Irish racing’s authorities are waiting on a verdict from Government about their case for crowds of 5,000 people attending each day of Irish Champions Weekend and next month’s Listowel festival.
Amid rising criticism by various sectors of the sport for failure to allow more than 500 spectators at fixtures, Horse Racing Ireland has pointed to the recent wider return of indoor hospitality as a positive signal towards a potential increase in permitted attendance levels.
High-profile figures such as Dermot Weld and Jessica Harrington have been critical this month of the failure by Government to allow more spectators at race meetings, pointing to crowds of up 24,000 people at the recent All-Ireland hurling and football semi-finals as a notable contrast.
HRI's chief executive Brian Kavanagh said on Monday he has been told the reason for the apparent discrepancy between the sports is higher levels of mingling over longer time periods at race meetings, alcohol sales and easier contact tracing methods at sports stadiums rather than at tracks.
However, he remains hopeful the Government will move to allow significantly bigger crowds in time for Irish Champions Weekend (September 11th-12th) and Listowel’s Harvest Festival (September 19th-25th).
Pointing to how racing has run over 520 fixtures without a Covid-19 event arising, he said: “The key issue that has arisen is whether we can move back indoors.
“It’s not so much about a number as about the ability to reopen bars and restaurants and internal facilities.
“Since July 26th bars and restaurants have been operating an indoors service subject to protocols and we believe racecourses can do the same, safely and within protocols. That’s part of our most recent submission to Government which is under consideration.
“The fact indoor hospitality and beverage has been back in for almost three weeks and seems to be going very well does give a lot of optimism that it can pave the way for a phased reintroduction at race meetings.
“That for me is the key thing, as opposed to outdoors, and it’s going to be necessary as the season starts to turn.”
Irish racing will receive €76.8 million in State funding this year but Kavanagh rejected any suggestion that vehement criticism of Government might be construed as a case of ‘biting the hand that feeds’.
He said: “Government has a very difficult situation to manage. Our priority has always been to keep the industry going and to gradually phase back a return to normality.
“The approach Government has taken throughout has served racing and the country well. We’re in constant engagement with them and these are not easy calls to make.
“We are in daily contact with the Department of Agriculture. I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for the people making these calls. It’s a very difficult situation to be in.
“[But] people would like to see some sort of progression as opposed to just a continuation.”
Kavanagh also disagreed with any suggestion that notably positive results in HRI statistics for the first half of this year – which revealed a 24 per cent rise in horses in training and a 31 per cent increase in new owners compared to 2019 – served to downplay the importance of attendances.
“They are not direct links. Those are the results of years of work. Racing does need crowds, particularly at the bigger meetings. People are crying out for a day at the races and are hankering back to that.
“The increase in numbers of owners and horses in training is really positive. They need outlets so fixtures have increased. And people want to go and see their horses run and that’s what creates the atmosphere.
“Attendances at racecourses are important. It’s not the most important thing in the pandemic. It has been crucial to keep the wheels moving in the industry. But now it is time to move on to the next level where we can welcome increased numbers back,” Kavanagh said.
The HRI boss said an early verdict from Government on the case for larger spectator sizes is important in relation to Champions Weekend and the Listowel festival in particular.
“That needs some time to plan. The logistics of it for the racecourses, their staff, suppliers, all that sort of stuff.
“We’ve made the point they’re the sort of numbers [5,000] we feel are appropriate. But there’s a long lead-in time to be ready for that. You can’t just flip a switch and be ready to serve a crowd of that magnitude,” he said.