Lead Interview: Ilka Gansera-Lévêque

Our lead interview in the CAPABILITY issue of Suffolk Director business magazine is Ilka Gansera-Lévêque, IGL Racing
Published in Suffolk Director Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2019

Knowledge, Competency and Skill

“My business, IGL Racing, has an unusual USP, which is that
I’m the only female trainer based in the UK who is also a qualified vet.”

On meeting Ilka Gansera-Lévêque, you can’t fail to be struck by her strength of spirit, as well as her dedication, grit and determination.

Throughout her life her passion has been horses and for the last four years she has worked in partnership with husband, Stéphane, building a horseracing training business in Newmarket.

“What we do is a vocation and we live and breathe horseracing. Our home is above our yard, Saint Wendred’s and we work a 16-hour day, seven days a week.

“There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach here. I’m dedicated to the wellbeing of the horses and make sure each one is cared for and trained as an individual being. Rather like having a member of staff, learning to understand its personality and supporting its development in every way possible are key to getting the best performance.”

“It’s always the horse that dictates the next step, and every step thereafter.”

The eldest of three, Ilka Gansera was born in Germany in the late seventies. Her father, Detlef, was a fighter pilot in the German Airforce and up until the age of 16 she was used to moving home every three years as her dad was stationed at different bases in Germany and America.

“As my childhood was split evenly between the two countries, I have always been bilingual, although German was the language spoken at home. We moved frequently and it was difficult to sustain friendships, so our family was very close. Because of the way military life is with tours of duty, my mother, Ute, pretty much raised us all single-handedly.

“One of my mum’s passions was her love of horses. She rode dressage and would take me to the races in my pushchair. Where other babies would be walked around a park, I would be walked around a racecourse. As soon as I was able, I took riding lessons. I dreamed of having my own horse and when I was 13, I was given an Arabian called Badur. I spent all my time looking after him and riding him.

“I grew up knowing that I wanted to be a jockey and I left school early, just before my 16th birthday, when I was offered a three-year jockey apprenticeship at a training stable owned by champion racehorse trainer, Bruno Schütz, in Cologne. At that time, it was unusual for girls to work in racing. In fact, my school actively discouraged my parents from letting me do this; they thought I should go to university. I was lucky, however, that they let me follow my dreams.”

The fact that Ilka was petite and light-framed stood her in good stead, as becoming a jockey is very similar to becoming a ballerina. There are physical characteristics that preclude you from taking it up as a career.

“There are horse carrying weight limits which are set by racing authorities. As well as being light – the average weight is around 54 kg – a jockey must also have the strength and stamina to control a horse that weighs around 500-600kg and moves at speeds of up to 64 km an hour.”

 Ilka Gansera-Lévêque Photo by Warren Page Pagepix Ilka Gansera-Lévêque Photo by Warren Page Pagepix

Moving to California

In the early nineties, American horse trainer Monty Roberts, known as the ‘Horse Whisperer’, was touring Germany. He was working with a horse that was a Derby favourite and it was having problems at the starting gate. Ilka was at a racecourse where he was and saw him, so she went over and introduced herself and said she would like to work for him.

“Because I was bilingual, Monty’s interest was piqued and he replied, “If you can teach me to speak German, I’ll teach you everything I know about horses. I shook his hand and said “Deal!”

“It was such a great opportunity and he took me on as an apprentice jockey on an internship.”

“It didn’t faze me going to America as I’d moved about so much growing up and had lived in California.”

“After a year, I had to come back to Germany for six months to finish my apprenticeship and sit the exams to gain my qualification.”

Ilka then returned to America. Not to California, but to Long Island in New York (border of Queens) where she worked for many well-known trainers at Belmont Park, the major thoroughbred horseracing facility in the north-eastern United States.

“Ironically, while I was there, I lived in Suffolk County. Long Island is a beautiful area with lovely beaches, and I was about 40 minutes away from Manhattan by train. It was really hard work, but I loved it and made a lot of friends there.”

Ilka stayed in America for five years, but during that time, she realised the dream of being a jockey wasn’t working out for her, so she began to get into training and developing an interest in veterinary medicine.

“My days were very busy. I would be riding and exercising horses in the morning and then work with trainers in the afternoon. I worked as both a freelancer and then full-time as an assistant trainer. Horseracing is a bit like a circus, you move around a lot. So, I spent some time in Kentucky, Louisiana and Florida; the rest of the time I spent in New York: Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga.”

