Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer, Kevin Blake covers the hopefully-soon-to-be resumption of horse racing in Ireland behind closed doors, with the industry already showing a capability to safely do so.

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The Irish horse racing industry has been in an uncomfortable and highly-damaging state of limbo since racing last took place at Clonmel on March 24th. Like so many aspects of Irish life and the economy, racing has ground to a halt as a result of the Covid-19 crisis and those that economically rely on it have been put under a great amount of pressure.  

While it is important to retain perspective at a time when lives are being lost, tens of thousands of people depend on horse racing for their living and for many more it is their pursuit of choice. Thus, ever since racing has stopped there has been speculation and anticipation over when it will return.  

Since the set of restrictions that were due to expire on May 5th were introduced, there had been quiet hopes that the next set of restrictions would ease sufficiently to allow horse racing to restart behind closed doors in Ireland in May. It came as a shock to the horse racing industry and seemingly HRI themselves to see that the “Roadmap for Reopening Society & Business” that was released by the Irish government on Friday evening seemed to indicate that racing wouldn’t be allowed to restart until June 29th.  

HRI has of yet been unable to get clarity from the government as to whether this is the case or if racing comes under another definition that would allow it to restart earlier, but the prospect of being made wait until June 29th has sent shockwaves around the world of Irish racing.  

Asking Irish horse racing to wait an extra six weeks until June 29th may not seem like a long time to those that aren’t that familiar with the industry. However, those that are will know that such a delay at this time of year could prove calamitous. Racing in France is set to restart behind closed doors on May 11th and recent reports suggest that British racing will do the same in mid-May. To keep Irish racing waiting six or seven weeks whilst our main competitors have restarted racing would be certain to make what is already a horrendous situation much worse.  

Trainer’s yards around Ireland are full of horses that are ready to run whose owners have already been asked to pay training fees for six weeks without racing. Many trainers will already have been struggling to convince their owners to keep horses in training during this time and asking them to wait another eight weeks during what is the peak period of the Flat season would be certain to have wide-ranging negative ramifications.  

Horses are sure to be taken out of training and the danger of trainers being left with bad debts is clear. Perhaps even worse, with the pattern race programme in Ireland sure to be thrown into disarray if racing doesn’t return until late-June, higher class horses are likely to be transferred from Ireland to Britain or France where they can race. If they leave, they are unlikely to be sent back.  

Every horse that is taken out of training and/or leaves Ireland threatens to cost jobs and the very viability of racing businesses that are already under huge pressure. It could well prove to be the costliest and most damaging eight-week period in the history of Irish horse racing.  

Irish horse racing from 2019
Kevin hopes racing in Ireland can resume behind closed doors from May 18th

However, speculation since Friday has suggested that there is potentially scope for the Irish government to permit horse racing to continue from May 18th within the guidelines they announced on Friday. Reports suggest that there is a substantial lobbying effort being undertaken by Horse Racing Ireland and other interested parties since that announcement. At the time of writing, there isn’t expected to be clarification on the issue until Tuesday, at the earliest.  

In terms of the bigger picture, the Irish government have done an excellent job in their response to the Covid-19 crisis. They showed great bravery to act faster than many other governments in this part of the world and that has unquestionably saved lives and spared Irish people from even worse ramifications. Their actions have meant that the fear that our health service could be overwhelmed hasn’t come to pass. 

Now, they need to be brave again on the other side of the curve. The time has come to make decisions to open back up pursuits and industries that can function within strict safety protocols and generate economic activity that will help get the country back on its feet. Horse racing is one of those industries.  

Irish horse racing is an industry that generates the better part €2 billion of economic activity each year and supports 30,000 direct and indirect jobs in primarily rural areas. It is the only sporting show in the country that has proven it can take place behind closed doors without putting people at unnecessary risk. 

Ten race meetings were held behind closed doors in March and passed off without a hitch despite the very short notice at which the protocols were put together. Having had six weeks to refine and plan for racing’s resumption behind closed doors, one can be absolutely certain that every conceivable angle will be covered when it comes to reducing controllable risk before, during and after racing.  

One of the reasons why racing behind closed doors was stopped on March 24th was the fear that every available medical professional would be needed on the front lines of this crisis and that having such professionals working at race meetings was inappropriate. Mercifully, that fear hasn’t come to fruition and the Order of Malta remain in a position to provide the medical professionals to cover race meetings without taking away from the front line of Irish healthcare.  

Given that Irish racing has committed to running only Flat racing for a month upon restart, the chances of any jockeys needing hospital treatment are statistically low. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that many thousands of racehorses have been ridden out every day in Ireland as part of the routine training during the lockdown. Therefore, the restarting of one Flat race meeting a day won’t add significantly more risk of hospitalisation to the everyday risks associated with the industry.  

Horse racing isn’t asking for any special treatment in being allowed to restart behind closed doors from May 18th. It isn’t anything like the sports it has often been compared to such as Gaelic games, soccer and rugby. It has proven in practice that it can achieve the social distancing that the current crisis demands and can apply safety protocols that go above and beyond those demands. 

Just as significantly, rather than being considered a sport by the government, it is a rural-based industry that comes under the Department of Agriculture. This key difference in status is mirrored in France and it is significant that while no sports will be allowed take place there until September, horse racing has been permitted restart on May 11th.  

Some will say that the public perception of horse racing being allowed to restart on May 18th while other popular sports are not will be negative. Public perception is of course an important factor, but the horse racing industry is under such pressure that these concerns can justifiably be put to one side in these unprecedented circumstances. This isn’t about optics, it is about saving jobs, livelihoods and rural businesses.  

The Irish government placed a great amount of trust in Irish racing to continue racing behind closed doors for 10 race meetings in March. Now we as an industry must ask that it trusts Irish racing once again in allowing it to continue under what will be even stricter safety protocols from May 18th. The industry needs their trust and support now more than ever.

Kevin Blake
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