Racecourses urge crowds to return on Monday as restrictions ease in England
Come racing. That was the message from the three tracks in England hosting fixtures on Monday as they encouraged people to turn up and buy tickets on the day lockdown restrictions ease across the country.
Not since March 2020 have racecourses been able to throw open their doors without a severe limit on capacity. In the intervening 16 months, since the Covid-19 pandemic initially caused the sport to cease, racing has returned behind closed doors, been used for pilot events and since May 17 experienced the return of crowds in limited numbers – with courses at 50 per cent of capacity up to a maximum of 4,000 racegoers.
A week ago UK prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed that from Monday restrictions would be eased, with the scrapping of social distancing measures, no need for confirmation of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test to attend or the need to book in advance meaning a day at the races should be as close as ever to the pre-pandemic experience.
Anthea Leigh, clerk of the course at Cartmel – which will be the first course in England to race without restrictions as its eight-race jumps card is the country's only afternoon fixture – expressed her delight at the Cumbria track being able to return to its best for spectators.
"We're really looking forward to it, it's very much been Cartmel-light up until now," she said. "We haven't had time to properly build up the site as it would be in a normal year, but we're open for walk-ups, the forecast is fantastic and we're all about fresh air and picnics and enjoying the racing with your family. Now we're in the school holidays we're hoping people will turn up and buy a ticket on the day.
"It's all one enclosure, people can cross from course-side to paddock-side and we've plenty of capacity. The funfair and the marquees for trainers and the restaurants will return, hopefully by the August meeting, but the core of being close to the racing and kids and dogs playing in the stream, those things that make Cartmel a lot of fun for the family, are all here. It should be a great day."
Beverley race on Monday evening and chief executive Sally Iggulden is optimistic of a big turnout. "It'll be interesting to see what type of crowd we get," she said. "Our pre-sale figures are good and in line with 2019 with a crowd of about 4,000, but with the nice weather we're planning for a bigger crowd and people walking up on the day.
"We don't know if people will be behaving cautiously or chomping at the bit, but we're gearing up for a really nice crowd and that's what we're looking forward to."
On the raceday experience she added: "It's pretty much back to normal, we're suggesting people wear face masks indoors, but it's not mandatory, and with nice weather and lots of outdoor space we're looking forward to a really safe event."
Like syndicates, a greater number of owners and racing fans alike, the racecourses cannot wait to welcome back bigger crowds. On the last 16 months Iggulden said: "It's been strange. As a team we've almost forgotten what it's like to have the big days, I've been here 21 years and I'm trying to remember what it was like when we had a capacity crowd because it seems such a long time ago.
"Since May when we've had limited crowds it's definitely felt more normal so we're really ready now to get back to normality."
The day's other meeting in England takes place at Windsor, where Sophie Candy is clerk of the course. She said: "You can't beat a Windsor Monday evening, it's a good place to start. It's brilliant and so great to have people back. It's the first time we can have walk-ups and it's a nice day tomorrow so hopefully people will want to come and have a bit of fun.
"There's plenty to see, our theme for the evening is 'rum n reggae' so there will be lots of cocktails and a band after racing. We're really looking forward to it. At the moment we're baking in 30C sunshine, which is a big contrast to a few weeks ago [when the track had almost 140mm rain in four weeks forcing its last meeting to be abandoned]. The sales online have been healthy and with this kind of weather hopefully it gives people the confidence to come out and have a bit of fun."
Another group similar excited for the return of unrestricted crowds are the on-course bookmakers, who have endured an especially lean time with limited attendance and so little custom.
Barry Johnson, who will be standing at Windsor, said: "We're delighted that larger crowds will be back and just hope that it's something that continues. There has to be some concerns given the current number of cases, but racecourses will do everything possible to keep people safe.
"It's been an extraordinarily long time since we had full crowds on course. Hopefully everyone is getting vaccinated and the ones that haven't should get in the queue!"
In Scotland capacity has been doubled from to 1,000 from 500 and Ayr's afternoon card has sold out, while in Ireland, where Ballinrobe plays host to an evening fixture, capacity is still limited to 500.
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