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Racing set to receive major financial support as hopes rise for return of crowds

Spectators enjoy racing at Warwick during a pilot event in September
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British racing could be close to receiving two pieces of welcome news after it emerged the government is on Thursday set to announce details of a major financial support package and may also be considering allowing the return of some spectators before Christmas.

Racecourse Association chief executive David Armstrong believes there is only "a slim chance" of the paying public gaining imminent entry to racecourses but coverage of discussions that have taken place between the government and football leaders has raised hopes for a wider resumption of trial events.

There has been no confirmation of any such policy change from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport but it was revealed on Wednesday that sports minister Nigel Huddleston will on Thursday make a statement to the House of Commons, one he tweeted relates to "financial support for the sport sector".

That news follows last month's DCMS response to a select committee report, in which it stated it was "continuing to work with the British Horseracing Authority on how best to support horse racing". That work is expected to result in what reports suggest will be £300 million of aid across the sporting spectrum, with racing and rugby union likely to be the chief beneficiaries of the rescue plan.

Minister for Sport Nigel Huddleston will address the House of Commons on Thursday

Among those closely monitoring Huddleston's words will be Armstrong, who has sought to play down expectations amid speculation the government is looking to find ways of returning fans to English sporting events in areas where rates of Covid infection are deemed to be sufficiently low.

Armstrong said: "To bring 1,000 or even 5,000 people back is an admirable ambition and it would represent a pretty good outcome. It would also be very disappointing if football got something and racing did not.

"Government have largely been treating sports in the same way, so I would think there is a chance racing could move in line with football. However, I also expect there will also be certain restrictions, so that a racecourse in Tier 1 would not be allowed to accept people from Tier 3.

"I don't think it is yet baked in stone, and I really don't think it is certain we'll be seeing spectators prior to Christmas. Lots more water needs to pass under the bridge."

David Armstrong: "I really don't think it is certain we'll be seeing spectators prior to Christmas. Lots more water needs to pass under the bridge"

British fixtures continue to be attended only by the sport's professionals and a limited number of owners, with annual members having made frustratingly brief returns on single days at Doncaster and Warwick in September. In a further setback, one day after the Warwick trial event the DCMS informed sports governing bodies the return of fans could be delayed until March at the earliest.

Armstrong added: "I wish I could give better news and say we've been told we're going to get crowds back – but we haven't yet been told that. However, the good news is the government is focused on bringing back spectators as soon as they can. 

"We are part of the Sports Technology and Innovation Group, working on solutions that could allow spectators to return in significant numbers, such as how we might incorporate mass testing.

"We're looking at a number of different things but, as yet, there isn't a definite plan. The idea that a small number of spectators might be allowed before that is a separate exercise."

Racegoers were split into designated zones at Doncaster's trial event

A visit this week to Kempton has encouraged Levy Board chairman Paul Darling to believe racing is in a good place to welcome back crowds if the government permits that to happen.

Darling said: "It's not for us to say what DCMS will do about spectators but racing's procedures must give it confidence that when it is allowed to have them back it will be able to cope. It's plain that when government decides to allow expansion, racing is well placed to do it.

"We will do anything we can to help, in accordance with what the government wants to do. If it allows more access, racing is in a position to do what government asks."

BHA head of media Robin Mounsey said: "We remain in ongoing liaison with DCMS regarding the return of spectators to sporting events, both through direct routes and racing’s seat on the ‘major sports’ group which supports the work of the Sports Technology and Innovation Group.

"We are currently awaiting further clarity from DCMS on the situation, although we are of course aware that this will be a cross-governmental decision."

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I wish I could give better news and say we've been told we're going to get crowds back – but we haven't yet been told that
E.W. Terms