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Max Hennau on life as a trainer in Belgium

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Max Hennau, a founding member and current chairman of the European Trainers Federation (ETF), used to train between 50 and 60 horses in Belgium. In 1973, he campaigned the colt Commodore to a domestic Triple Crown.

Ten years later he handled the Belgium champion Little Vagabond. Bought for 1,000 guineas at Tattersalls in Newmarket, the small horse with a big engine won six races on the bounce at home and ran third in the Prix du Petit Couvert (Gp3) before being sold on to France. 
“Those were the days…,” he says. Things have changed for Belgian racing. Things have changed for Hennau. Today, he has more committee seats than he has racehorses. What exactly has happened here?

“This will be my last season as a public trainer as I’m going to concentrate on the horses we breed to race,” Max Hennau states as we meet on a rainy day. The weather is quite similar to the atmosphere in this country’s horseracing circles. Sunny days have been hard to come by also in Belgium this summer, and sunny days for racing seem to be a thing of the past. “I will continue working for racing, and hope the sport has a future,” Hennau explains. “For myself, I want to focus on my business. Yes, I regret that I did not make a move abroad 20 years ago though, you see, things were going well for racing here then. One saw little point in moving.”

Little point indeed. Hennau was a top trainer winning most of the big races on a regular basis. During 36 years in the profession, he was never champion trainer, but that was mainly due to numbers, as his arch-rival, Jerome Martens, trained twice as many horses. When discussing the current state of affairs, Hennau backs his views with key figures, and they really do look bleak. From having nearly 60 horses in his care, Hennau is now training just six. Still, his training establishment in Les Isnes and his stud in Temploux, some 5 km away, do not have any empty boxes. One even holds two animals, but since they are sheep it is a social arrangement.

Hennau and his wife Greta have a full day working with horses, so that side of the business not a problem. At their stud, the Haras de l’Escaille, they have 40 horses, including 20 for the famous showjumping breeder Nelson Pessoa, father of the Olympic and World Champion Rodrigo. Pessoa lives nearby, “but I only see him a few times a year and he is not involved in racing,” Hennau explains before he presents a few more of the key figures, figures that quickly tell the story. 
“Twenty years ago, Belgian racing employed around 10,000 people. All told, today the sport employs around 500. Fifteen to twenty years ago, we had five racedays a week,” he adds, “and each day with Thoroughbred racing only. Today, we have one raceday per week, and these days are mixed, with four Thoroughbred races and four trotting races.” 

If some readers are not too familiar with the English phrase “next to nothing,” they should be by now, as that is the best way to give a brief description of Belgian racing. Hennau is not depressed about this decline, he says, but calls it tiring. How could it not be, to someone who has no plans for giving up? “We still have hopes for the future,” he says and it shows that he means what he says, “but changes must come, if not Thoroughbred racing will be history in my country.”  Moving on to what ought to be funding racing - the turnover on the PMU - we are presented with more figures, telling exactly the same tale.

“Twenty years ago, the turnover on a daily Tierce race was equal to 2.5 million euros,” he continues. “Today it is only 25.000 euros. While the bookmakers can afford to give 90% back to the punters, the PMU gives back just 80% and that is not good enough. The solution should be very, very simple; give a better return on the PMU and a bigger slice back to racing. Also, we have a situation where bookmakers can take bets on races abroad, while the PMU cannot. It is an impossible situation. Remember also that bookmakers take bets on racing in France and England, without paying those jurisdictions any money. They pay for live pictures, that’s all. And Belgian racing is losing out.”

So, the bookmakers have seem to have a lot to answer for, in this country where horseracing appears to be on the verge of being wiped out. “I think so,” Hennau says firmly. “Bookmakers have not contributed enough to the sport, and while it may seem that they give punters a good deal, very often they don’t. For example, when they take bets on a race in France, something they do every day, a big outsider may win. We often know that there were only ten winning tickets in France, and for a bookmaker in Belgium the situation can then be that nobody had a winning ticket. Where does the money go? Into the bookmakers’ pockets, of course. If we have a race with no winning tickets on the PMU, punters are not victims of ‘daylight robbery’. There will be a carryover, a jackpot pool the next day, so eventually the money does go back to the punters. Though that slice is way too small,” Hennau concludes, “something that, combined with the bookmakers’ stronghold on the betting market, is creating a double negative effect for the sport.”

