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The view from Cheltenham racecourse today.
The view from Cheltenham racecourse today.
Image: Tim Goode

Whatever about the British government, Irish racing can hold its head high

The decision to allow Cheltenham to continue today has been heavily criticised but the HRI has correctly opted to go behind closed doors, writes Johnny Ward.
Mar 13th 2020, 2:35 PM 9,166 11

IN THIS GLOBAL crisis, racing can be something for us to look forward to.

As much as it seems bonkers to be still at Cheltenham with around 70,000 people on Gold Cup day, the response of the Irish racing authorities to the Coronavirus has been laudable and a sensible marriage of pragmatism and taking action.

That Cheltenham has still gone ahead this week is seen as a black mark for racing but authorities here have been following government guidelines. It seems even more staggering that football games were going to continue until the Mikael Arteta news.

This is how the British government has reacted, whatever the reasoning. There are lives at stake here and I have encountered little or no criticism of the Irish government’s response, with Aidan O’Brien giving his reaction to The42 this morning about racing’s own reaction.

Racing in Ireland is to take place behind closed doors starting at Dundalk tonight until 29 March, under special measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Horse Racing Ireland made the announcement following Government advice on Thursday to contain the spread of Covid-19, including an instruction to limit external gatherings to less than 500 people, so Dundalk will go ahead tonight but the public will be kept out.

After consultation with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and with industry stakeholders, HRI has imposed a number of restrictions to ensure that fewer than 500 people are on site at each meeting.

O’Brien, who is preparing his string for the return of the Flat season next weekend, said: “I am totally in favour and this is the responsible thing to do. You cannot be taking risks.

“Horses have to be exercised and people have to have jobs to make a living, to survive, to feed their families; if you do not do all those things, where will we be at?

It is responsible to only have the minimum people at each meeting and that is what the media will be for them, to provide a report and pictures of what happened, to project it onto everyone else what has happened. A lot of people will not be able to go places and horseracing will be a help to get them through. We all have responsibilities.”

O’Brien is now momentarily interrupted by a string of horses in front of him. “Trot then hack off, nice and slowly,” he can be heard tell a work rider.

“Everything changes now in the yard — the way everyone eats and so on. We are all conscious of it. Nobody will want to infect anyone else. Everyone has to be responsible, young people and old people. You yourself, you will have to go into quarantine and be not in contact with your family.”

“Aidan O’Brien telling you to go into quarantine, something we only hear when he is talking about horses bound for the Melbourne Cup, adds to the surreal experience that working here has been this week.”

O’Brien admitted he did not want to comment on whether or not Cheltenham should still be going ahead. Draw your own conclusions. Brian Kavanagh, CEO of HRI, admits it would hardly be going ahead if it were scheduled next week.

aidan-obrien Aidan O'Brien. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We learned during the foot and mouth crisis that stopping racing is one thing but racing is not like other sports. There’s an industry and a lot of money flowing through. People immediately stop earning, stable staff stop earning, there’s no prize-money.

“The guiding imperative was to keep racing going if at all possible. We’d always operate within government policy, which changed yesterday. Previously there had been no warnings about travel to the UK or issues about race meetings.

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“We had a team in here at HRI working on it for the past two weeks and that plan was in motion with contact with the racecourses, with industry groups like the jockeys’ association, medical services, IRIS which provides the pictures and so on.”

Kavanagh has emphasised that racing without the public makes it “more straightforward” but acknowledges that this comes at a cost. Jim Martin, Dundalk chief, says that the cost is considerable.

“There will be significant financial loss to all racecourses from lost admissions, corporate revenue income as well as hundreds of restaurant bookings but we are very appreciative and supportive of the effforts to keep racing going to sustain the industry.”

Gowran boss Eddie Scally, whilst admitting that it would cost more to his track during the jumps season, says that things are still “extremely worrying”.

“The big problem is with our ancillary business; this could see our caterers fold. An average race meeting is worth over €10,000 to the catering firm and up to €100,000 on the big days.

“Our security firms, raceday staff and so on will all be gone in cost-cutting measures but again this will put serious strain on these providers. The actual cost of putting a flat meeting in place is €16,000 for Gowran Park and this cost will stay the same with no gate to help cover it.

“This is extremely worrying if it were to run on for a long period of time but HRI keeping the show on the road gives us some chance which is good. My thoughts are most certainly with Peter Roe and the team at Fairyhouse and Conor O’Neill and his team in Punchestown the loss to both of these would be frightening and could have a crippling effect on future developments.”

Racing will go ahead without bookmakers for now on. There will be no on-course market so SIS will return an industry starting price, Kavanagh unsure of how this will work.

The HRI chief added that it may extend its behind-closed-doors policy beyond March. With so little sport on, and so many people at home, expect a spike in betting on racing.

I like a couple of horses this weekend: Helen De Portales in the Winter Series Awards Day Saturday 4th April Handicap (8.45) at Dundalk and Treacysenniscorthy in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Novice Handicap Steeplechase Final (4.05) at Navan tomorrow.

Just minutes ago I tried to talk to a media personality returning to Ireland tonight. He is rattled, barely able to talk racing, and astonished that Cheltenham is still going ahead.

Whatever about the British government, Irish racing can hold its head high.

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Johnny Ward


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