Christmas blow as key meetings go into Tier 3 and no Friday spectators at Ascot
Kempton's Boxing Day highlight, the King George VI Chase, is set be run without spectators after Surrey was placed under tighter coronavirus restrictions from midnight on Saturday morning due to the rise in cases across the south-east, and Ascot's meetings on Friday and Saturday will also move behind closed doors.
After consulting with Public Health England, Ascot has taken the decision not to allow spectators on Friday, a day before the restrictions come into force, with Berkshire also among the regions moved into the highest tier of restrictions. Owners will be admitted on both days under the agreed industry protocols relating to Tier 3.
There was also bad news for anyone hoping to go racing at the likes of Sandown and Newbury over the Christmas period, with both courses moving into Tier 3 zones like Kempton from the weekend.
The Ladbrokes-sponsored King George is not the only festive treat anyone who had planned to travel to Kempton will miss on December 26, with Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante pencilled in for the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle. A day later Altior's comeback in the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid at the same course will also be staged behind closed doors.
A spokesperson for the Jockey Club, owner of Kempton, said: “We know that racing fans will be disappointed to be missing out on some thrilling live action over the Christmas period, especially having only just been allowed to return to our venues in very limited numbers.
"However, we recognise we must all play our part in tackling this pandemic and look forward to welcoming racegoers back to our courses as soon as we're able to do so."
All racegoers' tickets will be refunded for the meetings affected.
There was some good news after restrictions were loosened in Herefordshire to Tier 1, meaning Hereford's meeting on January 2 could conceivably have as many as 4,000 spectators.
However, Thursday's announcement in the House of Commons was largely negative for the sport, which only started to welcome back spectators at the start of the month.
Ascot had been due to host racegoers for the first time since February on Friday but those hopes have now been extinguished.
"Government confirmed today that our area is formally moving into Tier 3 at midnight on Friday, which automatically means that the public can’t be admitted to Ascot on Saturday," said a spokesman for the course.
"We have consulted with Public Health England and our Safety Advisory Group and the advice received is we should not open to the public tomorrow. Therefore, we will not be admitting the public for Friday’s racing.
"Cases in the south of England have risen over 40 per cent in the last week and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is now in a very high-risk area. We are sorry that we have to deliver this news to people looking forward to coming racing this weekend."
Health secretary Matt Hancock announced that Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire will be subject to Tier 3 rules, where no spectators are allowed to attend sporting events, as well as the majority of Surrey and parts of East Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Hampshire.
Speaking in the Commons, he said: "In the south-east of England, cases are up 46 per cent in the last week and hospital admissions are up by more than a third. In the east of England, cases are up two thirds in the last week and hospital admissions are up by nearly half. It is therefore necessary to apply Tier 3 measures across a much wider area of the east and south-east of England.
"I know Tier 3 measures are tough but the best way for everyone to get out of them is to pull together and do everything they possibly can to stop the spread of the virus."
How the changes affects other racecourses
There was no good news for Wetherby either, which had hoped to be dropped to Tier 2 but remains in Tier 3 and will consequently not be allowed to welcome back spectators for its Christmas meetings on December 26 and 27. Boxing Day is traditionally the track's busiest fixture with more than 10,000 spectators.
Wetherby chief executive Jonjo Sanderson said: "We share in everyone's disappointment who can't come here on Boxing Day but we'll work towards the day we can welcome spectators back safely in accordance with all the regulations that are in place at that time.
"We were prepared and ready and had a plan in place to welcome to 800 spectators in addition to the owners who would have been here on the two days had we dropped into Tier 2. It would have been a tight logistical operation for us in the time available, but if it changes at the end of this month our next meeting is on January 12, so it's plenty of time to get everything ready and we'll be ready to rock and roll."
Stressing the importance of getting spectators back on track, Sanderson added: "General admissions and hospitality income here is a huge proportion of our business, so there's been a massive void this season that we're having to manage our way through. They're a crucial income stream for us."
Both the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle meeting at Newbury on December 29 and Sandown's Tolworth Hurdle on January 2 will also be staged without a crowd under the new restrictions. Lingfield's meetings on Saturday and New Year's Eve will also take place also behind closed doors.
Cheltenham will still be permitted to welcome back up to 2,000 spectators for its New Year's Day fixture, with the same applying for the meetings at Wincanton on December 26, Fontwell and Catterick on December 28, Haydock on December 30 and Taunton on December 30.
Hereford is the only course in England situated in Tier 1, with 24 in Tier 2 and 26 in Tier 3. All race meetings in Wales, Scotland and Ireland remain behind closed doors. The next formal review of the tier system in England will take place in two weeks.
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