Fairyhouse and Punchestown facing uncertain period ahead of spring festivals
Organisers of the Fairyhouse and Punchestown spring festivals face an anxious wait to discover whether or not this year's valuable meetings will go ahead as usual in light of the growing number of Covid-19 cases in Ireland.
Horse Racing Ireland's decision to run fixtures behind closed doors, starting with last Friday's eight-race card at Dundalk, is set to run until March 29.
However, the rapidly developing scenario relating to coronavirus has cast doubt as to how some of Irish racing's biggest meetings will be run.
By Sunday evening, the number of cases in the Republic Of Ireland had risen to 169, an increase of 40 new cases since Saturday.
Peter Roe, general manager at Fairyhouse racecourse, could not rule any eventuality in or out at this point regarding how the €500,000 BoyleSports Irish Grand National could be staged, with the three-day Easter festival set to begin in less than four weeks' time.
"We're watching everything that's developing at the minute while still gearing up for Easter," he explained. "We'll be following guidelines very strictly, these are challenging times for everyone.
"We're dealing with people's lives and it's got to the stage where we're hearing of people we actually know, which brings it all into perspective."
He added of the track's biggest fixture on Monday April 13: "We're looking towards March 29 and taking it from there. We'll be taking everything into account and can't rule anything in or out at this stage.
"HRI are doing the right thing to keep all sides happy, going behind closed doors very quickly. We're still working ahead for Easter, in whatever guise that may take."
Officials at Punchestown are also continuing to prepare for their five-day end of season bonanza, while also wary of the dangers Covid-19 presents.
Conor O'Neill, general manager of Punchestown racecourse and chairman of the Association of Irish Racecourses, said: "We're very optimistic that the Punchestown festival will go ahead but we'll continue to monitor the situation, liaising with Horse Racing Ireland and the relevant health and government authorities.
"We won't be irresponsible and public health must be the absolute priority in this pandemic. These are exceptional circumstances."
He added: "We're still over six weeks away from the festival, though, and remain optimistic and focused on the festival taking place."
With the Punchestown festival seeing 12 Grade 1 events and a total prize pot of over €3.2 million up for grabs, the Kildare venue is undoubtedly an important economic element of the Irish racing calendar.
"The situation is evolving day by day and, from a financial and commercial perspective, these are worrying times for the industry," said O'Neill.
"This is an industry, rather than a sport, that we're trying to keep going. We'll continue to monitor it on an ongoing basis but hopefully for all concerned the festival will go ahead.
"I more so than anyone want that to be the case, but it will only happen if it's in a responsible manner and not impacting public health and safety."
Roe added: "The financial implications for racecourses is huge. There have been fixtures lost over a hard winter for some and this is another challenge. As an industry we can't be insular."
The first point-to-point fixtures to be held behind closed doors also took place on Sunday, with Derek O'Connor complimentary of those involved in running the meeting at Ballyarthur, County Cork.
After riding a double, he said: "Everything ran very smoothly and the adjustments seemed to work very well. The authorities and organisers deserve credit for their attention to detail in making it a success on Sunday."
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