Irish racing to continue behind closed doors after crucial Wednesday meeting
No owners/overseas runners at meetings, medical services available to government
Irish racing will continue behind closed doors with even stricter protocols following a crucial meeting of the Horse Racing Ireland board on Wednesday.
Concerns about the immediate future of the industry in Ireland had been raised in light of the coronavirus pandemic and its widespread impact on racing and sport in general, with the BHA on Tuesday announcing its decision to cancel all fixtures in Britain until at least the end of April.
However, under the new and more specific protocols, racing will continue in Ireland with no overseas runners allowed to compete and any medical personnel or facilities in action at fixtures will be available for government use when needed.
Jockeys' weights will increase by 2lb as a result of racecourse saunas being closed, while no owners are now permitted to attend meetings. The maximum gap between races will be 30 minutes in order to assist social distancing.
The current race programme is also set to be altered, with no double fixtures or evening meetings during this period. A sub-committee will review the scenario on a daily basis.
With the new protocol regarding no evening fixtures, Dundalk, which was scheduled to run from 5.15pm to 8.45pm on Friday, will take place earlier that afternoon.
As double-fixture clashes on the same day are not permitted, the opening meeting of the 2020 Flat season at Naas, originally due to take place this Sunday, will be run on Monday in order to avoid running alongside the Randox Ulster National card at Downpatrick.
Dundalk's meeting that had been fixed for the night of Friday, March 27 is now being held two days earlier on Wednesday, while Saturday and Sunday meetings that weekend at Navan and the Curragh will be held a day earlier (Friday and Saturday).
Under this new scheduling, there is set to be no blank day of racing in Ireland between this Friday and Sunday, March 29.
HRI chairman Nick Hartery said: "These are unprecedented and sombre times and we are seeking the best ways to support the racing community and industry throughout what lies ahead.
"Health and welfare of employees and industry participants is the prime consideration and within that context, we have introduced protocols which can allow racing to continue and thousands of families who rely on the sector to maintain a livelihood.
"This will be kept under review on a daily basis and we are also planning measures for reprogramming fixtures as it becomes required."
He added: "We have consulted with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine throughout this process and we will continue to strictly adhere to the government and HSE advice.
"We have made it clear at all times that our medical facilities and personnel will be available for the government to use if necessary – that will take precedence above any other consideration.”
Irish racing has followed the government's protocol to restrict public gatherings by running any meetings before March 29 without crowds, as well as imposing strict limitations on who could attend.
The first five fixtures to be held under these previous restrictions at Dundalk (Friday, March 13), Navan (Saturday 14), Limerick (Sunday 15), Down Royal and Wexford (Tuesday 17) have been highly praised by those on site, with some of the country's leading trainers and jockeys pleading with officials to continue racing behind closed doors before Wednesday's announcement.
"The Board paid tribute to the flexibility shown by stable staff, jockeys, trainers, owners and employees of the IHRB, HRI, the media and broadcasters," said HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh.
"Strict measures were imposed on them almost immediately last Friday but their actions, care and vigilance have ensured that social distancing is being observed and racecourses continue to be a safe working environment.”
Eight-time Irish champion Flat trainer Dermot Weld praised the authorities for their decision, which looks set to make a positive impact on employment in the industry.
"I think it's a very helpful decision to keep employment going forward in our country," said the master of Rosewell House.
"There are 28,000 people employed directly or indirectly through the horse business in Ireland. It's a huge employer - especially rurally.
"I gather that the meetings behind closed doors so far have been very well handled, it's essential that the guidelines are obeyed and that all government directives are carried out properly.
"The efforts being made are very much appreciated and everybody will be respectful and careful going forward."
Kavanagh added: "Racecourses by their nature offer opportunities for social distancing that few other workplaces can.
"Nothing in Irish life is as it was a week ago, and in the same way, these are not race fixtures as we previously knew them, they are big open-air sites with very few people present and nobody on site if they are not involved: once a jockey or trainer has finished their business for the afternoon, they are required to leave.
"Furthermore, we have carried out risk assessments according to each individual racecourse facility, and some fixtures may be subject to greater restrictions and limitations to ensure social distancing is easily achievable and maintained."
The IHRB also revealed that following the HRI board's decision, the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee convened on Wednesday evening and confirmed that Point to Point racing will continue under the same strict measures and guidelines enforced for race meetings.
Wednesday's announcement comes at a time of great uncertainty for those involved at all levels of the thoroughbred industry, with 69 new coronavirus cases confirmed in Ireland on Tuesday night, bringing the overall number to 292.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a ministerial broadcast to the nation on the same evening, revealing the current emergency is likely to go on well beyond March 29 and the number of Covid-19 cases could reach 15,000 over the next two weeks.
He said: "It could go on for months into the summer so we need to be sensible in the approach we take."
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