It was a case of when, if not, horse racing went behind closed doors in the UK and Ireland in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus.
Despite the Cheltenham Festival being played out in front of more than 250,000 punters at Prestbury Park, with thousands more cramming into Uttoxeter at the weekend for the Midland Grand National, those will be the last occasions in which crowds will be allowed at the races.
As of Tuesday March 17, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has confirmed that UK racing will take place behind closed doors and without a live crowd. They believe that is the best way for the sport to proceed, with many meetings still streamed live via the usual channels.
By going ‘dark’, UK racing will still continue to bring in essential betting revenue, but without the risks associated to large-scale gatherings and the spread of COVID-19.
A BHA spokesperson said:
“Any fixtures that take place in England, Wales and Scotland, initially until the end of March, will take place without spectators and with restrictions on the number of attendees.”
Meanwhile Nick Rust, chief executive of the BHA, commented:
“The restrictions we are putting in place to close racing to spectators and limit attendees will reduce demand on public services.
“We acknowledge that today’s decision will also impact on local businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, who are struggling at this time.
“We are following the government’s advice to strike a balance between protecting public health and maintaining business activity, and will continue to do so. We thank our customers and staff for their support.”
In Scotland, the government has introduced a ban on mass gatherings of more than 500 people – hence why racing north of the border, starting with Monday’s meeting at Kelso, will also take place behind closed doors.
A decision is expected imminently on the Grand National – will it go ahead on April 4 as planned, and in what guise?
Mixed Messages Warn of Grim Future
The temporary suspension of racing in front of a crowd could prove to be the tip of the iceberg.
The BHA have confirmed that they are in talks with the government about the Grand National and meetings in April and May, although if racing follows the lead of other sports it is unlikely we will see much racing – in a traditional sense – for the remainder of the National Hunt campaign.
And any positivity has been dampened by the stance of Martin Cruddace, the chief exec of the Arena Racing Company (ARC) that runs 16 courses in the UK including Doncaster, Chepstow and Newcastle. He believes that racing won’t open its doors to spectators again until June.
“We’re planning, worst-case scenario, end of June,” he said. “It is absolutely possible we won’t race again in front of a crowd until the end of June. If it happens before then, great.”
That has led to ARC, fearing a loss of revenue from ticket sales, to call upon the government to provide additional aid to allow some fixtures, which would ‘financially unviable’ otherwise, to be run as planned.
“It’s going to be very difficult financially for us to race unless we have some support from elsewhere,” Cruddace said. “For us, many of those meetings would not be financially viable for us to put on unless we have relief.”
The bleak picture in the UK is matched by scenes across the globe, with crowds already banned from trackside in Ireland and Hong Kong. All racing in France has been suspended until April 15, at which point the situation will be looked at again.