Fairyhouse and Punchestown festivals cancelled as National Hunt season ended

Willie Mullins wins top trainer award while Paul Townend takes top jockey title

The 2019-2020 Irish National Hunt season in Ireland has been ended by Horse Racing Ireland due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With racing cancelled until April 19th, and the €500,000 Irish Grand National on Easter Monday also cancelled, the HRI board decided on Wednesday to scrap the five-day Punchestown festival later this month and bring the jumps season to a premature close.

It means Willie Mullins is crowned champion trainer once again, edging out his rival Gordon Elliott for a title by just over €100,000 in prizemoney.

Mullins's jockey, Paul Townend, is champion rider with the last of his 104 winners this season secured at the final meeting of the campaign at Clonmel last week.

To compensate HRI said it plans a “significantly enhanced” National Hunt programme from October to December, including a rearranged 150th Irish Grand National.

However, neither the Fairyhouse or Punchestown festivals will be rescheduled.

Punchestown officials said a full refund policy will operate and the track’s chief executive, Conor O’Neill, added that while the move was disappointing it was also “appropriate” in unprecedented times.

HRI chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, said: "Nobody likes making a call like that but people understand it is inevitable in the circumstances.

“We have run a very significant portion of the National Hunt season. Punchestown and Fairyhouse are great features of the Irish racing year and to lose them is not a good thing. [But] there are bigger issues at stake in the country at the moment.”

HRI has decided that when racing can resume it will begin with a month of Flat racing, most likely behind closed doors, with adherence to strict social distancing practises as was carried out in 10 meetings prior to last week’s shutdown.

No potential date for a resumption of the sport here has been set but plans are in place for the industry to be on a ‘racing ready’ footing once Government gives a green light.

“Once a new achievable target resumption date can be identified, a new fixture list will be published very quickly with a revised programme,” said Kavanagh.

“We want to resume as soon as possible and as soon as appropriate. There is deliberately no date in there. What we’re trying to do is say we will be ready to resume as quickly as needs be and that will be only Flat racing for the first four weeks in a staggered resumption.

“Whether that’s April 19th, May 1st, June 1st or September 1st, nobody knows at this point. But when the time comes we will be able to move quickly,” Kavanagh said.

HRI's director of racing, Jason Morris, has developed a number of programming scenarios for the sport depending on when clearance is given for it to start again.

The body's chairman, Nicky Hartery, commented: "We have stressed throughout that Government and HSE guidelines around fighting Covid-19 must come first and racing will only resume when the Government guidelines permit and then there is adequate medical cover in place to ensure race meetings can be staged safely.

“No one can predict when this will point will be reached. What the board agreed today was a plan to get back racing once those guidelines allow.”

Kavanagh said that all HRI staff will be retained through April after which there will be a point where officials will “take a view”. He also stressed the impact of coronavirus on the thoroughbred sector.

“Like many other sectors the racing and breeding industry in Ireland will take a seismic economic blow from the fallout of Covid-19,” he said.

“We will be working closely with Government to limit the long-term impact of this pandemic. We know that jobs will be lost in a key rural industry and that the viability of some industry institutions will come under serious threat.”

A HRI statement said it was working on a range of industry supports, including for on-course bookmakers who aren’t allowed on-site at meetings behind closed doors, which it hopes to announce in the coming weeks.

Plans for a return of racing in Britain have included proposals for action to be restricted to a number of racecourse “hub” locations.

However, no similar plans are envisaged for when racing does begin again in Ireland.