Authorities urged to ‘cop on’ and let racehorse owners return to tracks

‘Owners have been patient long enough. They need to let them back,’ says Ger Lyons

Classic winning trainer Ger Lyons has warned that racehorse owners are getting "antsy" and urged the sport's authorities to let them go racing again as soon as possible.

Apart from a brief period last September when owners were allowed to watch their runners live, racing in Ireland has taken place behind closed doors during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last week paying spectators returned to racing in England with tracks there limited to attendances of 4,000 or 50 per cent of capacity, whichever is lower.

Those limits will be in place for the Epsom Derby on Saturday week and also at Royal Ascot but attendances levels are expected to be increased later next month.


In contrast, Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) is waiting on a Government announcement on Friday that could see it included in plans to hold pilot events with limited attendances.

Such pilot events had been expected to take place in July although officials on Monday didn’t rule out that process being speeded up.


Lyons believes such a move, which would allow owners to go racing again, is urgently required.

“Owners have been patient long enough. They need to let them back. It’s been a pet hate of mine that they’re doing a lot for perception and hats off they kept the game going.

“But you do the thing if it’s the right thing to do. We kept going because it’s the right thing to do. We’re out in an open field. Everyone has said since the virus came in that it’s grand if you’re outside.

“It’s time now the owners were let back in. We’ve tipped our caps and kowtowed enough for perceptions sake.

“The majority of owners are vaccinated anyway because they’re in an older category. So we need to cop on and let them go racing,” he said on Monday.

“I know they’re trying to stop crowds but if you’re out in the open it’s high time to even let single owners back in.

“Owners need to be allowed go racing, and they’re getting antsy. They’re involved in this sport because they like going racing so don’t take them for granted,” he added.

HRI's chief executive Brian Kavanagh pointed to the possibility of any pilot programme not necessarily being dealt with together with wider Government policy on mass gatherings.

“There is an announcement expected on Friday and we’ve expressed our desire to be involved so we will be working on that between now and the weekend.

“It seems to be quite optimistic, the media reports that were circulating at the weekend.

“We have submitted a strong case. We have done something like 410 meetings now behind closed doors and we would point very much to the outdoor nature of what we do,” he said.

"It was encouraging to see crowds at the golf in America and at Premier League matches so clearly there's a risk mitigation going on. So there's hopes and encouragement.

“The main priority has been to keep racing going and keep the wheels on track. [But] it’s an important week for us,” Kavanagh added.

A morning inspection has already been called for Wednesday's Gowran card where parts of the track were waterlogged on Monday.

If the fixture can't go ahead it will leave the bulk of this week's action as National Hunt, including a double fixture at Tipperary and Ballinrobe on Tuesday.

It is four years since Lyons complained that flat racing wasn’t getting a “fair go” at this time of year in terms of fixtures, and on Monday he pointed to this week’s programme as evidence of little having changed.

“We’re in the flat season, the Guineas is just past, and the next meeting is a shocking card in Gowran, a shocking card in Fairyhouse on Friday, a poor card in Navan on Saturday and we’ve nothing on Sunday,” he said.

Lyons believes a month-long break for the National Hunt sector after the Punchestown festival would allow the spotlight turn to flat racing and also give jockeys and trainers a valuable break.

Worst enemies

“If you stopped for at least two weeks after Punchestown – I personally would give them a month – that would be a step in the right direction and it would allow the flat to rock and roll.

“But they’re their own worst enemies. They’re all after the TV money,” he said.

Lyons pointed to earlier this month on May 11th when a double programme of flat racing was held in Ireland at Roscommon and Killarney.

“You get nothing and then two meetings on the one day. When I asked why it was, ‘Oh, it’s for SIS’. The tail is wagging the dog. It has been for quite a while. We are performing monkeys for another industry [betting] and when we’re told to dance, we dance,” he added.

Among the jockeys planning to take part in both Tipperary and Ballinrobe on Tuesday will be the champion amateur Patrick Mullins.

He rides the £570,000 (€660,000) purchase Classic Getaway in the bumper at Tipperary before making the two-hour and 180km trip to Co Mayo to ride in the finale there.

Ballinrobe's feature is the €40,000 McHale Mayo National which includes the recent Killarney National winner Shady Operator under a 10lb penalty.

On testing conditions though there could be value in Western Victory on her return to fences.

JJ Slevin is another jockey taking in both fixtures and he rides Optical Confusion in the big race.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column