Cambridge's Roger James, the latest to join the elite 1000 club, has some words of advice for young trainers finding it hard to make a living in racing. Keep your ears and eyes open, pay attention to detail, maximize the most of what you've got, and don't be afraid to back yourself.
James trained his 1000th winner in New Zealand when The Tidy Express scored at Ellerslie on Saturday, joining a dozen of the industry's most iconic figures on his birthday. But, ironically, the milestone comes at a time when James is finding it a struggle himself to get ahead, as owners opt out of the game.
James said he was finding it much tougher now to attract owners than when he first started in 1982, training in partnership with Jim Gibbs who retired after 46 years with 986 wins.
"I don't think I lack any enthusiasm with age but I've found it a really tough market in the last year or two".
"I've been a reasonably regular and sizable buyer at Karaka but I went there this year without an order. Even in my very early years I was able to go with some orders and that only increased. But last year wasn't very good and this year was very difficult.'' James said he managed to pick up one order at the sale yard but the other six horses he bought were completely on spec. He has managed to syndicate one since, and is trying to fill another syndicate, but the rest he will retain himself.
"If you can't find owners you have to look at other alternatives so I bought some cheaper ones which I will train up and turn over. I hope it's not a true reflection of the industry but it probably is. That's my biggest concern. If you don't get investors and the right material you can't be competitive at the top level in Australia and that's my goal.''
James said not being able to buy competitively at the sales also had a snowballing effect in that studs tended to support trainers who bought yearlings from them.
It was crucial in the current climate that trainers made the most of what horses they had in their barns, by being hands on, he says.
"It's a tough game but it's not rocket science. You've just got to keep your finger on the pulse. It's not an eight hours, five days a week job, it's seven days a week".
"In between saddling up three horses at Ellerslie on Saturday I was getting calls from the stable reporting on the afternoon activities".
"Attention to detail wins out in the end. A lot of the time you wonder if it's going to, but you just have to stick at it".
"I'd have to say I'm proud that we do that pretty well. I've found it harder to keep the stable full in the last 18 months but I never let the numbers go over 40 and we have 18 staff to look after them.''
James said the terrific support team he had at home allowed him to campaign horses in Australia where his stable has now won 45 races.
"Any owner in New Zealand of a reasonable horse these days is keen to have a go at the Aussie money and we've been successful in five states and won Group Ones in South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales.''
James credited his 1000 tally to the support of some wonderful owners and horses. With 26 Group Ones wins on the board, Kingsclere Stables had seen some outstanding horses through its doors.
"Our derby tally is something I'm particularly proud of,'' said James who has notched five NZ Derbies with Tidal Light, Roysyn, Zonda, Hades and Silent Achiever".
"A lot of people wouldn't realise we had two close seconds as well with Kajema and Corndale who, with different rides, could have both won. And Sixty Seconds was a close third as well and was really unlucky.''
James said it was important for young trainers to take every opportunity to keep learning, something which he found was accelerated through campaigning horses at major carnivals where the best trainers and jockeys attended.
"You have to keep your ears and eyes open and observe how the best approach the game. There's always something you can pick up especially at places like Flemington, Randwick, Eagle Farm, Morphetville and Perth".
"Experiences like those also give you more confidence to back your own judgement", he says.
"I'd never worked a derby runner less than when Silent Achiever won last year. I had to keep her in cotton wool to get her there because she just wasn't coping. She went in on a shoe string. She'd had a bit of racing but in between times I did very little with her. And then the track came up heavy and I doubted I'd done enough work for a testing track".
"It's all about chancing your arm sometimes, going outside the square and hoping you've got it right".
"Like any successful businessman you've got to have the confidence to back yourself at times".
"You see it in sportsmen too, when they're running on confidence they perform better. People who are confident make better decisions.''
James said he had made such a call when deciding to race Silent Achiever in blinkers this campaign to try to make her focus more and race a little handier.
"There was a bit of concern at how strongly she travelled on Saturday but she still was able to finish off. And there was only a moderate pace. If the pace is better in Australia, she should relax better and, if she can find a length or two, she'll be dangerous in most of the races.''
James said we was particularly keen to win the A$2.25 million BMW Stakes at Rosehill on April 5. "She was beaten a nose in that race last year and came from last on the turn. You could say we have some unfinished business there.''
- Barry Lichter