ick Littmoden, formerly training in Newmarket's Hamilton Road, took his whole enterprise, lock, stock and barrel, to France in March, where he trains at the training centre on Hippodrome de Moulins-les-Metz, in Alliers, central France. He's one of a growing band of British trainers frustrated at the poor returns and either moving or running satellite yards on the other side of la Manche.
Moulins is a thriving training centre in which the local société and mairie has recently invested over €1m in new facilities to accommodate the 130 or so horses in training there. Nick is one of three trainers on the site, which also include some 70 trained by Augustin Boisbrunet, one of France's leading Jumps trainers. Nevertheless, it doesn't explain eschewing the uniquely brilliant facilities and centre of excellence that is Newmarket for a different territory where both the culture and language represent obstacles to incomers.
So why does the trainer of over 600 winners on the Flat and over Jumps with big wins in the Windsor Castle and Flying Childers find it necessary to start afresh in a foreign country? I caught up with Nick in a call this week to explore.
So Nick, the first question I suppose has to be why? It appeared you'd been a successful trainer over here. What changed?
I'd trained successfully for many years, latterly on the Hamilton Road, but I took a break when the problems associated with running a yard of 80-100 horses made the job a chore. My family moved out to Norfolk, where I enjoyed developing a breaking yard, but I was spending as much time delivering horses back to trainers in Newmarket whose methods I considered inferior to my own that I rented a yard in Newmarket with a handful, continuing to commute from Norfolk each day. It was impinging on family life and we (Nick and wife Emma) had often considered abroad, so we set about searching. I didn't want to repeat the mistakes of growing a large yard in the UK a second time, and other areas of the UK didn't appeal.
Why the Auvergne?
I'd been asked to train abroad a few times previously, but the timing hadn't been right. Emma and I found a property on the web but because of Covid travel restrictions, we were unable to visit. Peter Jones, who'd bought horses for me regularly in the past checked out the property for us, and told us its equine credentials were perfect. We are in an agricultural area, but also surrounded by other horsemen: Emmanuel Clayeux is about 20 minutes distant, and we are within a few hours of virtually every track in France.
So you're not just based at the racetrack?
No, I actually run two yards. The racing yard is based on the training centre at the racecourse, where we have around 15 horses in training.
Back at home, we own a 30 acre site with an 800m round gallop with a spur to extend its length, a horsewalker and equine pool, as well as numerous turnout paddocks. It's always been alien to me to keep horses in all the time given they are ruminant animals.
Moulins Racecourse has everything one could possibly need to train horses, nor is it crowded. The recent investment has made it very viable.
Did your owners and staff come over with you?
Some of my owners did follow me to France, but interestingly, I've picked up a few French owners since arriving here. One is a breeder, another an accountant. I guess my early success here helped oil the wheels a little. We're not promoting ourselves other than through Facebook at the moment.
As to staff, some staff helped me settle the horses in, but work permits are no longer straightforward since Brexit, so they largely returned. I employ 4 French lads full time to support the business.
What are the obstacles to training in France?
For starters, the language is a major impediment, but not one that cannot be overcome. I relish the challenge of learning a language on my daily commute into Moulins each morning!
There are issues around winning your residency permit which have been made easier by the fact that I am growing a business employing local labour. But for any trainer already licensed in the UK or Ireland, a BHA or HRI licence will provide a 3 month temporary authorization (this is what the likes of Tom George has been using).
What is the process of getting to train in France?
You need to demonstrate sufficient experience as a trainer already in another jurisdiction, or take the equine trainers induction course, which lasts 6 weeks and is comparable to what happens in the UK.
You also have to get an acceptable grade in the TCF (teste de connaissance de langue française), a language test to allow you to integrate into your chosen community.
And like in the UK, you have to illustrate a business plan to France Galop and financial stability.
For anyone thinking of copying you, what are the advantages of the French model?
Put simply, the overheads of training in the UK are a major disincentive. The sale of our property in Norfolk allowed us to buy a larger, more desirable property in the Auvergne, where the costs of property are much lower. Add to that lower training costs. For example, gallop fees to use the training centre at Dragey are just €45 per horse per month. So overall, my costs are much lower.
Add to that better returns from running horses and a generous annual travel allowance (a "prime"), means I don't have to train 100 horses to make a living. I wouldn't train again in the UK, I'm afraid.
The prize money does vary between courses depending on whether they are running Tiercé races tapping into national and international betting pools or not. The idea of two-tier racing is not viewed here with the same horror as in the UK, and even a modest bumper winner can win €5,000.
