AFTER the Aidan Coleman-ridden favourite Glencassley, trained near Over Norton by Charlie Longsdon, had passed the post in front in the final race at Wetherby on St Patrick’s Day, racing in the UK was shut down until the end of April, writes David Hucker.
The day before, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) had announced that, in response to the coronavirus, racing would be held in a controlled environment behind closed doors, with the meetings at Taunton and Wetherby the first in England to go ahead without the public.
The measure was expected to last until the end of this month. However, by the time racegoers were making their way home, the industry knew that UK racing was being brought into line with France, which had moved from behind closed doors to a complete shut-down.
Authorities in Ireland, which holds far less meetings than the UK, met the next day and, having reviewed the five fixtures held without the public, decided to continue racing behind closed doors, starting with last Friday’s card at Dundalk, but that lasted only until Tuesday when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that all sporting events were to be cancelled from midnight until April 19th.
The shutdown comes at a busy time for the industry, with major fixtures including the Randox Health Grand National meeting at Aintree, Lingfield’s All-Weather Finals day, the Coral Scottish Grand National at Ayr and Sandown Park’s bet365 jumps finale all lost.
An industry group representing racecourses, owners, breeders and trainers has been meeting under the chairmanship of BHA chief executive Nick Rust to draw up a response, including a resumption plan.
“The effort from across the sport at the moment is incredible” said Rust.
“There is a determination that racing will not be beaten by this shutdown.
“The willingness to help is universal. “We will do all we can to keep people informed as we progress.”
Locally, both Warwick (Thursday) and Stratford (Saturday) were scheduled to hold meetings this week and these have been lost as well as their April fixtures which would have seen Warwick race on the 14th and 23rd and Stratford’s first Sunday meeting on the 19th.
If the shutdown goes into May, and the continuing rise in the number of people affected by the virus suggests that the measures taken by the government last week won’t be relaxed for some time to come, then both courses will lose valuable revenue from some of their major fixtures.
Nationally, racecourse attendances have been in decline for the last four years in a row, but Warwick, under manager Andre Klein and his energetic team, have bucked the trend with a modern-day record of over 7,000 at the course on New Year’s Eve and Classic Chase Day in January attracting its biggest crowd in 25 years.
Part of this upturn has been the increasingly popular May Racing Carnival, which kicks off this year with Victory In Europe Raceday on Bank Holiday Friday.
The last of the four meetings that make up the Carnival is due to he held on the evening of Wednesday, 27th after which the course closes for its summer break, resuming with a two-day fixture starting on Monday, 21st September.
“It’s a frustrating time for everyone in the country, let alone those engaged in horse racing,” said Klein.
“Whilst I harbour concerns for racecourses, I am much more worried about the trickle-on effect for those that rely on racing going ahead.
“Stables staff, betting shop staff and the like. The sooner we can commence racing again the better but,in the current environment, it’s hard to contemplate it.
“We expect that racing will not go ahead in its true sense with public attendance for a while beyond April and with that in mind, we have spoken with Warwick District Council and are likely to move the VE celebration from May to VJ Day on 15th August.
“Although we have no scheduled racing that day, the course would still host the community activities we had planned such as the street party, the fairground rides, side stalls and live bands.
“By then the nation will, hopefully, be ready for a big celebration and we’ll be putting one on for the whole of Warwickshire to enjoy!”
For Stratford, an independent track without the backing of a big group, every meeting is vital, particularly as it is a fixture down this year, having lost its November card from the list.
May is a key month in their season with three meetings, including the prestigious Hunter Chase Evening on Friday, 29th and any extension of the ban beyond April will have a big impact.
The Hunter Chase Evening not only offers valuable prize-money for an all-amateur card, topped by the Pertemps Network Stratford Foxhunters Champion Hunters’ Chase, but also sees the presentation of the point-to-point champions awards.
With the season having been curtailed due to the coronavirus, there won’t be any nail-biting finishes to the title races, meaning that Jack Andrews with 21 winners will be crowned men’s champion and his record-breaking sister Gina, who is 18 winners clear of her nearest rival Paige Topley on 22, will lift the ladies’s title for the seventh time.
Stratford Racecourse manager Ilona Barnett said: “Whilst we had hoped to keep racing in order to keep some semblance of economic stability in our industry, the health of our country is the number one priority for us all and we look forward to returning to normal as and when the time is right.”
Like all trainers, Wilmcote-based Olly Murphy is working his horses normally at his Warren Chase yard in the hope that racing resumes in some form at the beginning of May.
“All my staff have been brilliant during this tough situation” said Murphy. “It’s a tough time for everyone, but we just have to all stick together.”