When Michael Bray walked away from a 20-year training career in 1998, it wasn't because he was sick of horses. It was because he'd gotten pretty sick of numbers.
“[The problem was] mainly owners not paying bills,” said Bray one sunny afternoon at Saratoga. “You'd have to carry horses 90, 120 days before you'd get your money, if you got your money. They're happy to pay for a good horse, they don't want to pay for a bad horse. When you get a good horse, they'd take him away from you in a minute and give him to one of the big-name trainers with a big-name stable. I just got fed up with it. I didn't want to do it anymore.”
But Bray knew horses were in his blood. The former jockey saddled horses for owner Butch Savin in the 1980s and conditioned Grade 3 winner Jimmy's Bronco. He has kept in the racing business, purchasing horses for others in recent years, but nearly 20 years after he walked away, Bray has decided to get back into the game.
A lot has changed since he gave up his shedrow; Bray is amazed at the technology available to horsemen in the form of therapies and horse care. But the biggest change he's noticed is the start-up costs.
Chad Summers, who took out his training license in 2017, believes there are two components to an assistant's decision to hang out their own shingle: whether they have the skills and experience to train, and whether they have the money to start the business. Often, people get the first before they get the second.
“What happens is people get frustrated after a while and want to train [themselves], and they see a young person who's having some success. It's not just about having training. That's not what makes it so difficult. The thing that makes it difficult is having that money up front,” Summers said. “When you go from being an assistant and making a salary every week, and when you become a trainer, I promise you, I don't care what anybody says, you make no money.”
Cherie DeVaux, who went out on her own last year after serving as assistant to Chad Brown, said she saved carefully for the transition. Now, she's glad she did.
“You hope within the first year you're going to recoup what you put out,” she said. “You save your money, establish lines of credit, or you hope someone will give you a loan. Stuff you don't think about adds up so quickly.”
For one thing, a lot of basic equipment goes into outfitting a barn, even for half a dozen horses. Forks, webbings, buckets, saddles, bridles, yokes, muck wagons – it all adds up. One online retailer offers a complete exercise tack package for $349 per horse; leather halters run roughly $50.
“Let's put it this way: I won a $2 million race in Dubai (Mind Your Biscuits), and by the end of Saratoga (in 2017) I was almost broke because of the start-up costs,” said Summers. “You have no idea how much money it takes to get going. Saddles, blankets, blinkers, webbings, shavings, the whole nine yards. Then you keep getting help. And when you first start, you don't want to fire anybody, so when you get a bad employee, instead of firing them, you just hire more people. Which, by the way, is probably not a good idea.”
Summers tried to shop smart, going to a local livestock auction to pick up grooming and barn supplies. It was a stark contrast, he admitted – going from the Fasig-Tipton pavilion in Saratoga where he would help owners scope out six-figure horses to bidding on currycombs for $4.25 each.
Then there are the recurring costs. Feed and hay costs vary widely by location, but DeVaux recalls Brown's barn going through 25 bags of feed a day at roughly $22 each.
It is possible to get bulk discounts, and some feed and supply companies will offer a markdown to high-profile trainers who can give exposure to their brand (though that's not likely to include newcomers). Many supply bills arrive weekly. Trainers bill monthly, so they are often covering costs themselves and waiting to get paid back.
“A lot of places here, if you pay on time they give you a discount because lots of people are a few weeks behind,” DeVaux said. “Most businesses it'd be a no-brainer. Of course you pay.”
With more horses comes the need for more staff, and workman's compensation insurance grows with payroll. Workman's compensation rates vary by state and racetrack (depending on how coverage for jockeys is handled), but it's usually calculated as a set rate per $100 of payroll. In New York, the rate is among the highest in the country at $23 per $100 (though that was lowered for New York horsemen at the start of 2019). In California, horsemen pay a flat rate per horse per day to Finish Line Self-Insurance Group.
Trainers also may be charged daily fees for their stalls, depending upon entries. Summers recalls seeing a rate as high as $15 per horse per day, which was refunded at the end of the month if the trainer started the horse in the stall during that month. If the horse encountered a health problem, though, it cost the trainer $450. Summers has kept stalls around the country and said the amount or presence of stall rent varies wildly between tracks, as do any conditions for getting it refunded.
Add in the blacksmith, dentist, bedding costs, license application fees, and trainers say their profit margin on a day rate is thin – or nonexistent. Summers charges his clients $100 per day for each horse, but he has calculated costs actually come to $112. As a result, new trainers also have to be careful not to let their operations get too big.
“I've got 11 horses here. I'm losing $12 a day a horse,” he said. “I'm out $132 and the morning just started.”
Michael Bray knows trainers frequently take a loss on their day rate to get stalls filled and hope they can make up the difference with the 10 percent they win from purses. There are two problems with that risk: Even in New York, where purses are strong, 10 percent of a third place finish may be as little as $300, which doesn't go far. The other risk is that first-time trainers may not be given horses who are capable of running either consistently or for a sizable purse.
Some of the luckiest first-time trainers are supported by faithful, promptly-paying owners. Summers acknowledges he has been lucky to train a horse as successful as Mind Your Biscuits in his barn, though he worries it raises expectations for the rest of his string.
Bray's solution to the financial risk will be retaining majority interest in all of his horses, as he's been doing in recent years as the manager of two syndicates. This way, he hopes to offset some of his costs while retaining more of winning purses and sale prices on horses going on to breeding careers.
When he does take on syndicate owners, Bray said he's upfront with them — racing horses is not a way to get rich quick.
“I was talking to a couple of guys about buying into a horse recently and the two gentlemen said, 'Is this a good investment?' and I said, 'No,'” said Bray. “'If you want an investment, get some stocks or bonds or something like that. This is to have fun.'”
Summers said the same thing goes for trainers.
“This is why you have to have fun here, because if you don't, you're going to cry.”
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