How is the family fitting in?
They've embraced the move whole-heartedly and I wouldn't have done it without their buy-in. Emma was right behind it from the off, whilst my daughter Grace (13), is now riding work and enjoying her new school. They've sensibly dropped her a school year to allow her to catch up on the language, but she'll be fluent long before I am!
Everyone has been very friendly, and helpful.
The positive results of the move are there to see. So far, from a move in March, 8 winners have resulted from 35 runners, generating 5 individual winners and gross win & place prize money of €106,863.
It would appear the Littmoden skills haven't lost their shine by crossing la Manche.
There is clearly a lot of excitement surrounding this week’s York Ebor Festival. Crowds have been flocking back to racecourses for a while now, but the four-day event at the Knavesmire is the first truly blue-chip festival to take place with crowds allowed back as normal. A successful festival is important. Not just for the organisers at York, but for every level of British racing, including Point to Point racing.
And while there is plenty of buzz around the festival, which has been lifted by news of £4.7 million in prize money (more than double last year’s amount), there have been a few hiccups. Most notably, the withdrawal of St Mark’s Basilica from the festival’s flagship race, the Juddmonte International Stakes. That takes a lot of star power away from the Knavesmire this week, as the Aidan O’Brien trained 3-year-old is currently rated as the joint-best racehorse on the planet.
Stradivarius goes for third Lonsdale Cup
Nevertheless, the four-day event is about much more than one horse and one race, and even those with a casual interest in flat racing will see a familiar name on the racecards and tips for Day 3 of the Ebor Festival – Stradivarius. The 7-year-old record-breaker is the favourite for the Lonsdale Cup, and it would surely take the roof off the place if Staradvarius can take at least one more big win in front of a full house as he winds down one of the most storied careers in modern racing.
Stradivarius, who is trained by John Gosden, has basically done it all as a stayer, and then some. Three Ascot Gold Cups, four Goodwood Cups, and a three-time Cartier Champions Stayer are among some of the accolades. Frankie Dettori usually rides (and will on Friday), and the wily jockey will know that a record third Lonsdale Cup on Stradivarius is within his sights. Dettori will make his own bit of history with a win, becoming the first jockey to win the Lonsdale Cup six times (he is currently tied with Pat Eddery on five).
Dettori a big factor in the betting
Dettori clearly loves riding at the Knavesmire (his list of big wins at the Ebor Festival is too long to print here), and bookmakers reported to the Racing Post pre-festival that the Italian legend is a big factor in the betting patterns. Put him together with a big name like Stradivarius, and you can appreciate why bookmakers will be losing some sleep on Thursday night.
On the downside, it feels more and more likely that we will not see Stradivarius take on Trueshan, the horse that now holds Stradivarius’ Goodwood Cup crown. Trueshan’s trainer, Alan King, clearly prefers testing conditions for the horse, and the going is likely to be good on Friday. Nonetheless, Stradivarius would represent a hugely popular winner regardless of who he lines up beside at 2.25 on Day 3 of the festival.
Despite his favourite status, it’s no given that Stradivarius will take that record-breaking third Lonsdale Cup. His powers have perhaps waned somewhat over the last year, exemplified by a 4th place finish in the Ascot Gold Cup in mid-June. However, Dettori claimed that Stradivarius was denied a clear run on the home bend in that race, which ultimately went to Subjectivist.
He has been called the “rarest of horses”, and we might see him again in the Ascot Gold Cup next year. But then again, given his age, we might not. This week could be one of the last opportunities for the crowds to see one of the modern greats in action – they should relish the chance to see Stradivarius try to break yet another record.
Clare Hobson is one of that growing band of professional horsemen and women who learned their trade in the Point-to-Point field. She now runs a breaking and training yard outside Royston in Hertfordshire.
During a riding career, she was no slouch, pushing home 11 winners from 116 starts between 2007-14. She continued training as well until 2016, combining this with a full training licence from 2011.
Yesterday, she teamed up with another graduate from the Pointing ranks, in Tabitha Worsley, to produce Uncle O to win the John Matthew Memorial Novices Handicap Chase at Market Rasen, her first winner of the new term from just 6 runners to date. And crikey, if every winner was that close, you'd be hairless before a season was out. Uncle O had to fight every inch of the run-in to beat Christopher Kellett's BeGoodToYourself by a head.
More evidence that the racing backwater that is Hertfordshire still has plenty to offer.
