Nicky Henderson: 'We're all going stark mad but at least racing keeps us sane'
Nicky Henderson has issued a rallying call about the importance of racing continuing through the current lockdown, declaring "we're all going stark mad but at least it keeps us sane" and highlighting the horse welfare imperative for keeping the show on the road.
The most successful British trainer in Cheltenham Festival history is acutely aware of the tightrope which the BHA and officials in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have had to walk in order to keep racing going since the sport resumed on June 1 last year, but believes the sport has navigated the challenges with aplomb.
The champion trainer's call comes two days after Professional Jockeys Association Flat president PJ McDonald backed his weighing-room colleagues to adhere to the letter of the sport's biosecurity measures.
"We've all got to play our part," Henderson said. "We all sit and watch the telly and whether it's football or racing, it is fully televised and for everyone who is stuck at home, it is giving them a sport they love. And I think that's important. We're all going stark mad but at least it keeps us sane.
"I do think everyone has done incredibly well. The BHA and the government have obviously got on very well and hopefully racing is looked on as having conducted itself well.
"It [the BHA's set of biosecurity protocols] is very rigid and people have asked why they can't do this or that. We have got to do what we’re told, full stop. We have to make sure the government and the authorities are happy that racing is doing whatever we can do to keep going."
Henderson in effect ended his 2019-20 season when racing was brought to a halt along with much of the rest of life in Britain last March and admitted to a "dreaded fear" of another stoppage at such a delicate time of the year.
"A lot of it is to do with horse welfare," he said. "It was different last time because at least the National Hunt horses could be turned away and go in the field.
"When there was no racing it was a difficult time for the Flat boys. If we were stopped now with an indefinite restart date I've no idea what would happen.
"The operation has to continue and what on earth do you do if the horses have got no objective? That's the dreaded thought. Nobody would know how long it would be for. I'm sure nobody would say we were stopped for a month, or a fortnight."
Fellow trainer Nick Alexander said racing has been exemplary in its conduct, contrasting it to some of the scenes surrounding the third round of football's FA Cup at the weekend, when images of players celebrating goals attracted criticism.
"In racing we're frightened of our horses getting viruses so biosecurity comes quite naturally to us," said Alexander. "But there have been other areas of elite sport which have shown an astonishingly bad example.
"I hate to think how racing would be pilloried if jockeys and everyone started hugging each other like mad after a win. I think football needs to get a grip because the way they are behaving there is a danger that all of elite sport will be shut down."
Perthshire-based Alexander said the recent surge in Covid-19 cases across Britain had validated the cautious approach adopted by the BHA and other stakeholders in racing.
"When we were coming out of lockdown I was quite critical of racing's slow approach to allowing owners and crowds back but with hindsight it was the best thing we could have done," said Alexander. "If we had gone too far we'd probably have had Covid cases and we'd be in a weaker position than we are now."
In Scotland, a three-week suspension of competition below the top two tiers of men's football is in place, largely due to concerns over part-time players mixing outside the sport, but Musselburgh chief executive Bill Farnsworth believes racing is in a good position to ride out the current wave of the virus, as long as everyone sticks to the rules.
"We've got to be responsible and if we are, we operate in a very safe environment," said Farnsworth. "If people don't follow the rules, there's a risk it would stop itself, if people drop their guard or are just unlucky enough to get the virus and it spreads among the racing community.
"It's a pretty small community, it's pretty much the same faces every time we race, and if we can keep ourselves safe and away from the virus I see no reason why we shouldn't carry on."
The BHA said it would consider following the lead of other sports by implementing a widespread testing regime for racing participants as it continues to closely monitor the prevalence of the coronavirus.
Under the current protocols, those attending British racecourses are not required to undertake a Covid-19 test before entering the track but, due to the new strain of the virus, the BHA is open to the possibility.
"Racing's coronavirus control protocols are approved by the UK government," read a statement from the BHA on Wednesday.
"Racing is a predominantly outdoor, rural, non-contact sport and it was agreed by DCMS and Public Health England that for this reason – allied to the stringent, bespoke controls that have been put in place on racecourses – that when racing resumed it would not require an ongoing mass-testing programme, but instead would utilise a strict health-screening approach.
"The sport's protocols are working well and the industry has acted responsibly in terms of observing government guidance. As a result there has been no evidence observed of transmission of the disease on tracks since the sport resumed on June 1, from around 800 fixtures.
"However, we are constantly monitoring the situation and liaising with the industry and training hubs. We take an agile approach and our protocols are under constant review to determine how racing can continue to strengthen our approach and best safeguard our people.
"Owing to the new variant of the disease the picture is changing, and should evidence show it is necessary then testing is an option that may be helpful. As ever, we will be led by the science, data and evidence."
The BHA has also announced amateur jockeys will no longer be permitted to ride in Britain from Saturday in line with government restrictions around the definition of elite sport and the associated suspension of grassroots sport.
British racing's governing body confirmed that hunter chases would be taking place this season, but only professional jockeys or conditionals will be allowed to ride as amateurs are classed as grassroots sport participants.
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