HRI expecting no substantial crowds at racecourses this year

Brian Kavanagh says slim chance of any change in restrictions until at least autumn

Packed grandstands at the Galway  Racing Festival in  Ballybrit. Similar scenes are very unlikely  this year. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Packed grandstands at the Galway Racing Festival in Ballybrit. Similar scenes are very unlikely this year. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Any return of substantial crowds to racecourses this year appears unlikely according to Horse Racing Ireland.

The chief executive of racing’s ruling body said on Sunday that the return of even small numbers of race-goers is questionable until at least the third or fourth quarters of 2021.

Even then, Brian Kavanagh predicted, such numbers will probably be on the basis of what occurred for a fortnight in September.

Up to 200 people, mostly owners of runners, were allowed attend meeting before more strict coronavirus restrictions were reapplied by Government. Apart from that, racing has taken place with only essential personnel behind closed doors since June.

With no change to that situation expected any time soon, it means racecourses already under financial pressure due to an absence of crowds are facing into a second year of uncertainty.

“That’s genuinely how I see it. We’re conscious of the broader picture in the country. Racing has continued safely and we’re grateful for that. If it means we have to go a bit longer without crowds because of the national situation then so be it, we’ll do that. That’s realistic.

“All indications from talking to Government is that there will be a graduated return. I know they have certain priorities such as schools and construction and you have to think there are other issues that will come back before crowds and events or concerts or anything like that,” Kavanagh said.

He pointed to how Government supports and better than expected media rights revenue had helped tracks cope in 2020 despite the absence of crowds and the closure of betting shops. However he also acknowledged the uncertainty of the current situation.

“We always felt racecourses would survive one year of shock but now they’re going into a second cycle.

“A Punchestown festival or a Fairyhouse Grand National weren’t run last year. If for a second year they’re run without crowds that has a significant impact on those tracks. We’re getting into areas where they are coming under pressure.

“There is no immediate concern at the moment. But looking at the future the longer it goes on the more problems we will have,” he added.

The HRI boss also said on Sunday that there are aspects to the controversial Viking Hoard case likely to prompt talks with Government as well as the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board.

Six-month

A verdict on Charles Byrnes’s appeal against a six-month ban for serious negligence on the back of his runner, Viking Hoard, being ‘nobbled’ with a sedative at Tramore in 2018 is still awaited.

The ban was imposed after the horse was doped by an unidentified third party and laid to lose on Betfair by a so-called white label company overseas.

Such firms are like brokers who place bets on Betfair for clients. At the time of the Viking Hoard race it was possible to place lay bets in such a way.

The case has contributed to pressure on the IHRB which has been heavily criticised in recent weeks on a number of issues, including having to issue an unreserved apology for a shambolic start to a race at Naas two weeks ago.

“The IHRB are looking closely at issues that have arisen over the last few months. They have said they will learn from them and that’s encouraging to hear,” Kavanagh said.

“There are aspects of the Byrnes case that we will need to get involved with them, the betting issues. We will need to discuss aspects of that with Government. There are elements of that that are disturbing,” he added.

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