The racing game is full of enthusiasts willing to fulfil a dream of becoming a trainer, despite the remonstrations of those within the sport telling them there's little money in it. But when you strike it rich, doors open for you.
Of one thing though, you can be certain. Racing is a sport with no fast-track. You have to do your time, learning the psyche of the Thoroughbred, then learning how to monetize this in a horse-coping business. The two disciplines are very different, and arguably, the first is the easier.
Around 500 trainers co-exist across both codes of the sport in the UK, and around 10% leave training each year, to be replaced by youngsters hoping to make the grade. Remarkably, despite all the prognostications about prize money, staff shortages and so on, this lifestyle choice continues to attract new entrants every year.
One such is Martin Smith, who trains a select band of dual purpose horses from Kremlin House Stables on Newmarket's Fordham Road, since setting up in 2013. Sixty-four winners later, this fledgling operation has pioneered a low risk syndicate ownership solution alongside owners who own whole horses for themselves. It's part of a business ethos to protect the business from over-reliance upon a small group of people.
Martin's experience is considerable, from assistant positions with Richard Hannon to a spell as Clerk of the Course at Jebel Ali, then training in the USA, but Newmarket ticks all the boxes.
And it certainly seemed to work this afternoon, when six year old gelding Friends Don't Ask picked up his third chase victory in a handicap at Newton Abbot, steered by Nick Schofield. He'd appear a value horse; his last 10 runs have seen him out of the frame on just 3 occasions and a winner twice.
Now that's the sort of horse any trainer wants to have.
Newmarket trainer Lucy Wadham has a terrific record with her jumpers, her 24 winners last term amassing nearly £250,000 in prize money, just shy of her personal best. You can always rely on a Wadham youngster in any bumper or novice hurdle. A graduate from the Point-to-Point field, Wadham cut her teeth as a journalist in current affairs before reverting to horses.
There won't be any headlines about her most recent winner last night at Stratford however. The concluding bumper took place on a card overshadowed by an altogether larger sporting event taking place some 100 miles south-east at Wembley, where England beat Germany 2-0 to progress to the Euros quarter-finals.
The impeccably-bred Ocean Heights, a 4 year old son of Dubawi, stayed on gamely to win his first National Hunt race at the fourth attempt, putting winner number 3 on this term's Jumps scoresheet for the Wadham team, aby ridden by claimer Corey McGivern, enjoying just a third career win.
It was a day for football parallels; the best finish of the day came in the 2m 6f handicap hurdle, where Graeme McPherson might have said,"We wuz robbed" in classic footie parlance, after his deserving neck winner Calum Gilhooley was denied the race by failing to weigh in correctly. The weight cloth and saddlecloth were both shed in the final 150 yards of the stirring finish.
There was also a notable entrant to the novice chase ranks in the opener, when Rhythm Is A Dancer prevailed for the Ditcheat team of Paul Nicholls, representing former sponsor of the Foxhunter Chase, William Harrison-Allan, for whom this was a home-bred success.
There are over 400 racehorse trainers licensed by the British Horseracing Authority, so it shouldn't be a surprise when one comes across a new name. Although every trainer will tell you there's no money in training horses; the churn ratio of trainers exiting the sport has remained at around 10% each year for 40 years. Yet as one door closes on a career concluding, another opens for an ambitious newcomer eager to fill the gaps.
Ilka Gansera-Leveque is one such newcomer. German-born Ilka cut her teeth as an amateur rider with champion trainer Bruno Schütz in her homeland, graduating to an apprenticeship for 3 years, before spending some time with horse whisperer Monty Roberts in the USA. Schütz was a winner of the German Derby at Hamburg no less than four times before his death in 2000.
She returned to this country to qualify as a veterinarian, one of just two such who are trainers (the other is Mark Johnston - say no more). After a spell with Rossdales in Newmarket, she set up on her own, pre-training, breaking and training her own small string on the Hamilton Road in 2012.
It hasn't been an overnight success, but the bedrock of this sport comprises horsemen and women whose lives are dedicated to the well-being of their bloodstock, and who immerse themselves in the improvement of the stock in their charge. When husband Stephane returned to Newmarket to set about training Arabians, it was time to follow.
Runners over obstacles have been few and far between in a yard with no more than 20 inmates, and Southwell is hardly Ascot, but a first for this season - and last - when she extended her licence to both codes, was something of a milestone in today's 3m handicap hurdle as Just Once repaid the faith with a 3/4l victory. A lucky 13th ever runner under National Hunt rules.
Let's hope for Ilka's sake he doesn't live up to his name.
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