Apprenticeships – racing has got it right…. By Rob Young

Apprenticeships – racing has got it right…. By Rob Young

Ron Quinton with his latest star apprentice Andrew Adkins. Photo courtesy Daryl Duckworth.

Ron Quinton with his latest star apprentice Andrew Adkins. Photo courtesy Daryl Duckworth.

The dictionary definition of an apprentice is someone who works for another person in order to learn a trade from that person. So, an apprenticeship is essentially a period of training and gathering experience, which doesn’t necessarily pay that well on the way through, but provides the opportunity for better rewards at the successful completion of that training.

Sporting “apprenticeships” are different.

The simple fact is that, in most sports, the employment of young people isn’t a formal apprenticeship. Young footballers and tennis players, to take just two examples, go through their informal “apprenticeships” either under negotiated contracts or as free agents, almost always with a manager who is out to get the best possible deal, and so maximise the manager’s percentage as well as the player’s returns. That’s not cynical – it’s just the way it is. It’s not replicated by the opportunities available to an apprentice plumber, sparky or chippy!

And look what happens. No structure and too much cash at an early age can produce a Kyrgios or a Tomic, a Pearce or a Cousins. Sometimes they come good and get back into the real world, sometimes they don’t, but there is no disputing that the system in those sports runs a risk for the young “apprentices” that could be better managed by the administrators responsible for the sports and the participants.

There is an old school feel about being an apprentice jockey that just isn’t paralleled in other sports, and even in these apparently enlightened times the problems seen with other sporting “apprentices” are not duplicated in racing. Maybe that’s why there is no shortage of apprentice jockeys. Maybe the disciplines and structures that are in place, old-fashioned though they may seem to some people, are working in a positive way. To validate that point, just have a quick think about the problems that are constantly hitting the news covering young NRL players. The NRL doesn’t have any structures similar to racing to look after the young guys, and it shows. After all, an 18 year old rugby league player is just as much of an “apprentice” as an apprentice jockey, just bigger and maybe no smarter!

But how many of us know what those structures are, and how many of us know why they are there?

The structures have been developed by the racing industry over many years, and reflect the fact that the challenges faced in an apprenticeship as a jockey are. Put bluntly, the chances for an outstanding apprentice jockey to get access to a lot of money at a young age are very real compared with the opportunities for other trades, and that means that checks and balances need to be part of the deal to protect young people earning significantly from going off the rails.

Here is how it works. Apprentice jockeys are not on negotiated contracts. They are paid a fixed wage, which increases in each year of a four-year indentured apprenticeship with a trainer licensed by Racing NSW. That fixed wage starts at $335.20 per week in Year 1 and tops out at $583.55 in Year 4 – not a fortune, is it!

On top of the fixed wage, apprentices, like senior riders, are paid extra for race rides and barrier trials, and also get a percentage of the prize money earned by the horses they ride. But, that additional cash from race rides, barrier trials and prize money doesn’t go directly to the apprentice. That money is held in trust by Racing NSW until the apprentice turns 18, or later, until 21 if the apprentice wants that, and most do.

As far as formal training is concerned, an apprentice jockey in NSW goes through a that includes on-the-job and off-the job training through NSWTRB Training Ltd, which is a registered training organisation. The end result is a Certificate IV in Racing (Apprentice Jockey). As far as informal training is concerned, a typical working week for an apprentice jockey would involve trackwork 6 mornings per week, general stable work and horse care, early mornings every morning, and barrier trials and race meetings. That’s a busy schedule with very little idle time. Add to that that apprentice jockeys almost always live on the premises of their trainer, and the fact that those trainers have to meet Trainer Selection Criteria List of Racing NSW, and both the trainer and apprentice have to adhere to Codes of Conduct for their roles, and you can see how the external discipline level for young people in racing is different to other sports.

What’s the outcome of the system? Racing’s apprenticeship system produces a steady stream of competent senior riders, and the occasional champion, and most of them seem to have their heads screwed on. Even those that come out of their apprenticeship and go a little nuts, generally seem to get their act together fairly quickly after the odd altercation with the stewards over a personal behavioral issue. The stewards tend to take a dim view of apprentices vanishing into the ladies loo with female stablehands, to just mention one instance that needed straightening out not too long ago, and that rider is now well-respected.

Just look at what happens with Ron Quinton – the trainer currently viewed by many in racing as the top mentor of apprentices. Quinton’s current star apprentice is Andrew Adkins. Adkins holds a seven-win lead in the Sydney apprentices’ premiership with a little more than two months of the season remaining. He is in the box seat to win the title and to become the latest in a production line of champion apprentices from the Quinton yard. Over the last twenty years, Quinton has produced Bobby El-Issa as the champion apprentice in 1996/1997 and 1997/1998, Mitch Newman in 1998/1999, Hugh Bowman in 1999/2000, and Sam Clipperton in 2012/2013 and again in 2013/2014.

That’s a great record!

It didn’t happen by accident. Ron Quinton was apprenticed to Theo Green, and Theo Green is almost universally accepted as the best mentor of young jockeys in Australian racing history. Theo Green – “The Boss” – produced many outstanding jockeys with Ron Quinton, Darren Beadman and Malcolm Johnston being perhaps the best known. And Theo Green did it the old-fashioned way, just the way Racing NSW does it now. It may be a touch paternalistic for some, but it works, and racing is the better for it!