Uncertainty around racing's return as coronavirus pandemic shuts down the sport
Racing in Britain will not take place until May at the earliest after a dramatic escalation in response to the coronavirus pandemic from the BHA, with chief executive Nick Rust admitting the authority is unsure when the action will resume.
The fixtures at Taunton and Wetherby on Tuesday were the last to be held before the shutdown, which will last until at least the end of April. Mass cancellations and postponements have been taking place across the world of sport since last week due to the impact of Covid-19.
No sector of racing has been unaffected by Covid-19, for which 1,950 people have tested positive in the United Kingdom from 50,442 tests, with 71 deaths. Participants in the sport are concerned about the viability of their businesses, with gambling firms calling for government relief, and bloodstock auctions have been postponed and charity events called off or put back amid the uncertainty.
The move by the BHA brings to an end the sport’s short-lived period of racing behind closed doors and was agreed by the industry’s stakeholders after a succession of lengthy meetings on Monday night and Tuesday morning following amended government advice to avoid all non-essential travel and to ramp up social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus.
Rust said: “This has been a discussion across the whole of racing. This is extremely tricky and there have been slightly different views, but generally speaking this is an effort where racing has come together and got behind this.
“That is the only way we're going to come out the other side with our industry intact. We must remain together and we have been in this decision. No-one involved in this decision took this lightly, this was extremely difficult because we were aware of the worries and concerns and the potential impacts on people in our industry."
Rust had earlier said racing was “proud of its connection to rural communities and to the local businesses that support our industry”, but that public health issues during a “national emergency the like of which most of us have never seen before” took priority.
Many participants have expressed concern at the halting of the £4 billion racing industry, but Rust said there was little option having followed government advice in shaping the sport’s response throughout the crisis.
“The world changed a bit yesterday and I think we need to listen very carefully and make sure we're helping the public effort,” he said. “We want to return when the time is right and when the conditions are right and when we’re not being a drain on public resources and social distancing can be relaxed a little bit. I just don’t know when that might be.
“There are differences in opinions about how long this might last. We shouldn’t second guess that and we have to get ready for the return. Racing leaders will keep today’s decision under constant review and endeavour to keep all customers, participants, staff and dependent businesses informed as the situation progresses.”
Key industry groups were scrambling to deal with the ramifications of the cancellation of racing, with the Racecourse Association, National Association of Racing Staff, Professional Jockeys Association and National Trainers Federation (NTF) seeking to reassure members dealing with circumstances not experienced since the end of the second world war.
Rupert Arnold, NTF chief executive, said: “To suspend racing was a massive decision and I know everyone involved in the discussions led by the BHA took their responsibilities to the sport incredibly seriously.
“Trainers’ businesses – and by extension, their staff, clients and suppliers – will be severely affected, so the NTF’s focus is on providing support to its members. We have created an advice document that is accessible to all trainers, including non-members, from the home page of our website. We will keep updating this as new information becomes available and we welcome contributions to make it a useful living document.
“We're working with other stakeholders to develop a support package that encompasses self-help as well as help from the government. Our message to the sport’s customers is ‘be patient, don’t act hastily; allow the sport this breathing space to plan a resumption based on an assessment of the risks in an evolving situation'.”
Major fixtures such as the Unibet Lincoln meeting on March 28, All-Weather Finals day on April 10, the bet365 Craven meeting on April 14-16, the Coral Scottish Grand National and Newbury's Greenham meeting on April 18 and Sandown's bet365 jumps finale on April 25 have all been cancelled. Next month's Randox Health Grand National meeting at Aintree had already been cancelled on Monday.
Popular racing open days at Lambourn and Middleham on Good Friday have also been postponed and the British point-to-point season has been curtailed.
Such devastation to racing’s fixture list was described as having “huge ramifications” for the sport and bookmakers by Martin Cruddace, chief executive of racecourse group Arena Racing Company.
He said: “We're obviously hugely disappointed to see racing suspended until at least the end of April but the safety of all participants, as well as the wider society, is paramount.
“While we understand the decision, there is no doubt that the suspension of racing for this period, and possibly longer, will have huge ramifications for the entire ecosystem that racing supports and for the bookmaking industry.
“We will now look to take every step to support our employees, the business and our partners in the betting industry in the short and long term, and make sure that we're ready to race again as soon as a fully analysed and risk-assessed decision to do so is made.”
Among the latest developments is advice from the UK Foreign Office to avoid all non-essential travel worldwide for the next 30 days.
Premier League football, Euro 2020, Test cricket, the Six Nations rugby, Formula 1 motor racing, the Greyhound Derby and The Masters golf are among the sporting events affected by the virus. The Olympics in Japan is also in jeopardy.
Racing in Ireland, Australia, the UAE and Hong Kong has been taking place without spectators, while on Monday racing in France was cancelled until mid-April after initially continuing behind closed doors.
In the US, racing continues without racegoers in many parts of the country, but Keeneland’s spring meeting has been called off and the Kentucky Derby has been postponed until September 5.
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