Horseracing in the time of Covid: ‘It’s hard to explain. Meetings are soulless now’

Four-day Christmas festival closed to physical visitors, but virtual ones are welcome

Noel Meade will be in Leopardstown on Tuesday for the first day of the Christmas racing meeting – a gathering that has for decades brought tens of thousands away from the fireside. But this year won’t be like previous ones.

“It’s hard to explain. Meetings are soulless now,” he told The Irish Times this week. “It just doesn’t feel the same. It’s more like going to a gallops morning than a race meeting. The excitement is just not the same.”

Fifty years a trainer, Meade, who turns 70 on January 2nd, has sent generations of winners to Leopardstown from his stables at Castletown Kilpatrick, near Kells in Co Meath. He has amassed some 3,000 victories in his career.

Meade has had his own run-in with Covid-19.


“I was very unlucky to get Covid-19 at the start of April and I was very, very sick for three weeks. I took to the bed,” he said.

“For the first two weeks.I couldn’t move with pains in my head and legs and every part of me.Thankfully, it [Covid-19] never got into my chest but in every other way, I was so weak that I couldn’t eat for two weeks which is unlike me.

“I don’t know where I picked it up. I was in Cheltenham for a few days. But it was nearly two weeks later that I got the Covid, so I can’t honestly say where I contracted it.

“It’s funny how it hits people. My wife, Derville, was looking after me when I was sick and I know she was being very careful but she never got it. A couple of the lads in the yard also got it, but they were fine.

“I’m fully recovered now and I’ve received three tests for antibodies which I apparently have. But I’d urge anyone, especially those of an older age, to take real care not to get it as it’s a very, very nasty virus,” he said.

His illness and the Government-order enforced closure of racing between March 24th and June 8th forced a man who has worked seven days a week for decades to slow down, temporarily.

“It is the first time ever I’ve had a break, because I’ve been forced to. It’s great to be back racing though. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. It’s been a tough year for all in the industry but we just have to go forward with it,” he added.

“Hopefully, when the vaccine is rolled out and restrictions are eased further, maybe at least the horse owners will be able to attend, which will mean a few hundred more at the races.

“But at present, it’s by far the norm and there’s no dressing up to be had. People just wear their everyday clothes because there’s no-one to see them,” he declared in his stables, as he prepared for the Christmas outing.

Each day, Meade will have up to four horses running in Leopardstown. Quietly confident about the stable’s chances, he mentions Beacon Edge, Cask Mate and Jesse Evans. But he stops short of tipping them as winners.

But there will be other Christmases for him in Leopardstown, with the crowds back in the stands, Meade believes.

“I always felt that if you retire, your life is over, so I will definitely not be hanging up my boots. Absolutely not!”

If Meade has to worry about his charges on the track over four days of racing until the 29th, Leopardstown chief executive Tim Husband has to worry about everything else, in a year like no other.

Leopardstown has safely held more than a dozen meetings since the first lockdown in March.

“We can do it. We have shown we can provide racing in a compliant and safe way that is good for the industry and good for the spectator,” he said.

There will be no bars open, even for those who are allowed in. None of the usual restaurants in the stands will operate either, other than one small food truck that will cater for racecourse staff and stable teams.

Everything possible is being done by Leopardstown, he said, to engage with the audience at home.

“Perhaps we might even have added to our audience when this is all over,” he said. “More people are now watching racing on TV than ever, because there is a dearth of other sport. We have really tried to engage with and create a new, possibly younger, more social-media savvy, audience for horse racing.”