Future of Wylie horses and Johnson staff unclear

Johnson and Wylie partnership dissolved

From the moment the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) informed trainer Howard Johnson of the outcome of its investigation it was clear that he had been found guilty of breaching horse welfare rules and of drug offences. Quite why it took the BHA further 10 days to announce the outcome of their enquiry, and Johnson is punishment, is not at all clear.

Johnson has had his licence withdrawn from four years, and immediately he had been informed of this punishment, which he described as "a massive shock", he announced that he would retire with immediate effect.

Johnson had admitted running a horse under his care, Striking Article, eight times after the horse had undergone a palmar neurectomy, an operation which removes the nerve endings in a foot, with the result that the horse loses all feeling in the foot. The claim that he was unaware that this operation would rule the horse ineligible to continue to race on the grounds of welfare and compromising safety of its jockey cut no ice with the authorities, and Johnson was banned for three years for this offence alone.

He was also found guilty of using Laurabolin, an anabolic steroid that can speed up recovery from injury, on three of his horses during 2008 and 2009. For this offence Johnson received a further one year ban.

Johnson has subsequently claimed that he is the victim of a vendetta. The operation on Striking Article only came to light during a post-mortem on the horse, carried out after he had finished lame in a race at Musselburgh in February 2010 and had to be put down. But the BHA, which has an extensive network of intelligence, said that the ban showed it was determined to take decisive action on welfare and integrity issues.

Spokesman Paul Struthers said, "The panel stated in its reasons that his behaviour ‘fell seriously short of the standards to be expected of a licensed trainer’and that any lesser penalty would undermine the confidence stakeholders in racing are entitled to hold that reckless disregard of equine welfare will not be tolerated.”

Retirement will leave Johnson free to concentrate on his farming interests. Together with the decision by his major patron, Graham Wylie, to scale down his racing activity, it will impact on the horses in his care, staff at his stables, and more widely, particularly on the Northern and Scottish racing circuit.

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The partnership between Johnson and Wylie has been one of jump racing's most successful pairings over the last 10 years, with horses including Inglis Drever and Arcalis winning top prizes. The two will be meeting today to map out the future for each of the horses. Over the weekend Wylie said, "a lot of my horses will be going to the sales now I'll send a few down south, I might send a few to Ireland, and the rest will be going to the sales."

Undoubtedly Wylie's decision is an act of support for his long time friend Johnson. "The thing is I have known Howard for many years now and we are good friends. He would do nothing to harm a horse at all. He spends all his life making sure the horses are looked after, fit, well, and given the proper veterinary treatment, and I'm just shocked by what they have done here." So Johnson and Wylie are both shocked at the decision. Few others will be, and everyone who puts the welfare of horses and jockeys first will welcome the BHA's action.

Last month Wylie sent six horses to be trained by Paul Nicholls, and there are suggestions now that others might be sent to leading Irish trainer Gordon Elliott. He regularly has horses running both in Scotland and at many of the northern English tracks. Although Elliott said he had had no approach to take on any of Wylie's horses, he clearly would not be averse to doing so. He said, "To train of any big owner is a privilege. I've known Graham, along with Howard, for a number of years. We train for several UK-based clients and we are always looking to expand, so we'll have to see what happens."

This could be one way to reduce the impact of Wylie’s scaling back on those courses where he and Johnson have had substantial numbers of runners over recent years. Both Kelso and Hexham, the course closest to Johnson's County Durham stable, have regretted the decision. Richard Lansdale, managing director at Kelso, described the decision as "terrible for both northern and Scottish racing." His concern was not just about a reduction in runners - Wylie and Johnson have had 138 runners there over the past five years - but also about the quality of the horses sent to race. In last year's Morebattle hurdle for example, Quwetwo made all to beat the then Champion hurdle favourite Zaynar into second place.

Lansdale continued, "it's like to be very disappointing for us. They brought quality horses here, and supported strongly and we really appreciated it. It's a terrible thing the Kelso but also for both northern and Scottish racing. It's his decision but it's very disappointing for us."

Johnson and Wylie were also major supporters of Hexham, where they have sent out 127 runners since 2006. Chief Executive at the course, Charles Enderby, said, "Graham Wylie and Howard Johnson have been very good supporters indeed Hexham racecourse. Lots of their horses have run here and we've never had any concerns, irrespective of what has happened. If Graham does take his horses down south it will be a great loss, as we've enjoyed them running here."

As Johnson winds down his stable operation, there will be a number of stable staff looking for new posts. Fortunately, as the main jumping season is yet to begin, the yard does not have its full complement of around 30 full-time employees at the moment. Those who are currently employed will have the full support of the National Association of Stable Staff, although assistance will be primarily towards ensuring their employment rights are protected rather than to finding another post.

Chief Executive Jim Cornelius said, “We are not advised by trainers where there are vacancies. It's something I have thought about – it would be good to have some sort of system – but there is such a rapid turnover of staff in a number of yards that it is a difficult issue. In this case we will make sure particularly that their rights are protected and advise anybody who has got any problems."

It's always disappointing when the rules of racing are broken. It's also right that people who break the rules suffer the consequences. When jockeys make excessive use of the whip, or fail to ride a horse out, they are the only people who lose out. But when a trainer breaks the rules and has to be banned, the impact is far wider, and there are unfortunate consequences for other people.
Such action can never be taken likely, but as Paul Struthers says, "this decision, and the action of the authority (BHA) in investigating this case and bringing charges, demonstrates once more that British racing will take decisive and firm action when confronted with issues relating to welfare or integrity."

Whilst that is absolutely right, racing also has a responsibility to those people affected through no fault of their own to ensure that they are able quickly to find another job. That is a responsibility that falls on the whole industry, not just on NASS.

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