The British Horseracing Authority’s overall plan to steer the sport and
industry through the coronavirus pandemic became much clearer in the space of a couple of hours on Friday evening. First, the sport’s ruling body announced plans to strip around £1m from its monthly £3m budget, while shortly afterwards the trainer Ralph Beckett tweeted the text of a letter sent to stakeholders by Brant Dunshea, the BHA’s chief regulatory officer, which included a statement that the Authority’s Resumption of Racing Group “is planning for a resumption from the 1st of May”.
All British racing was suspended on 17 March after a short-lived attempt to run meetings behind closed doors. The country has since moved into strict lockdown amid increasingly severe controls on commercial activity, movement and social distancing, in anticipation of an expected peak in Covid-19 cases in two to three weeks’ time. As a result, many in the sport have assumed that the initial suspension of racing until 30 April would inevitably be extended.
As Dunshea’s letter makes clear, however, the BHA is keeping all options open for now. Two hundred of its 260 employees have now stopped work and salaries have been cut across the board, but the 60 staff still at work are focused on how an industry that supports tens of thousands of livelihoods will eventually stir back into life.
“We are already anticipating that the initial return to racing is likely to be phased and almost certainly behind closed doors,” Dunshea says. “This reflects the likelihood that any easing of the Covid-19 situation, and any associated restrictions and pressures on medical services, will also happen progressively.
“With that in mind, we also expect any return to racing to begin, at least initially, with Flat racing, principally for reasons of safety and to minimise demands on emergency services.”
Dunshea adds that while some “Jumpers Bumpers” cards may be added to the schedule at some stage, jumps trainers should “judge whether horses can/should be turned out or kept in training”.
The immediate suspension of racing earlier this month left freelancers “including almost all jockeys and their valets” without an income overnight, and while last week’s announcement of government support for self-employed workers was welcomed by Paul Struthers, the chief executive of the Professional Jockeys’ Association, he also warned of an “acute, short-term need” until payments arrive in June.
Trainers, too, will know that owners and horses will begin to drift away if racecourses remain idle for weeks on end. There are no sales for breeders to sell horses, and no one would be buying in any case.
Without racing, the sport’s economy begins to seize up, as prize money stops circulating around the system. In terms of revenue from the betting Levy alone, every month without racing costs the sport between £6m and £7m. Unfolding events and government advice will ultimately determine whether 1 May is a realistic date for racing to return in some form, but Dunshea and his team at the BHA can only attempt to ensure that the sport has a plan in place if it is needed. If or when it becomes certain that 1 May is impossible, the date will move, but the essentials of the planning for an eventual resumption will be the same.
For trainers and jockeys, it cannot come soon enough. But the immense nature of the task facing the BHA’s planners should not be underestimated. Even if government guidelines are sufficiently relaxed by June to allow racing behind closed doors, it would be all but impossible to guarantee that no more than 500 people would attend a Derby at Epsom, where most of the annual crowd of 100,000 do not pay for admission in the first place. Royal Ascot, meanwhile, could well need more than 500 people on the ground to function at all, and it is, in any case, a social event as much as a race meeting. If the Queen and the procession are missing, is it really Royal Ascot at all?
Above all, planners will need to decide what to sacrifice and what to squeeze in over what remains of the Flat season, always knowing that someone, somewhere – trainers and owners included – will disagree with every decision. Could the Derby replace the Leger at Doncaster in September? How to allocate fixtures when some courses might go to the wall without racing? There are thousands of questions and the best answers could change with events from one day to the next.
A return on 1 May could well be unrealistic, but over 250 years, horse racing has grown to become an immensely complicated network of inter-dependent professions, businesses and individuals. At a moment of national crisis, all are in as much need as everyone else of some reassurance of better times ahead.