Back where they belong: long-awaited return of crowds pure joy for racecourses
There was a time when Simon Sherwood got the loudest cheers from the fullest houses in racing. Today he will be delighted to hear polite applause from several hundred well-behaved punters.
Three decades ago Sherwood brought the house down by winning two King George VI Chases and then a memorable Gold Cup on Desert Orchid, when more than 50,000 souls roared themselves hoarse after the finish of all finishes up the Cheltenham hill.
Now as general manager at Ludlow he – and racing – has just as big a result to celebrate: the return of spectators after 261 days.
Racegoers were last admitted as a matter of course at Hereford and Southwell on Monday, March 16. The sport was shut down by Covid-19 restrictions after racing the next day and when it resumed on June 1 it was firmly behind closed doors.
The original 'key personnel' were joined by owners the following month and a handful of spectators attended a couple of trial days at Doncaster and Warwick before the pandemic's second wave wiped out all hope of an imminent return to normality.
But those doors are now ajar again. Last week's surprise government announcement on elite sports meant that after the end of the second lockdown on Tuesday night, limited crowds are now allowed back and Haydock, Kempton, Lingfield and Ludlow are ready, willing and able to greet the new dawn.
"It will make a big difference," said Sherwood, whose course had been due to race the day after the sport was shut down and which last admitted paying spectators on February 27.
"It will be good to have a bit of atmosphere back," he added. "Without a crowd there's none, it's all a bit sterile."
This is not a wholesale return to normality. Ask anyone who hoped to go racing on Thursday at Leicester or Market Rasen, which are in Tier 3 'very high alert' zones and thus unable to admit spectators at present.
No more than 2,000 people are allowed at those in Tier 2 while reading the government's newly published 7,500 words of guidelines on the return of spectators can leave your head spinning at the strict infection-minimising protocols that both courses and racegoers must observe.
"It will be a challenge with people back," Sherwood admitted. "It's just a case of making certain you do it correctly and hoping people behave in a responsible way. You hope racegoers will act accordingly – touch wood we've always had a wonderful, knowledgeable and respectful following and I hope that continues."
With courses reckoning to have lost £300 million of revenue in a year when they have scarcely sold a ticket since March, and the government's 'winter survival plan' for sport offering just £40m in loans, it is no wonder the return of spectators is such welcome news.
Nor is it any surprise tracks should be careful not to do anything that might tempt a watching government minister to close the door once again.
Ludlow will not admit as many people as it could have done on Wednesday and Sherwood admitted: "We're just treading quite quietly and feeling our way in, not going for a blast. We've got a quite popular meeting coming up later in December and I hope if we get it right this time we can be a bit braver next time.
"We're aiming for around 650-700 people – owners, members and some public. We're limited by social distancing but we'd be allowed 25 or 30 per cent more than that.
"It's worth the effort. This is not about financial rescue but it's bringing some atmosphere back on to the racecourse, it's a step in the right direction and that's why it's important we get it right as racing has been fortunate in being able to lead the way on elite sports."
Like Sherwood, Kim Bailey knows what a cheer sounds like, having won the Grand National, Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle in a hugely successful training career.
He has runners at Haydock and Ludlow and said: "I can't wait for people to come back.
"It's going to be very different because the way they've framed it, you're not allowed to have much contact with them. It might be difficult how and when you talk to people, but – having said that – it's got to be good news."
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