Doncaster’s planned four-day pilot scheme for the return of crowds came to an abrupt halt before the first race was even run on Wednesday, in what was described as not just a blow for racing, but sport in general.
Following the last-minute cancellation of a planned trial for 5,000 people at Goodwood last month, hopes were high the Town Moor venue could successfully stage the St Leger meeting with limited racegoers as part of a Government plan to reintroduce spectators, with an estimated 2,500 on course for the first afternoon.
However, 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 Wednesday’s action.
Dr Robert Sucking, director of public health for Doncaster, said in a statement: “The current rate of infection for the borough currently stands at 10.6 infections per 100,000 people which I have been updated on today and this is an increase due to a range of factors including an increase in testing and a lag in the test results coming in.
“Therefore on the grounds of public health and public safety, I have instructed the racecourse to hold the St Leger Festival behind closed doors from tomorrow.
“The day’s racing will continue today as it is safer to manage racegoers on site and with enhanced test and trace, it will be easier to identify where they are from rather than closing the event today and leaving people to their own devices in Doncaster and the borough generally.
“I appreciate this decision may not be met with universal agreement but it is the safest and most appropriate way to move forward for everyone’s best interests in the borough and beyond.”
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.”
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”.
Further pilot events are planned at Warwick and Newmarket later this month and the RCA will engage with “public health authorities nationally and with DCMS to establish what the next steps will be” for those dates and also on how it will bring back the public more broadly.
The RCA also warned that a significant delay to the return of spectators would be “a hammer-blow for racecourses and the racing industry” as more than half of racecourses’ incomes is generated by racegoers.
RCA chief executive David Armstrong added: “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 Sport 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.”
Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, posted a statement on Twitter following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s afternoon press conference, maintaining the Government were continuing to “plan for the best.”
Dowden said: “Further to the PM’s announcement we are reviewing the list of proposed sports pilots ahead of 1 Oct, in light of the increased number of cases. Details of changes will be announced shortly.
“We are keeping under review further easements proposed from 1 Oct but no changes have been announced today – and we continue to plan for the best.”