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Dublin: 1°C Sunday 7 March 2021

'Racing people should not be treated as pariahs. Like everyone else, they're just trying to survive'

Johnny Ward reflects on the decision to continue horse racing in Ireland behind closed doors.

Racing went ahead at Down Royal on Wednesday in front of a sparse crowd.
Racing went ahead at Down Royal on Wednesday in front of a sparse crowd.
Image: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

CHELTENHAM WAS LESS than a week ago; it might as well be a year.

By Wednesday evening, Irish journalists were making plans to return home and those of us who remained were at that stage feeling uneasy about the whole thing.

Samcro’s win over Melon and Faugheen, which took place on Thursday at 1.30pm, was not nearly as enjoyable as it should have been. Still, however, the British public at the races seemed relatively oblivious to the pandemic that was spreading across the world. Their government, lest us forget, told them that it was alright to go to Cheltenham on the Thursday, alright to go to Cheltenham on the Friday and even alright to party at Uttoxeter on Saturday.

The images of cheering racegoers at the finishing line at the British Midlands track were upsetting, even from the perspective of somebody who was at Cheltenham for four days. Those who judge me and others on that are perfectly entitled to do so.

As a freelance journalist, I had to pay for my travel and accomodation to Cheltenham and do not get paid unless I work. Even so, there is a valid argument I should have gone home on Wednesday evening.

I am getting at the selfish attitude that people accuse us in racing of having over the past ten days or so. In a WhatsApp betting group on Wednesday, I opined that I felt it far from certain that racing would not continue in Ireland after a crisis Horse Racing Ireland board (conference call) that afternoon.

“There’ll be no sport of any description lads,” said one friend. “I think you may not be fully grasping the severity of the situation.”

Another added: “I honestly think you may have banged your head. They are already redeploying current staff and you think handicaps in Dundalk will go ahead because we don’t use ambulances?”

“I’m gobsmacked,” said one mate afterwards. “Amazing,” said another. But the feeling in racing had been since the start of the Coronavirus tragedy that the Department of Agriculture wanted the show to go on.

Essentially, people are being advised to work if the can, remotely if at all possible. Over the course of a race meeting, around 250 people will visit a vast outdoors site over the course of several hours. Many are there briefly, as once your business is done you are told to leave.

I travelled to Down Royal on Wednesday and it was an eerie experience but not a great deal different to Flat meetings at some Irish tracks in that there was hardly anyone there. The press was moved far away from its usual spot beside the weighing room. Jockeys are forced to observe social distancing but it is not as though they are not concious of the horrors that await every county in this country.

We all have elderly loved ones or even not elderly but with underlying issues that render them vulnerable. I feel at this time that these elderly people, who are at the early stage of several weeks without any contact with their sons, daughters and grandchildren, need a distraction from Covid-19 and bad news never so untrammelled when turning on the TV.

The pictures coming from Bergamo are truly horrifying. A friend who lives there tells me he is in a WhatsApp group where they are killing time by speculating how bad the figures will be the next day. One guessed 450 on Wednesday. The true figure was 475. “We initially laughed at him for going so high,” my mate tells me.

With our population miniscule by Italian standards, that number will hardly be realistic here, but even a tenth of it is frightening.

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Against this background, it seems absurd that racing is continuing, and even many in racing are confounded, but the sport is adhering to government guidelines and in constant contact with the Department of Agriculture which, it needs reiterating, wants racing to continue.

Irish racing is going on because the Order of Malta voluntarily provides its services at each fixture. Never has this service seemed more valuable. It is understood that this is one of the reasons why British racing has been cancelled until late April: it uses the NHS ambulance.

The Order of Malta has been put on stand-by by the National Ambulance Service to assist the Irish government and HSE when needed but as of yet has not been called on so it has confirmed its commitment to support Irish racing until if and when the situation changes.

It went almost unnoticed amid the daily dose of horror that John Kiely, well into his 80s now, broke his leg riding out at his County Waterford yard last week. Racing has more than its share of elderly people, some of them even at the peak of their profession. It is a sport, as Pat Smullen’s illness showed, that looks after its own. The figures raised for the fight against pancreating cancer are jaw-dropping.

Racing people should not be treated as pariahs. They are, like everyone else, just trying to survive.

Thurles tomorrow will be staged on ITV, with unprecedented focus on the County Tipperary track. The feature Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Steeplchase honours a man with whom the track is synonimous and Pat Fahy can keep his good form up by striking with Dunvegan, who is likely to be overpriced despite returning to a right-handed track.

Downpatrick’s feature meet Sunday being behind closed doors will entail huge losses for a superbly run venue. Yeats Mardy is quite interesting in the second of the handicap chases (3.40) at a price.

We all need a distraction and, with racing the only show in town, we should be grateful that there is something to look forward to. Considerable misery is around the corner.

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Johnny Ward

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