Then the events of 9/11 happened.

“I was on Long Island when the Twin Towers were hit by the two planes and came down and that really shook me up. I decided I wanted to do something more purposeful with my life, so I decided to study to be a veterinarian and I went back home to Germany.

“In 2003, I started a degree at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover and graduated in 2009. I financed it from some savings I had and working with horses.”

Moving to Newmarket

In 2008, when Ilka was on her student placement at the Equine Hospital in Dubai, she met French rider, Stéphane Lévêque.

“He was working for Godolphin at the time spending six months in Dubai and six months in Newmarket and we had mutual friends in racing, who introduced us. We spent a lot of time together whilst I was in Dubai and when I went back to Germany to finish my studies, we continued a long-distance relationship.

“When I qualified as a vet, it made sense financially for me to be where Stéphane worked, so I moved to Suffolk and we got married. In July 2010, our daughter Eléa was born.”

Eléa wasn’t even a year old when Ilka took up a 12-month imaging internship with Rossdales, one of the biggest equine hospitals in Europe, based in Exning.

“While I was at work, Stéphane was a hands-on father as well as still being a rider for Godolphin.”

Then in 2011, he fell from a horse and almost died.

“When Stéphane had the accident, the hospital just said that he had bruised ribs, but he wasn’t right, and we had to force the issue to get the doctors to take him seriously. The result was that he had a splenectomy and then they missed that he had internal bleeding; the whole thing was very emotional and highly charged.

“The experience made us realise that we weren’t living our lives the way we wanted to. We weren’t spending much time together. I was only treating sick horses and I didn’t get any time to ride them, so we needed to do something different.

“Stéphane had completed his British Trainer’s course in 2009 and I completed it in 2012. We decided to go down the training route and start to build a business from scratch.

“We bought our first horse, Tosca, and rented a box at a stable. We were unaware that there weren’t many like us in Newmarket; trying to build a training business with new money from the bottom up. The horseracing community in Newmarket is built around old money and well-established families.

“From the one horse, we were sent a couple more and rented more boxes to stable the horses and give us room to store the feed and equipment. The rules and regulations of the British Horseracing Authority made it a bit difficult, but we found a way.”

The following months brought some success with a couple of horses being sent to Ilka, which she trained and then they went on to win.

Buying a racing yard

“We had rented a barn which had 15 boxes when Saint Wendred’s racing yard came onto the market. Based on Hamilton Road, it had 32 boxes and the bonus of living accommodation above the yard.

“We needed a commercial mortgage to purchase Saint Wendred’s. Lloyds Bank offered us one and we pulled a deposit together from Stéphane taking redundancy from his job at Godolphin and selling Tosca, who was a brood mare and had by that time won a big race in Germany which had brought in £100k in prize money.”

With Stéphane as her partner and assistant, initially Ilka traded as a sole trader, but the business soon became limited and registered as IGL Racing.

“We moved into Saint Wendred’s properly in May 2015 with 15 horses all training.

“Running this type of business means there are so many things you need to be and so many different capabilities you need to have.

“Not only do you need the obvious skills of being able to train and manage the welfare of the horses, but you also have to manage all the other facets that come with having a business: customer service, business development, doing the finances, marketing and administration, managing the staff and dealing with the logistics of transporting the horses and entering them for races.

“If you’re a football manager, your only responsibility is for coaching and getting the best out of the players. I’m not just doing the coaching and training of the horses, but everything else. You have to be adept at multi-tasking!”

“To get the best out of each horse, you need to create a strategy and a plan for what you’re going to do.”

“Being a practicing vet is extremely important as I am in a position to prevent rather than just cure. I have a lot of patience when it comes to horses, you need to be able to listen and watch.

“Horses use non-verbal communication all the time and you need to have the skills and acumen to understand them and where they’re at. The other skill you need to have is the ability to pull in potential owners and investors so that you have the funds to invest in quality horses.

“The truth of the matter is if you can’t get the quality horses in, your talent is wasted, as you can’t get the best results. It’s rather like owning an Aston Martin or a Fiat; no matter how much you finely tune the Fiat engine; you’re not going to get the same performance you would get from the Aston Martin.

“If you have winners, then the business comes, but it’s a fine line as if you work your business up to training 200 horses, you’re not going to be hands-on as you just don’t have the time to do it.

