Irish racing confident behind closed doors resumption can be done

Officials refuse to speculate on when the sport might resume after April 19th

Irish National Hunt racing’s biggest festival of all at Punchestown is scheduled to start on April 28th. Photograph: Inpho

Irish National Hunt racing’s biggest festival of all at Punchestown is scheduled to start on April 28th. Photograph: Inpho

 

Irish racing’s top official wouldn’t speculate on when the sport might resume here but pointed to other major jurisdictions for evidence of how such a resumption could eventually be manageable.

Hong Kong and Japan were affected by coronavirus before Europe started to feel the force of the pandemic but racing has continued behind closed doors in those jurisdictions.

The sport is also continuing in Singapore and Australia. In South Korea an announcement on whether racing could resume there is expected early next month.

The Irish government has cancelled all sports events here, including behind closed doors, until at least April 19th. That has brought Irish racing action to a halt with an inevitable impact on a sector that generates up to 29,000 jobs.

However Horse Racing Ireland’s (HRI) chief executive believes the experience gained in staging 10 meetings behind closed doors – and with strict social distancing protocols in place – puts racing to the forefront of major sports that will be able to resume in some form when appropriate. As well as racing’s non-contact nature.

“At the moment the country has bigger things to worry about. But obviously everyone in racing would be keen to resume as soon as it is appropriate and safe to do so,” Brian Kavanagh said.

“Those other countries have shown there is a safe way to do this whilst observing social distancing. They have shown it can be done and I’m certain, from our experience here, it can be done,” he added.

There is currently no racing in Europe with France closed down until at least April 15th and the sport cancelled in Britain until May 1st at the earliest. Betting shops are closed in Ireland and Britain.

Although off-course betting branches in Hong Kong are also closed, crucially, online trade has been strong as the sport continues there.

On-site attendance at meetings is limited to under 500 as was the case during almost two weeks when racing took place in Ireland behind closed doors.

Horses and jockeys on the Curragh Gallops earlier this month. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Horses and jockeys on the Curragh Gallops earlier this month. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Irish racing’s first big casualty of the Covid-19 emergency has been the €500,000 Boylesports Irish Grand National which had been scheduled for Easter Monday at Fairyhouse.

Irish National Hunt racing’s biggest festival of all at Punchestown is scheduled to start on April 28th.

Given how the Government has pushed back the date on any lifting of social restrictions once already, and with the peak of the Covid-19 crisis forecast to occur in the middle of next month, there are major doubts about Punchestown going ahead as planned.

Top trainer Gordon Elliott has already mooted the possibility of running an amalgamation of the best races at Fairyhouse and Punchestown at some point during a week in May.

The board of HRI is set to examine potential rescheduling options at their next meeting on Wednesday although Kavanagh was reluctant to engage in speculation on when the sport might be able to start again.

“It’s too early. I was watching the TV last night and they were predicting the peak of this could come in the middle two weeks of April. But we don’t know so it’s too early to speculate specifics.

“It’s impossible to make a scenario plan until you know the likely outcome on this,” he said.

Tracks are among those calculating the short-term cost of racing being stopped with Fairyhouse alone looking at a hole in their finances in the region of €500,000 due to the three-day Easter festival being cancelled.

The general manager at the HRI-owned Fairyhouse wouldn’t comment on specific figures but Peter Roe said on Friday: “These are our major contributor for the year and without them there will be a major financial hole to fill.”

Easter Monday was due to see Fairyhouse host the 150th Irish Grand National. Gate admission on the day was planned to be €40 although those pre-booking were being charged €30. Last year’s official attendance on Grand National day was 12,500.

All tracks will also miss out on income from the media rights of pictures being broadcast. Fairyhouse employs 13 full-time staff who are among many others within the thoroughbred industry facing an uncertain future as the fight against Covid-19 intensifies.

“Everyone’s doing their best and we need to keep our people. Everything is being looked at but nothing is decided,” Roe said.

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