Irish racing’s top official has expressed optimism about Irish horses still being able to travel in strength to the Cheltenham festival in March.
There has been speculation that the escalating coronavirus emergency, and travel restrictions put in place to combat the virus, may have an impact on the number of Irish runners at jump racing’s biggest festival of the year.
In particular, major trainers such as Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott have had up to 60 runners over the four days at Cheltenham in the past. The amount of stable staff associated with such numbers represents a potential logistical nightmare.
New Covid-19 regulations come into force on Saturday requiring anyone entering Ireland from Britain to have received a negative PCR test for coronavirus within 72 hours. Anyone arriving without a negative test faces of a fine of €2,500 or six months in jail.
The measures are in place until at least February although infection rates in both countries appear to make for an uncertain outlook for non-essential travel across the Irish Sea.
There was one piece of good news on Friday when the British government said arrivals from Ireland are exempt from having to provide a negative coronavirus test before entering England.
With 10 weeks to jump racing’s most high-profile event of the year, Horse Racing Ireland’s (HRI) chief executive struck a more upbeat note on potential Irish participation at Cheltenham.
"I would be positive about Cheltenham. Obviously it all depends on how things go in the bigger picture between now and then. But it is 10 weeks away," said Brian Kavanagh, before drawing comparison to how international travel was facilitated during the flat season in 2020.
“During the summer we found ways, and in some ways it was one of the most successful seasons on the flat ever, internationally.
“We won in Melbourne [Twilight Payment in the Melbourne Cup] at the Breeders Cup and in Hong Kong [Mogul in International Vase]. There were plenty English and French classic winners too. They found ways to do it.
“Okay things are more restrictive right now. But we will apply Government guidelines, work with trainers, and I would be positive that we’ll find ways when the time comes to get Irish participants over there.
“We will work with Government to see how guidance is applied.
“As things apply there is a need for testing for people coming back from the UK to here, and a need for isolation and stand-down periods.
“Equally there is the possibility of some requirements from the British government of people coming into their country.
“Up to this they have applied a common travel area system from Ireland so there hasn’t been any specific requirements for Irish people. We will need to keep an eye on that. But I would be hopeful enough,” he added.
Despite such travel uncertainty, Willie Mullins, the most successful festival trainer of all, is still an odds-on favourite to emerge as leading trainer at Cheltenham this year. He is a 5-6 favourite with Powers ahead of his great rival Elliott who is a 13-8 second best.
The first Irish-trained runner in Britain post-Brexit could be the Jessica Harrington-trained Emily Moon who is entered for a Listed chase at Leicester this Wednesday.
Emily Moon also holds an entry in Sunday’s scheduled Naas card although that could switch to Wednesday if freezing weather conditions see a wipe-out of this weekend’s Irish action.
On the back of Covid-19 travel restrictions, the new travel rules required for entry to Britain by Brexit are a further headache for the movement of horses.
However, Kavanagh said that the trade agreement agreed between the UK and the European Union last month lets people know what is required.
“Moving animals is going to be more complex with extra paperwork and the costs involved. But at least we now know what needs to be done.
“The big fear with no deal was that there would be no movement at all. That’s gone away,” the HRI boss said.
“It’s now up to the bodies of the various countries to work out the practicalities of what it means. The question is to try and streamline it [movement] as much as possible to make sure we can continue to have the speedy movement we had before,” he added.
With the breeding season getting into swing next month, Kavanagh pointed out that “a lot of mares” were moved to Ireland before the turn of the year as a precaution.
“There has been a lot of clarification in the last few weeks, both in terms of mutual recognition of stud books and Britain’s categorisation at the top level of ‘third country’ health and sanitation status,” he said.
In other news, trainer Brian McMahon has become the latest figure to be penalised for breaching Covid-19 protocols.
He has been banned from attending race meetings for three months. McMahon was also fined €1,000 at an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board hearing.
On Friday, the IHRB outlined how McMahon attended a Goffs sale at Yorton Farm in the UK on December 17th.
Government guidelines at the time outlined that people returning from abroad were required to restrict their movement for five days and supply a negative Covid test before attending a race meeting.
However, in order to obtain a barcode necessary to attend Thurles on December 20, McMahon falsely completed the health screening questionnaire the day before.
He answered ‘no’ to the question of whether he had travelled abroad in the previous 14 days. McMahon apologised for his actions and said he was “deeply embarrassed” by the situation.