As Royal Ascot gets underway, H&H looks back at the first two weeks of racing behind closed doors and speaks to those involved to find out how it has gone...
A fortnight on from its return in Britain, racing has settled into a new rhythm as the rest of the equestrian world takes its initial steps to restarting sport behind closed doors.
Flat racing was among the first sports to resume in Britain, on 1 June, with an all-weather fixture at Newcastle.
Temperature checks, masks, set spots in the paddock and a redesign of the changing rooms have become the new normal over the past two weeks as the eyes of the world – and those looking to restart other sports and equestrian disciplines – watched to see how it would work.
And it has worked – as H&H magazine went to press ahead of Royal Ascot (16-20 June), the opening two weeks have run smoothly, with one runner so far turned away owing to an individual recording a high temperature at an arrival check.
A British Horseracing Authority (BHA) spokesman told H&H “a lot of hard work” has gone into getting the restart to “run as smoothly as it has”.
“The teams at the BHA and racecourses as well as our trainers, jockeys and stable staff deserve a great deal of credit,” he said. “Protocols and guidelines are being followed and social distancing respected.
“There have been some technical issues, which could be expected considering the scale of the task, but fortunately nothing that has developed into a major issue.”
He added the administrative task of clearing those who need to be present on race days – which requires individuals to complete online module and questionnaire beforehand, as well as on-arrival screening checks – “has been a considerable one”, which has been helped by moving from 48-hour to 72-hour declarations.
“We’re still working with trainers to make that process as efficient as possible before we make the move back to 48-hour declarations,” he added. “It is still relatively early days and we’ll keep all our protocols under constant review.”
Keeping in touch
Good communication from racing’s organisers has been key, jockeys have told H&H, as is embracing technology to bring the action to those who cannot yet be there.
“It’s obviously great to be back,” leading jockey Megan Nicholls told H&H, adding that two weeks on, everyone has settled into the new regulations.
“There’s no crowds and it’s all quite different to what we are used to, but the racing regulators gave us all the information as to how it was going to run as early as possible.
“Riding in a mask has taken some getting used to and it also depends on the weather – if it is hot or raining [that affects what it is like to race wearing one]. If wearing one means racing can go ahead, I’m all for it.”
Jockey George Wood, who has more than 150 winners since his debut in 2016, agreed that “everyone is glad to be back”and while the first few days felt “a bit strange”, it has quickly settled into feeling normal.
“It’s been very well run and credit to the BHA, clerks of the courses and everyone involved in getting it going again,” he told H&H, explaining how all the logistic details have been thought of.
“You never have to come [within two metres] of anyone. There’s one-way systems around the courses, changes to the weighing rooms, we have separate cubicles and the way everyone has conducted themselves is very professional, from wearing masks to filling out the online forms and the safety and temperature checks. It feels as safe as it can.”
George gave the example of starting stalls as a place where small adjustments can make a difference.
“We all have our masks up and stay facing forwards, but now the stall handlers shout how many they have left to load so we don’t need to turn round to look,” he said. “Little things like that make a massive difference.”
Jockey Daniel Muscutt, who has ridden 160-plus winners in Britain and abroad, added it is a “big relief” to be back and the BHA and Professional Jockeys Association have been great in keeping them up to date with latest developments.
“It’s run very smoothly and the racecourses and clerks of the courses have done a great job in adapting the way things run as best they can and getting the right protocols in place,” he said. “It just shows the resilience of everyone in the industry when it works together and how they can pull something like this off.”
He added owners deserve much recognition for keeping their horses in training through lockdown and at a time when they can’t yet watch them in person on the track, and that keeping them informed through video, calls and voice-notes before and after races has become more important than ever.
“It’s just about going that extra mile,” he said. “I got used to it a lot when I was riding in Australia and I think it’s something that might stick around when things are back to normal. It’s a good way to share information, especially for syndicate horses where there are quite a few members.”
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