Racing jurisdictions lucky enough to still have escaped the jaws of the bookmaking industry should take note. “Oh they are,” Hennau’s wife Greta says quickly, “In France, they are scared, very scared.”

It is a well-known fact that horseracing has been going steeply downhill since Ladbrokes moved in. There may be other factors, and this is a little bit more complicated than just pointing the finger at one big, international company taking a lion’s share of the annual betting turnover in the land. Then again, and quite interestingly, horseracing is doing a lot better in small racing nations like Sweden and Norway, where the climate is not exactly as kind to equestrian sports as it is in Belgium. Surviving despite long spells of ice and snow can only be done with one assurance: a Tote monopoly. While the Swedish Derby was this year worth 53,000 euros to the winner, the Belgian Derby winner earned just 5,000 euros for his classic success!

Hennau touched on the return to punters from PMU betting in Belgium, which is 80%, and ten per cent lower than what bookmakers can afford to offer. Does this really affect the turnover? Yes it does. Look to North America and you will find the answers. At a track like Churchill Downs in Kentucky, the “takeout” on the trifecta is 25%. This has always been considered a bad deal among punters in USA, and it rivals the worst odds of any casino game. Still, when the new ‘Global Trifecta’ was introduced in Europe this year, it was done with a lousy takeout of 29%. Racing authorities are hoping this new international bet will be a success. One can be excused for having doubts about that. Hennau agrees, as he says again and again; “the betting products must be attractive, and give a fair return.”
“Racing in Belgium is also losing its battle with other forms of gambling,” Hennau explains, “mainly the lottery, but also casino betting - though that seems to be a different market, going into a casino is more for the snobs.”  

Racecourses are wonderful melting pots. Snobs enjoy it, so called ordinary men and women enjoy it, unemployed enjoy it, girls and boys enjoy it, retired people enjoy it. Some make a living from the sport. Trainers must make a living from it.

“This is why I feel that the ‘ladder’ is totally upside down in our sport,” Hennau says, “the trainers are near the bottom, and very seldom heard, while owners, breeders and members of the Jockey Clubs are high on the ladder. This despite the fact that while trainers have this as a living, owners, Jockey Club members and breeders often have it as a hobby. Even some of the biggest breeders treat racing as a hobby. “

Ten years ago, Hennau decided to try and do something about this, and help trainers across Europe. “We got the idea of a trainers’ federation,” he says, looking at his wife, secretary and translator, Greta. “So, we wrote off to the Jockey Clubs in France, Ireland, England, Sweden, Germany, and Belgium of course, inviting delegates from each country to a meeting in Brussels.” The response was positive from all six countries, but this would cost money. “I managed to get sponsorships,” Hennau tells us. “Some owners helped us financially, in particular Monsieur Bervoets, who owns the excellent Hotel Metropole. He gave us a very good price, so we could arrange the meeting there. We also received some money from the PMU.”

The meeting in Brussels in 1996 went well, and a few months later all nations confirmed their commitments to form the European Trainers’ Federation. This happened in 1997, and the ETF will thus be celebrating ten years in existence when they have their annual meeting in Italy in December. Appropriately, the federation now has ten membership countries, with Spain joining this year.   
“You have to bear in mind that everyone involved is doing this as voluntary work,” the chairman points out, “and we are now at a phase where it is important to keep the ETF going, and make it more recognised, better known. We have achieved many things already, as for example the change that a trainer who has held a license in one country for five years can get a license to train in another country. We have a very good relationship with trainers in all countries, and it is in everyone’s interest that we work for Europe offering a level playing field. It is not good that every country has its own set of rules and regulations. There has been some harmonisation but there is some way to go yet and it is my hope, and this is my biggest hope, that all countries in Europe will one day operate under the same set of rules. I think this is the most important, immediate, task for the ETF.”

