Racing in Ireland is to take place behind closed doors starting at Dundalk on Friday until March 29, under special measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Horse Racing Ireland made the announcement following Government advice on Thursday to contain the spread of Covid-19, including an instruction to limit external gatherings to less than 500 people.
After consultation with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and with industry stakeholders, HRI has imposed a number of restrictions to ensure that fewer than 500 people are on site at each meeting.
The measures have taken immediate effect, with the situation being kept under review.
HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh said: “Public health is the number one priority and these restrictions will continue to be kept under constant review as we liaise with our colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Health.
“The restrictions which we are announcing today will limit social interaction, but will allow a vital rural industry to continue to operate, protecting livelihoods and jobs.”
The restrictions include access being limited to essential service providers and industry participants. There will be no catering services, on-course bookmakers or Tote services provided. Only trainers with runners can attend with one owner and one groom per horse.
However, racing will be available to broadcasters as at present.
Leading Irish trainer Michael Halford gave the decision his full backing.
The Kildare handler said: “I think the main thing is we keep racing. We’re very grateful that we are still racing and in the circumstances it makes sense.
“I’d agree with it 100 per cent.”
Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer Henry de Bromhead said: “If that’s what they feel is the best thing to do, that’s what we need to do.
“It’s good the racing is continuing. If racing behind closed doors is our policy, we have to support it.”
Gigginstown House Stud racing manager Eddie O’Leary welcomed the move.
“It’s great because racing isn’t a sport, it’s n business,” said O’Leary.
“The question they faced was do you cancel or what. What about the Derby and the Guineas? These are strange times and we’re doing the best we can having it behind closed doors. No bookies, no public, just the industry, we’ve all got to survive in these strange times.
“I’ve heard people saying it should be stopped because it’s only a sport, but it isn’t – it’s an industry and a lot of people’s lives are depending on it.”
In Britain, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said cancelling large sports events is “not a major way to tackle this epidemic”.
He said: “On average, one person infects two or three others.
“You therefore have a very low probability of infecting a large number of people in a stadium and a rather higher probability of infecting people very close to you.
“And that means that most of the transmission actually tends to take place with friends and colleagues and those in close environments – and not in the big environments.
“Though it is true that any cancellation of things can have some effect, if you then get a displacement activity where you end up with everyone congregating somewhere else, you may actually perversely have an increased risk, particularly in an indoor environment.
“So it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at some point make the decision from a resilience point but this is not a major way to tackle this epidemic.”
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded: “We are considering banning major public events like sporting fixtures.
“The scientific advice is this has little effect on the spread – but it does place a burden on other public services.”
At the Cheltenham Festival on Thursday, hand sanitiser stations continued to be well used, and course officials are looking forward to the completion of the four-day meeting on Friday, where the highlight will be the Gold Cup.
Ian Renton, regional director Cheltenham and the South West, Jockey Club Racecourses, said: “We’ve followed the Government’s advice throughout the last fortnight and we continue to do so. The advice following the Cobra meeting today is no different – that the Festival we started should continue to completion to Magners Gold Cup day tomorrow.
“We’ve put precautions in place from the beginning of the Festival and we will obviously maintain them and continue to give advice to racegoers to follow the Government guidelines as to whether they feel they should attend or not.
“Certainly in the last fortnight ticket sales have been very slow and that is no surprise given the speculation around the event, so the Gold Cup day attendance will be below the norm.
“We’ve looked at every conceivable contingency over the last few weeks, but we’ve always been given the advice by the Government that the Festival should go ahead with full attendance and that is what we have done.
“I think with everyone here having started the Festival on Tuesday everyone wants to see it through to its completion and we will be pleased to do so.
“I think they (measures put in place) have worked extraordinarily well, the amount of times we have been filling up the gel bottles – also extraordinary is the amount of hot water we have used has actually stretched our resources because we’ve used two to three times as much hot water in the hand basins.
“It is great to see that racegoers have been heeding our advice, even though we have occasionally struggled to keep pace with the water usage.”
In Scotland, Musselburgh officials said they would be consulting on plans for the meeting there next Friday.
The track tweeted: “Musselburgh is consulting with industry bodies and stakeholders regarding next Friday’s (March 20) race meeting in light of Scottish Government decision regarding staging events with more than 500 people. We will clarify the situation as soon as possible.”