t give a reason, and I didn’t ask for one, although I have a pretty good idea what triggered his sudden announcement.

    Everybody is different, but here we take the view with all staff that, if they want to go, the sooner the better it is for everybody. Jim said that he wanted to carry on riding for us, but on his own terms. That was never going to happen, for a number of reasons, not least because of the message it sends out.

    So we have cut all ties, and that way everybody knows where they stand.

    It will be unsettling for a while, but these problems normally work themselves out, and we are working towards a new arrangement. Jim rode a lot of winners for us over the last five years, and did a fine job. I hope for him that he finds what he is looking for.

    No time for part-timers

    On a wider note, we employ no part-timers here, at any level. Since we started that policy 10 years ago most staffing issues have disappeared. I am sure that we miss out on the odd good exercise rider, but since we went that way our staff turnover has fallen every year.

    The problem with part-timers is that they unbalance the equilibrium, mostly because they come and go when they like, and the full-time staff end up doing more because they are covering for people more often than they should.

    The merits of freelancing

    Last week, former champion jockey Jamie Spencer announced his retirement. He has been contracted to Qatar Racing for the last two seasons and from 2015 he will be one of their racing managers. As we train a number of horses for them he has ridden for us regularly.

    I like Jamie, he is a fine rider, and I don’t think for one second that he will stay retired. To that end, I have had a bet with a trainer friend that he will be back riding by the first day of the Newmarket Craven meeting, next April.

    Added to that, I am going to quote another trainer who had a deal of success employing him; “Jamie is a better rider when he is freelance.”

    It had never occurred to me, but when you look at his record, that statement certainly has merit.

    Being a contracted rider brings its own pressures, and generally those who are contracted to an owner don’t have as many rides and winners as those who ride for a stable, or the sought-after freelance. Their agent is juggling with umpteen trainers, so often they get switched just before the declaration deadline, have less opportunity to pick up good spare rides, and inevitably lose touch with their previous contacts.

    For example, on Champions Day last year Jamie didn’t have a single ride — that would have been unthinkable when he was freelance.

    Also, not every trainer employed by an owner will like his contracted rider, partly because most of them will have their own first choice.

    The correct response to that is trainers do as they are asked by the owner, or lump it. Sure, but it can’t be easy for a jockey to know that the team at home would prefer someone else to do the steering.

    In short I hope he reconsiders, and not just because of the lunch that will come my way if he does return. He is only 34 years old, his weight is stable, and he has a God-given talent, combined with an iron nerve. Whatever he does, I wish him well.

    Ralph’s column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (28 August, 2014)