Doncaster officials were left counting the cost on Wednesday as the return of crowds came to an abrupt halt following day one of the St Leger meeting – although pilot events planned for Warwick and Newmarket later this month are set to go ahead.
Following the last-minute cancellation of a trial for 5,000 people at Goodwood last month, hopes were high the Town Moor venue could successfully stage the four-day Leger fixture with limited racegoers as part of Government hopes to reintroduce spectators, with an estimated 2,500 on course for the first afternoon.
But much like with Goodwood, a revision to Government advice late on Tuesday evening threw the event into doubt, with numbers of people permitted to gather socially being reduced to a maximum of six from Monday.
That change of policy combined with concerns over a rising Covid-19 infection rate in Doncaster prompted the local authority to instruct Arena Racing Company, which operates the track, to go back behind closed doors at the conclusion of the opening afternoon.
Mark Spincer, managing director of ARC’s racing division, estimates losses of £250,000 for the company – but believes the cost could be much higher in terms of getting sport back on track.
He said: “The feeling is obviously one of disappointment, particularly for the team who have worked so hard, and the customers.
“Talking to the crowd that are here today, they feel so comfortable and safe with all the protocols we’ve put in place and they are all adhering to the code of conduct. It worked nicely.
“The decision has been taken by Public Health, it’s 100 per cent out of our hands.”
He went on: “We were sold out on Saturday – about 5,000 (tickets) – which was less than we originally said, but we would have been comfortable with that.
“As for an exact figure this has cost, we don’t know exactly, but we’re probably £250,000 out of pocket with the crowds for three days being removed. That will be made up of infrastructure, staff, food and alcohol, barriers, signage. It’s cost a lot trying to get this right.
“We’ve been working on this for months – there’s been a working group that included the Jockey Club and some independent tracks as well. The team have done an amazing job and I feel so sorry for them – some have only been back off furlough for two weeks.
“This isn’t just a blow for racing, it’s sport. It’s going to make it slower and harder for everyone to get back, but we have to follow the advice.”
But in something of a boost for the sport after the Doncaster news, it was confirmed by the Government on Wednesday evening the pilots at Warwick on September 21 and Newmarket’s three-day Cambridgeshire meeting, which is scheduled for September 24-26, remain on its agenda.
However, there will be crowd limits of 1,000 for a number of listed sporting pilots, including Warwick and Newmarket, “in light of the increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases”, while such events will be “subject to locations not having local prevalence concerns”.
Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: “We know fans and audiences are eager to return, and jobs depend on this too, so work continues around the clock on the moonshot project with the ambition of having audiences back much closer to normal by Christmas, if safe to do so.”
The Racecourse Association has been key in liaising with Government on the return of racegoers and while it accepts the decision of Doncaster council, it also underlined “the decision to cancel is not a consequence of any concerns about the measures taken by Doncaster or the racing industry’s plans to allow the public to return”.
RCA chief executive David Armstrong said: “The RCA and all in racing will be very disappointed by today’s developments. We all know how important these pilots are to securing the return of crowds.
“The racecourse teams and the RCA have put in many hours of detailed work and planning to ensure the protocols are comprehensive and robust. As the second biggest spectator sport in the country, we pride ourselves on the quality of our sport and the entertainment it brings to so many.
“The health of the public and our own staff and participants is paramount, but the economic and financial pressure on the industry has already cost jobs and more will follow.”
Speaking of the experience of the day at Doncaster, one annual member told Sky Sports Racing: “We’ve been really looking forward to coming to the St Leger (Festival). It’s a great meeting and the racecourse has put a lot into getting these four days open.
“We’re really pleased that we’ve got a great event – it’s fantastic.
“We’re really disappointed that it’s not going to go ahead from tomorrow. We’re perfectly safe – we’re outside, everyone is following the guidelines, we’ve got masks and everything.
“They’ve done everything they could possibly do. It’s just as safe as being in a local pub, if not more so, because of everything that the racecourse has done.
“It’s relaxed and spread out. We couldn’t have asked any more.”