Empty grandstands and frequent health checks are the new norm as the sport carries on behind closed doors, but Jennifer Donald discovers intense passion still fills the racecourse during this critical time
The general manager of Warwick Racecourse, Andre Klein, describes the sport behind closed doors as “racing on a life-support machine”, and nothing can prepare you for stepping into a near-deserted racecourse for an afternoon of action.
The welcome is still warm – albeit muffled through regulation face-masks. However, the turnstiles are all but redundant and there is an eerie quiet from the normally bustling terraces, thus magnifying the magnificent sound of hooves pounding the turf.
Only a handful of owners are permitted access and must remain in a different zone from the trainers and jockeys – the post-race debrief is now done over the paddock rail. The biggest vacuum emerges when triumphant victors return to the winner’s enclosure to a barely audible ripple of applause.
Really, the only familiarity these days are the four-legged stars and their handlers, a few anxiously pacing trainers, the colourful silks of the jockeys and a brace of bookies glancing hopefully for some custom. Racecourses have gone to monumental lengths to ensure the sport has carried on behind closed doors, but the past seven months since the nation first hunkered down against the global pandemic have been unbelievably tough.
“I can’t emphasise enough how difficult it is – it’s so far from normal,” says ITV Racing presenter Ed Chamberlin. “I’m getting used to empty racecourses, but it’s desperately sad.”
A swathe of fixtures were lost during those initial months but, just two weeks after the resumption of racing on 1 June, Ascot staged the Royal meeting – the country’s first major national sporting event behind closed doors.
“There was a tried-and-tested protocol at the races for participants but scaling it up for Royal Ascot so quickly was another matter,” says head of racing and public affairs at the racecourse, Nick Smith, revealing also the “sense of relief” the whole industry felt after the successful event.
There has been plenty of fine-tuning; it’s been a steep learning curve for everyone.
“The racecourse is an alien environment now – you would never have imagined a year ago that jockeys and trainers arriving at the racecourse would have their temperatures checked and have to fill in a health questionnaire,” says Warwick’s Andre Klein. “It’s a horrible role managing a racecourse when you only have a smattering of owners in attendance. It’s like a theatre with all the actors playing to an empty audience; you can imagine how terrible that feels.”
Owners have been hard hit – a limited number are now allowed back on the track, but it’s a vastly different experience.
“To start with, there were no big screens at some courses so owners were herded into one position to watch the race and only saw 300 yards of action as the horses came past. They could have seen more at home on TV,” says syndicate manager Nick Brown. “But it has improved, facilities have opened up – my syndicate members are telling me they’re grateful for it and they feel completely safe.
“But not being allowed in the paddock makes it a strain. That is what makes the day for a lot of them, to get up close to their horse and speak to the trainer and jockey. But they all understand we’re having to jump through a lot of hoops right now.”
It’s otherwise largely business as usual for trainers on racedays, according to Stratford-based trainer Olly Murphy. “The biggest challenge is remembering to put your mask on. But we’re still going racing, still saddling the horses and still able to speak to the jockeys,” he says.
“It does feel different though. Market Rasen traditionally has a very vibrant winner’s enclosure and I really noticed the emptiness there. When crowds are allowed back in, it really will be appreciated.”
With the gates closed to the average punter, television viewing figures are up, but the crew at ITV Racing have seen their roles turned upside down. Even the presenters joined the tribe of home-workers when racing first resumed, transforming their spare rooms into makeshift studios.
“We had to have so many rehearsals because it was unbelievably complicated,” says frontman Ed Chamberlin. “Presenting from three different sitting rooms on action that was miles away seemed totally impossible, but the team behind the scenes played an absolute blinder to make it work. I got used to presenting on my own at my desk – when the kids can knock on the door at any moment – but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Normally, you’re pampered by everyone from electricians through to stylists.
“Plus the fact that we had such a big job to do for racing – from the PR after the Cheltenham Festival to having people watching who could have been suffering – there was so much horror back in May and June, so getting that tone right was another challenge.”
A skeleton team returned to the racecourse for Royal Ascot. “We were presenting some of the best racing in the world to the flattest atmosphere you could ever imagine. Meanwhile, you’re conscious of people watching from round the world, who want to be uplifted and enjoy it,” says Ed, who has been “badgering racecourses to have fanfare, music, anything…” when horses come in from a big race.
“Thank God for Frankie Dettori — at least he brings it to life! But there have been positives. One of our better introductions has been the Zoom interviews. Like any office environment, it’s opened up a range of new options, so to be able to talk to owners in New Zealand or Australia has been fun.”
With saunas currently out of action, jockeys have been given a three pound weight allowance, another real positive, particularly with mental health at the fore.
“Nobody is sweating heavily before they ride any more,” explains leading jump jockey Harry Cobden. “Those extra pounds do help the lads who are struggling.”
Spectators, too, may be beneficiaries when the gates finally re-open. “Those days of being rammed together are likely behind us for quite some time and, by having fewer people on course, people’s experience could improve,” says Andre Klein.
“I know there’s a necessity to be commercial but less is possibly more.”
The financial impact of the pandemic has inevitably hit hard, but racehorse syndication could flourish as a result, believes Nick Brown.
“I do worry that we’ll lose a lot of owners from the sport, particularly those who like to go racing with friends and enjoy mixing with like-minded people on the racecourse,” he says. “But people may be prepared to spend about a fifth of the amount to join a syndicate and won’t feel like they’re missing out – they’ll take the experience they’re limited to.”
An uncertain future
As the new season of National Hunt racing dawns, Ascot Racecourse’s Nick Smith underlines that racing, alongside many other sports and businesses that rely on the public, faces an uncertain future.
“Financially, it is nothing short of disastrous for racecourses not to have customer income,” he says. “The bigger the venue, the more reliant you are on the public. About 70% of our income has disappeared and the prospect now of another six months without that income stream is hitting us very hard.”
Warwick staged one of the pilot racedays for limited crowds in late September, just before the Government halted the roll-out.
“We were so lucky to see four or five hundred people on the course and Nick Luck described it as a ‘collector’s item of a raceday’”, says Andre Klein. “But to pull off that event, we had to turn over every single element of our typical raceday operation. It turned out to be something of a false dawn, but hopefully it wasn’t for nothing. You can sense the frustration in racing fans right now – they just want to get back on the course.
“There’s no question we’re all in trouble, but we’re a tight-knit community and everyone’s passionate about wanting the sport to survive and thrive. We will come through it.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 15 October 2020