Hennau steps down as chairman this year, and a new leader will be elected when representatives meet in Italy. “Most countries have had new representatives over the years,” he tells us, “which is probably normal. It is just me and Valfredo Valiani who have been part of the ETF from day one. Maybe we need more stability, and it would be a dream if we could establish an office and afford a full time position for a manager or secretary. Today, that is not financially possible, but the ETF would become so much better known, and so much stronger, if we did have a person who could work for us, travel around and meet people, and so on. Trainers have little time, we are all trying to survive.”

Max Hennau may be about to close the final chapter of his training career, “though,” as he says with a smile, “if I get a phone call from a wealthy owner who wants me, I may reconsider” - but he is not turning his back on horseracing. “I will still be representing the trainers on the Jockey Club board,” he assures us.  He has trained somewhere over 500 winners. “Not sure,” he tells us, “but it is minimum of 500.”  A considerable number in a land like Belgium, and he has also saddled winners in France.
His son, Elie, is also now a Jockey Club board member, having been a very successful amateur rider with over 100 winners. “He is a good pilot,” his father says, “after all, he rode winners just about everywhere he went, from Epsom Downs to Dubai, St Moritz, USA and Scandinavia…”

His son is no longer riding races but still heavily involved in horseracing. The situation for amateur riders is, of course, closest to his heart.

“Did you know,” Elie asks, “that in England most amateur riders are in fact assistant trainers working full time in racing, while here and in France, that would not be allowed.” We have just been given another example of European racing badly in need of harmonising. “Not sure what you think,” the trainer’s son who is now working in insurance says, “but maybe someone in England ought to look up the word ‘amateur’…”

That is not a word his father, now 60, needs to relate to. Since his time as an ‘officer’ at the Haras du Pin (the National Stud in France), back in 1966, Max Hennau’s approach has clearly been that of a thoroughly professional horseman. Having worked his way up, he is still very much a down-to-earth man. Horses tend to like those. As a youngster, he was selected as the one Belgian student to join the stud and to be an ‘Officer Haras.’

“The system was for eight students each year,” he explains, “six from France, one from Belgium and one from Switzerland, and the selection is made by the Minister of Agriculture.”  Did many apply for this position? “I don’t think so,” Hennau says in his typical modest way, not the least bit tempted to exaggerate the importance of being the selected student. “Later on, I went to work for Philippe Lallie in France,” he continues, “we had high class horses like Irish Bold, Pyjama Hunt and Miss Dan at the time.”

Lallie trained over 100 horses, and after learning at this big yard in Chantilly, Hennau returned to Belgium and took out his license. He was just 23 years old, and a few years later he had over 50 horses, training jumpers as well as flat horses. “I had two yards,” he recalls, “in Steerebeck and Groenendael. My two best horses were Commodore, who won the Triple Crown and Little Vagabond. After he ran third in a Group 3 in France, Criquette Head bought Little Vagabond as a lead horse to Sicyos. After that he was sold on to the USA, as sire of Quarter Horses! I had bought him for just 1,000 guineas.”

None of the six horses Hennau trains this year have a value as low as that, or even the equivalent at today’s rates, but none of them have anywhere near the same class. Little Vagabond was a cheap horse, bought by a shrewd man from a small racing nation, named Hennau. He turned the vagabond into a king and a champion. Rather than use the success as a stepping stone for an international career, Hennau stayed at home, and he turned many of his days into voluntary work for Belgian and European horseracing, which he loves and knows so well. Knowledge is power, we are all being told in this world.

“Yes it is,” Hennau says with his typical, quiet smile, “but financial muscle wins when it comes to lobbying and, sadly, horseracing does not have that. I hope one day we will.”