It was with great joy that the Cheltenham Festival was able to go ahead as planned this week despite the coronavirus outbreak.
Whether it was a good idea from a safety perspective who can say, but at least the 250,000 punters at trackside – and the millions watching on from home – got to enjoy some high-quality racing to temporarily lift the COVID-19 gloom.
However, not all racing has been as fortunate as the Cheltenham Festival.
Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) has now revealed that they will be taking all of their races behind closed doors, starting with today’s meeting at Dundalk and running through until March 29 – with the possibility of an extension too.
The affected meetings are:
|Dundalk||Friday March 13||All-weather flat|
|Navan||Saturday March 14||Jumps|
|Limerick||Sunday March 15||Jumps|
|Down Royal||Tuesday March 17||Jumps|
|Wexford||Tuesday March 17||Jumps|
|Dundalk||Friday March 20||All-weather flat|
|Thurles||Saturday March 21||Jumps|
|Downpatrick||Sunday March 22||Jumps|
|Naas||Sunday March 22||Turf flat|
|Clonmel||Tuesday March 24||Jumps|
|Cork||Thursday March 26||Jumps|
|Dundalk||Friday March 27||All-weather flat|
|Navan||Saturday March 28||Turf flat|
|Curragh||Sunday March 29||Turf flat|
|Limerick||Sunday March 29||Jumps|
It’s one of a host of measures that the sport is implementing to help stop the spread of coronavirus, and comes after the Irish government announced a blanket ban on events classed as mass gatherings of 500 people or more.
To ensure that all race days conform to that 500 person limit, extra restrictions will apply to the number of stable staff and media-based employees allowed on the premises.
However, all races will be still be streamed or shown live, where possible, although there will be not on-course bookmakers or caterers on hand to serve up bets and bacon butties, and each horse will be restricted to an entourage of one jockey, one trainer, one owner and one groom.
Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, said:
“Public health is the number one priority and these restrictions will continue to be kept under constant review as we liaise with our colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Health.
“The restrictions which we are announcing today will limit social interaction, but will allow a vital rural industry to continue to operate, protecting livelihoods and jobs.”
‘Strange Times’ Leave Many in Racing Fearful
While the decision to carry on with racing behind closed doors has been welcomed by many within the sport, you do wonder about the financial implications of such a move.
Eddie O’Leary, the racing manager of the Gigginstown Stud, is a firm backer of the decision.
“It’s great because racing isn’t a sport, it’s a business.”
“The question they faced was do you cancel or what. What about the Derby and the Guineas? These are strange times and we’re doing the best we can having it behind closed doors.
“No bookies, no public, just the industry, we’ve all got to survive in these strange times.”
Henry de Bromhead, the trainer who enjoyed success at Cheltenham, concurred with O’Leary’s take.
“If that’s what they feel is the best thing to do, that’s what we need to do.
“It’s good the racing is continuing. If racing behind closed doors is our policy, we have to support it.”
The wider concern is that, while trainers and owners can still battle it out for their prize money, the host courses are going to be significantly out of pocket due to the ban on spectators.
They will have to refund ticket holders in line with their terms and conditions, and they will also lose out on profits from food and drink vendors at the track.
Betting revenue is also likely to be down, which will hit the levy fund hard, and so it would be fair to say that the Irish racecourses involved are going to be significantly hit by the HRI’s decision.
As racing fans, we can only hope that a swift resolution to the coronavirus pandemic is found.