“Unlike a lot of trainers, I ride the horses I train. I spend a lot of time with them watching them and getting under their skin. To be a success, a racehorse needs to be both physically and mentally fit. If they’re frightened or anxious, they can’t take the stress of the race.

“My most satisfying moments are when we work with a horse that nobody else could win with and it wins. I have had a couple of those moments and it takes some beating.”

Spending time with Ilka, it’s clear she is a straight talker which is unusual in the horseracing community.

“The industry could do a lot more to reduce the amount of jargon and in-speaking. There’s a lot of work to be done to make horseracing easier to understand and this becomes even more important if we are going to be able to attract more business owners and directors to become racehorse owners.

“Despite what you think, you don’t need to be wealthy to get involved. There are a range of options from personal or company ownership, to being part of a syndicate or a racing club.”

A typical day for Ilka starts at 4am when she is up to feed the horses. Then each of the horses has at least an hour of training before their lunch is served at 11.30. If they’re racing, then that normally happens in the afternoon, but if not, Ilka spends this time doing all the things that need to be done when you’re running a business: admin, planning, marketing etc.

The stables are cleaned again from 3.30pm and the day finishes around 6pm when the horses are fed, except for a late-night feed at 9pm. This is how she spends her day, seven days a week.

“A racehorse is a finely tuned four-legged athlete, so it’s extremely important that they have a routine which is tailored to them.

 “I used to have hobbies such as mountaineering, but there is no time these days. This is our life, so our daughter is part of that with Stéphane and me.

“Living in England with a German mum and a French dad, Eléa, although only nine, speaks three languages. She’s a great kid and has many outside interests. She also has her own pony and mucks out his box every morning. She’s grown up in this environment and takes it all for granted.

“Personally, I’m satisfied that we’re a happy family unit. Some think there could be nothing worse than working in a business with your husband, but we’re a team. We’re different and also, we’re the same; we complement each other. We both love what we do and don’t tend to disagree on the work-related things.

“One thing I’ve realised is that I didn’t anticipate how tough it would be until I started my own business. Yes, I have made mistakes and things don’t necessarily work out the way you thought, so you tweak things and try again.

“It’s definitely a vocation doing what I do, but the most rewarding thing is having happy horses and one of the things that brings me the biggest joy is being the first person on my horse, out on the Gallops in the early morning.

“There’s no such thing as a work-life balance for me. It’s my life and I’m doing something I love, so I really wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

 Ilka Gansera-Lévêque Photo by Warren Page Pagepix Ilka Gansera-Lévêque Photo by Warren Page Pagepix


Racehorse Ownership

British horseracing is the most prestigious and highly regarded in the world and is the second-best attended sport after football. The headquarters of flat racing in the UK is on the doorstep in Newmarket. The racecourse was founded in 1636 and today the industry directly employs around 3,600 people full-time and contributes £240 million annually to the local economy.

Racehorse ownership gives you an opportunity not just to watch racing, but to participate and be actively involved with racing on the inside. And there must be something in it when you see the list of celebrities and business leaders that have taken on ownership.

As well as being an extraordinary experience, there are other good reasons to own a racehorse:

It’s an investment: Although you shouldn’t hold the absolute expectation that you will turn a profit, just like running a business, the risks can be mitigated by ensuring thorough research, knowledge, experience and analysis are employed at each stage.

It raises your profile: If you decide to take the company ownership route, there are numerous branding and sponsorship opportunities to help increase the profile of your business, including having your name on your horse and the jockey’s silks, your yard and your horsebox.

It’s sociable and enjoyable: A day at the races is a fantastic family or corporate event made even more exciting if your horse is running. The thrill of being in the paddock before and after the race, whatever the result is electrifying. It’s second to none and you’re right in the thick of it.

There are lots of options for racehorse ownership whether you own as an individual, company or group, and it isn’t as expensive as you may think.

As Ilka explains: “One of the first steps is to gather information from sources such as the Racehorse Owners’ Association (roa.co.uk) and the British Horseracing Authority (britishhorseracing.com).

“You can also contact me, and I would be more than happy to arrange a yard visit or meet you at the races, or one of the horse sales to have a chat. Racing is one of those areas where there are a lot of specialist terms and acronyms flying around. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a silly question in this industry.

“Just call me on 01638 454973 or drop me an email at office@gansera-leveque.com and ask away!”

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