British racing moves behind closed doors as sport braces itself for testing time
The full impact of coronavirus on the racing industry began to be felt on Monday as the British Horseracing Authority announced the sport would take place behind closed doors until at least the end of March.
It came hours before prime minister Boris Johnson announced a major escalation in measures to fight the virus, with everyone in the UK told to avoid "non-essential" travel and contact with others.
Johnson said mass gatherings would no longer be supported by emergency service workers and on Monday the BHA was seeking clarity from the government about whether racing could go ahead even without spectators.
Bookmaker share prices plunged again on Monday as the severity of the crisis facing the industry became increasingly evident, with major operators warning the cancellation and postponement of sports events caused by the coronavirus outbreak could reduce their earnings for the year by more than £100 million.
All racing has been suspended in France and Germany until mid-April, while Paddy Power and BoyleSports announced on Monday evening that all their shops would shut until at least March 29 in the Republic of Ireland, where pubs have closed, mass gatherings are banned and racing is behind closed doors.
A statement by British racing's tripartite leadership, including the Racecourse Association, The Horsemen's Group and the BHA, said some meetings until the end of March may have to be cancelled to protect industry staff and to free up critical public services during the coronavirus pandemic, which on Monday had claimed 55 lives in the UK.
Asked how the BHA will decide which meetings are lost, chief executive Nick Rust said: "Based on availability of staff and the practicalities of staging events with no income from spectators."
In response to the government's extended range of measures, a BHA spokesman said on Monday: “British racing’s COVID-19 steering group will contact government for further guidance as to any implications of the press conference held on the afternoon of March 16, and will issue a further update tomorrow.”
Meetings at Wetherby and Taunton are scheduled to be run without spectators on Tuesday. Explaining the decision to go behind closed doors, Rust said: "Racecourses and racing yards are embedded in their local communities and we're acutely aware of our responsibilities to protect public health.
"The restrictions we're putting in place to close racing to spectators and limit attendees will reduce demand on public services. We also have a range of measures in place designed in response to the government’s guidance on public health and we will continue to update these as appropriate.
"We acknowledge that today’s decision will also impact on local businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, who are struggling at this time. We're following the government’s advice to strike a balance between protecting public health and maintaining business activity and will continue to do so. We thank our customers and staff for their support."
Newbury on Monday confirmed its intention to run this weekend's biggest meeting, which plays host to the ITV cameras on Saturday, behind closed doors.
But the annual charity open day at nearby Lambourn, scheduled for Good Friday, April 10, has already been called off.
Newbury clerk of the course Keith Ottesen said: "At the moment it's all systems go. We're putting plans in place for racing to go ahead behind closed doors and ITV will be based here rather than in Scotland."
Arena Racing Company (ARC), which runs 16 racecourses, will not allow racehorse owners to be admitted to meetings under the new restrictions.
Chief executive Martin Cruddace added: "It will be an incredible achievement if British horse and greyhound racing, upon which any number of ecosystems rely and which support thousands of jobs, can work together through this unprecedented time to ensure that we still have a strong and vibrant industry at the end of it."
Rupert Arnold, head of the National Trainers Federation, said: "We're all in a completely novel situation, we don't have all the answers, we don't know how everyone will be affected or cope so we're encouraging people to share innovative ideas to the problem to benefit everyone connected to the training business.
"There are potentially very serious consequences for staff themselves and the horses, and who will care for them. One can imagine a situation where a significant number of staff have to self-isolate and that impacts the trainer's ability to operate. We don't want to over-dramatise things but we want people to prepare and take the action needed now to avoid that situation arising.
"Luckily it's a business that takes place outside where people do not have to be within two metres of each other, so we can try and mitigate the risk of significant numbers of staff away from work."
George McGrath, of the National Association of Racing Staff (Nars), added: "I'm working with the NTF on contingency plans in that regard, we can't send out general guidelines due to the various sizes and operations different yards have. I suggested specific travelling teams to limit the number of people from various yards travelling, but that's for the NTF and individual trainers to decide."
McGrath's organisation have also suggested staff take packed lunches when going racing.
Musselburgh race twice in the current behind-closed-doors period, including their Racing Post Go North raceday on Friday, and general manager Bill Farnsworth said: "The racing industry, like many other sectors, is facing unprecedented challenges and is fighting for its future.
"We're keen to do whatever we can to support jobs and to mitigate loss of income and holding meetings behind closed doors seems a sensible approach."
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