Group 1-winning trainer David Vandyke found himself in hospital this month, ordered directly there by his GP after he had been complaining of chest pain.
He was later cleared of any heart issues, but a question his doctor asked stuck with the trainer.
“The doctor said to me ‘are you under stress and are you getting enough sleep?’ I thought it was a gee-up and there must have been a camera somewhere,” Vandyke said.
The fact is trainers and their staff operate on very little sleep and the stresses that come with the occupation are long and varied and Vandyke said the way the industry has evolved into seven days a week, plus nights is a significant contributor.
“I obviously have a great passion for what I do, but sleep deprivation is a weapon of war. I’m struggling with it,” he said.
“Personally I hate night racing, because it goes against everything that is sustainable within the industry with regards to participants.
“If I have a runner late at night, I can’t go to sleep earlier because I know I have a horse running. The adrenaline and mental component around having a runner means I won’t go to sleep until it runs.
“If we are going to have night racing, a lot of the added revenue created by night racing needs to go back into managing the health and wellbeing of those that are putting it on.”
Vandyke is one of many Queensland trainers frustrated by the push for later finishes and desire for more night racing.
Combined with the early morning starts, they say it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep staff and fear it will be unsustainable long term.
Trainers are questioning whether the benefits of the extra wagering revenue attributed to late finishes is worth the cost.
Kelly Schweida is scathing of the Racing Queensland direction and says the staff who have to work later to make it happen, should be compensated.
“They say it’s good for racing. I want to see the figures,” Schweida said.
“Even that extra money, which Racing Queensland describes as ‘gold’, give some of the poor buggers that are digging the gold up something.”
Schweida is begrudgingly accepting of night racing, because “you can plan for that” but takes offence at day races being programmed close to 6pm and only finding out 48 hours prior, meaning staff arrive home by 8pm or later depending on the meeting venue.
“These people have families too and the way it is now, they don’t have any life,” he said.
“Staff are getting very hard to keep and I don’t blame them.
“I’ve lost three in a month and I normally wouldn’t lose three in a year.
Schweida says the situation is the same across the state. He said in North Queensland the problem is even worse because of the vast distances travelled.
“It’s no good having a racing industry if you’ve got no one to work in it,” he said.
“It might be good for racing, but at what price? It is killing the goose that lays the eggs.”
The Sunshine Coast’s leading trainer Stuart Kendrick agreed with Schweida about compensating staff who work the hours, outlining how difficult it is to attract skilled workers.
“Getting staff that do want to work those hours and are capable of handling horses is not an easy thing to find,” he said.
“You are asking people to work with horses that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, so you need to have people who know what they are doing.
“We know this is the industry we are in and you know you are going to work long hours, most people are happy to put the hours in and don’t want to complain but at the end of the day you still have to physically do it.”
Gold Coast-based Toby Edmonds said the only way forward for a long term solution is to have a specialist centralised training facility.
“It’s not healthy having to start at three in the morning. It’s bullshit actually,” he said.
“It’s a gee-up for us having runners at the Sunny Coast at 9.45 on a Friday night.
“We have to work horses at 3am the next morning and be at the races the next day. I know night racing is good for turnover and everything, but it’s not healthy for anyone I don’t feel.”
Eagle Farm trainer Chris Anderson believes the current schedule is “non-sustainable.”
“I understand it’s probably an evil necessity that is going to happen and I understand there’s a lot of discussion around night racing, but we can’t ask our staff to start at 3am, six mornings a week, work split shifts, then every second Sunday and for them to keep wanting to turn up,” he said.
“Trainers are doing the same thing, but I choose to do what I do because I love what I do. I feel for my staff, their health and their wellbeing.
“To get more participants in racing, we need to make it more appealing.”
WAGERING AND WELFARE IMPORTANT TO QUEENSLAND INDUSTRY
Racing Queensland says it is performing a balancing act of maximising wagering returns to the industry with the welfare of its participants.
RQ chief executive Brendan Parnell said it’s a complex issue as the data clearly shows finishing a meeting later in the day brings a significant boost to industry returns.
“Analysis of data indicates moving a race meeting back by 40 minutes results in a wagering uplift of between 8-10 per cent for that race day,” he said.
“This, along with night racing and non-TAB to TAB conversions, is driving the strong revenue growth which boosts participant payments.
“Our goal is to grow the overall pie which benefits everyone.
“Since 2018, we have grown returns to participants across all codes from $174 million to $223 million and are well on our way to realising our strategic ambition of $250 million. That will be up more than 50 per cent in just three years.
“While the abnormal wagering market is not expected to fully continue in 2021, punters continue to support our twilight and night racing programs which allows RQ to reinvest through increased returns to participants.”
Parnell said RQ is “open to discussion” on how the control body can make Queensland a better place to live and work in racing.
He said the recent 9.45pm finishes were a rarity owing to additional races fitting into the Sky schedule.
“The health and wellbeing of our participants is an important issue and is a matter that all states are constantly grappling with,” he said.
“In Queensland, it is important we continue to provide participants with the confidence to work and invest within the industry, while providing avenues for new staff to enter our ranks.
“There’s not one single solution.
“It requires a multifaceted approach, including our Registered Training Organisation which offers training programs across a range of roles.”