Cork racecourse will become a testing centre for coronavirus from Thursday morning as Irish racing lends its support to government efforts to stop the spread of the virus, following the suspension of all racing in Ireland until at least April 19.

Horse Racing Ireland, which was forced to abandon its programme of staging race meetings behind closed doors on Tuesday by new government restrictions on sporting events, also said in a statement on Wednesday that it is “working … to identify other elements of racing’s personnel and infrastructure that could be used in the co-ordinated reaction to the crisis.”

However, HRI also warned of the “potentially catastrophic impact of a sustained period without racing on all sectors of the industry”, and suggested that it will look to return to racing behind closed doors at the earliest opportunity.

Cork racecourse, near the town of Mallow, is about 30 miles from Cork City, Ireland’s second-largest city after Dublin with a population of nearly 200,000 people. Croke Park in Dublin, the 82,000-seat headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, opened a Covid-19 testing centre last week, and more tracks seems likely to follow Cork’s lead in a country which has the highest number of racecourses per head of population in the world.

“What is most important is that as a country, we do all we can individually and collectively to fight the transmission of Covid-19 and focus on our health,” Nicky Hartery, the HRI chairman, said after a meeting of the organisation’s board on Wednesday, “ensuring that resources such as medical facilities and personnel are allocated where the need is most.”

Wednesday’s board meeting also reviewed 10 racing fixtures which had been held behind closed doors over the last fortnight and concluded that “this experience has confirmed that a safe environment which fully respects required social distancing and hygiene measures is achievable for race fixtures”.

A return to some form of racing programme, even if it is under the severe restrictions which were in place at meetings earlier this week, is now one of HRI’s key priorities.

“Similar to most industries, the racing and breeding sector will have to look forward now,” Brian Kavanagh, HRI’s chief executive, said. “We will continue our engagement with government around the supporters that are available for the many people in our industry who have now lost their jobs and whose earning capacity has dramatically reduced. Racing and breeding supports almost 29,000 FTEs [full-time employments] mostly in rural Ireland and a sustained period without racing impacts thousands of those jobs.

“When racing went behind closed doors, many staff, including bookmakers, Tote staff, catering staff and other racecourse service providers stopped earning. As of yesterday’s stoppage, many others, including jockeys, trainers, stable staff, media and many other service providers joined that list. Supports will be necessary for each of these areas, and HRI will work with all parties to achieve this.”

The suspension of racing in Ireland until at least 19 April means that the popular Irish Grand National Festival at Fairyhouse over the Easter weekend has definitely been lost, but leaves at least a glimmer of hope that the Punchestown Festival, the finale of the Irish jumps season which is due to open on 28April, could be saved in some form.

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