Mark Johnston admits only time will tell what the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be for the racing industry, following the cancellation of all British meetings until the end of April.
While last week’s Cheltenham Festival went ahead unaffected, the situation has escalated hugely in the last seven days – with racing taking place behind closed doors on Tuesday, before the British Horseracing Authority’s latest decision to suspend the calendar from Wednesday.
Johnston, the most successful Flat trainer in British racing history having trained well over 4,000 winners, is keeping his fingers crossed for a swift resolution – describing the possibility of the entire Flat season being cancelled as “unthinkable”.
The Middleham handler said: “Obviously it’s very disappointing. I think, well hoped, racing could be the one sport that could continue behind closed doors.
“I’ve only just heard the news, so I haven’t had chance to properly go through the BHA’s reasoning behind it. I’m not going to criticise the decision, because I’m sure they had good reason for it.
“None of us knows how long this is going to go on for. I don’t know how it’s going to affect the people selling at the breeze-up sales – it could be an enormous blow for them – and it’s obviously going to hit racecourses very hard.
“The implications of it potentially cancelling the entire Flat season don’t bear thinking about. We’d have a whole generation of two-year-olds who haven’t been able to run – as I say, it’s unthinkable.
“It’s a situation none of us has ever encountered before, and my opinion on it changes every day.”
Classic-winning trainer Andrew Balding supports the BHA’s decision to cancel racing.
He told Sky Sports Racing: “Obviously there’s disappointment to some extent, but in light of what is happening in other countries and what could potentially happen here, it was the only decision that could be made – and I’m sure it’s the right one.
“Having a defining date of when it might resume would be a help, but I think that is impossible in these circumstances.”
While the jumps season is drawing to a close, the Flat turf season was scheduled to begin later this month – with crucial Classic trials due to take place.
“We had horses pencilled in for trials and important prep races that won’t take place now,” said Balding.
“So it’s up to the trainers to get to grips with the fact we won’t have the benefit of a trial – certainly for the Guineas anyway.
“We’ll have to make the best of the situation we’ve got. It is difficult if you don’t know when the fixtures might be rearranged, but it’s a question of coping with the hand you’ve been dealt.
“I read the Kentucky Derby is going to be postponed, so we’ll just have to see how the next few weeks play out here (with regards to the Classics) and see what results the quarantine measures achieved in Italy and other places.
“We’ll learn a lot more in the next few weeks – racing is an irrelevance in terms of what is going on in the wider world.”
Many racing yards run a tight ship – and with no prize money to earn for six weeks, some could struggle financially, although Balding hopes he will still be able to employ all his staff.
“I very much hope I can continue to employ all my staff – but as is always very much the case with racing, the owners foot the bill,” he said.
“At the end of the day, with the training fees – depending on how long this goes on – there may have to be a reduction in the rate if this goes on for a lengthy period.
“If it’s only a month we’re missing a handful of meetings, so it would be quite good timing – if there was such a thing in terms of what we might miss. It’s hard luck on the jumps trainers in terms of losing the National meeting.
“If this was to go on for two or three months, there would be ramifications (in terms of trainers struggling financially), but at the moment it would be alarmist to suggest it.
“If we can sit tight for the next fortnight and see what happens without getting too alarmed, (we can) be sensible about it.”
Leading Newmarket-based trainer Hugo Palmer is not optimistic about the chances of racing resuming at the start of May.
The first two Classics of the season – the Qipco 2000 Guineas and 1000 Guineas – are due to take place over the Rowley Mile on May 2 and 3 respectively.
“I think we’ve all been surprised at how quickly everything has changed, but we’ve come to expect the unexpected,” said Palmer.
“After the Grand National went and we were behind closed doors, it was a question of how many more days of racing we were going to get away with rather than it carrying on indefinitely.
“None of us know when racing will restart. I have to say, I think it’s a flight of fancy that come the first of May we will all jump out and go racing, but if that were the case, as a Flat trainer, one thing people always say is that the season doesn’t get going until the Guineas.
“I think it’s a very big ‘if’ that we get racing in early May.”
The cancellation of racing will undoubtedly have financial implications on yards across the country.
Palmer added: “I’m going to do my very best to keep all my staff employed. I’ve written to all my owners today to assure them we’ll do everything we can here that their horses are ready when racing restarts.
“A lot of Flat racing yards are made up of two-year-olds and while the Brocklesby is only two weeks away, a lot I train wouldn’t be making their debuts until August or September, so providing we can carry on with the training, our day-to-day lives shouldn’t change that much.
“Provided trainers are being paid to train horses, then we very much need staff to do it. All we are reading is telling us not to come within six feet of people – well if you are on a horse you are almost always more than that away from the next person, even if riding alongside – and we’re in the outdoors, although there are some in offices, but you’d hope a racing yard isn’t too great a risk.
“Respiratory health is something people in racing are very used to dealing with, tack is always been disinfected and we just have to keep everything as clean as possible. It may well be racing yards are very well placed to keep everything healthy.”
While many trainers will go about their work at home while racecourses are shut, it could be tougher for jockeys.
Leading rider PJ McDonald said: “It was a bit of a shock. Obviously we knew something was going to happen soon, but we hoped we might get away with it behind closed doors for a little bit longer.
“A lot of intelligent people have made this decision and it’s been made for the right reasons, so let’s hope we can get through it safe and we get back racing as soon as we can.
“If we’re not riding we can’t earn, but outside the racing bubble the whole country will take a hit. We’ve all got to tighten our belts and do what we’ve got to do to get through it.
“Public safety is the most important thing, no one has ever witnessed anything like this before.
“Some jockeys are better placed financially than others. There’s no getting away from it, it’s going to be tough, but you just have to deal with your own situation the best you can.
“There shouldn’t be any problem keeping fit – we’ve a lot of time on our hands! A lot of us will be riding out as well, but the trainers will see a hit financially as owners won’t want to pay to keep horses that can’t race.
“I’d be pretty scared if we can’t get back by the end of April.”