Marcus Armytage: We’re champing at the bit to get back racing *H&H Plus*


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  • Hopefully on Monday, 1 June, racing will restart on the Flat at Newcastle Racecourse. But, at the time of writing, there has still been no official confirmation either way about it from the government. Until the stalls open for the first race at Newcastle, do not count on it.

    So far, the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has affected Flat racing and jump racing in different ways but – unlike many other sports, most notably football – I don’t know one person in racing who does not want to restart. Everyone is champing at the bit and wants to get back to making a living.

    Flat racing is probably feeling the frustration the most, especially as Germany and France, with the little hiccup of having to move its racing out of Paris, have restarted without too many problems and without, as far as I know, a single case of infection. Australia, Hong Kong and Japan have continued throughout lockdown, so we know it is possible.

    Flat racing here and in Ireland has been dressed up with nowhere to go for over two months; horses have had to be kept at 85% fitness ready for a quick resumption. The early Classic races have all been rescheduled. The Guineas will take place the weekend that the Derby would normally be run (6–7 June) and the Derby has been moved to 4 July.

    Royal Ascot is keeping to its original dates, 16 to 20 June, though races like the St James’s Palace and Coronation will move to the Saturday to accommodate Guineas runners. The King Edward VII Stakes, normally a Derby consolation, will become a prep-race for it.

    Ironically, the best older horses – household names like Enable – will be least affected because the majority have a campaign tailored to the second half of the season anyway.

    A chance for innovation

    Jump racing got through the Cheltenham Festival, though that seems to be a stick with which the government has been frequently beaten, by people who conveniently forget football, rugby and pop concerts were also taking place at the same time. We also lost the Grand National and the remainder of the National Hunt season.

    But unlike the Flat, jump racing has some degree of certainty. When it stopped, the British Horseracing Authority stood it down until 1 July, trainers were able to turn out horses, furlough staff and, for once, step off the hamster wheel that is a 12-month season. One day, some jump trainers may even look back on this period with fondness.

    When racing does restart, it will be very different. There will be no atmosphere – that might not feel much different to an all-weather evening at the races in the winter, but it will be odd at Newmarket and, certainly, Royal Ascot. But that is the price racing will have to pay until crowds are allowed back to sporting venues.

    I fear for some small independent racecourses, which have not been receiving their media rights payments and will not have a paying crowd when they do come back. They have also seen all other income streams, from nursery schools and conferences to Sunday markets, dry up.

    From a racing correspondent’s point of view, it is going to be odd writing about big races and the Classics from home. Owners, who will be higher up the pecking order than we are, will not be able to go racing for a while and I quite understand that the press are the least of the racecourses’ problems.

    Of course, there will be opportunities for innovation, particularly in such a conservative sport as racing, which sticks so religiously to tradition. Who has not wanted to see a July Derby, when colts will be that little bit more mature? Do we actually need summer jump racing, skewing fatality statistics, on fast ground? If there is a positive, we might get answers to questions we have always been too afraid to ask.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 28 May 2020

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