The odds-on favourite won the first race here on Monday and the loudest noise as Sam Twiston-Davies and Little Rory Mac galloped towards the line was the piping call of an oystercatcher patrolling overhead.
It was an eerie scene and one that seems likely to be played out many times in the weeks ahead, following confirmation all British racing will be behind closed doors from Tuesday.
Kelso went crowd-free 24 hours earlier following to an order from the Scottish government banning gatherings of more than 500 people as part of its plans to combat coronavirus. On a normal Monday at the borders track, they would expect around 1,500 customers. Instead, the only tickets being issued were free passes for around 100 owners.
But the prize money was still as advertised and around a dozen of Little Rory Mac’s owners, from a 20-strong syndicate run by Foxtrot Racing, were there to watch their gelding pick up a cheque for nearly £4,000 (plus, as is traditional at Kelso, a big bag of carrots for the horse).
“We’re very pleased it was on and relieved to be here,” Dan Abraham, the syndicate manager, said. “Our focus is on the horse and we’ve got a lot of syndicate members here who have had a brilliant day. It’s a bit different but when you’ve had a winner it’s very enjoyable.”
For Jonathan Garratt, Kelso’s managing director, the decision to continue racing without spectators showed the track’s support for the rural economy.
“It will be very odd with no crowd,” Garratt said before the opening race, “but it’s what we have to do and need to do. We think that’s vital because the next few months are going to be very difficult and will be much more difficult if people aren’t able to maintain their business. The racing economy needs liquidity and if we stop racing then we start to stem the flow of liquidity and that will hurt rural businesses in particular.
“If there aren’t any races and no prize money to be won, owners don’t keep horses in training. Without horses in training, trainers are compromised, stable staff don’t have jobs and there are other associated businesses like farriers, feed merchants, all sorts of people.”
A little under seven years ago, Ryan Mania galloped past the Elbow at Aintree and into the record books aboard the 2013 Grand National winner, Auroras Encore. On Monday the volume was turned down from 11 to zero as he took the second race on Duc De Grissay. At one point shortly before the off the audience in the main grandstand was, literally, one man and his dog.
“Monday at Kelso wouldn’t attract a massive crowd so it doesn’t feel a lot different,” Mania said. “It’s business as usual, all we want to do is ride horses and earn some money, and so long as the racing’s on, that’s the main thing. I can’t imagine how it would work if we shut down. We’d lose meetings and they wouldn’t restage them come the summertime so if we can keep the ball rolling – let’s hope they do.”
Garratt hopes to be racing again on Saturday, when a normal crowd would have been closer to 4,000, but his estimate that there were 220 people here before the gates were opened to owners highlights how difficult it will be for Aintree to stage the Grand National next month within a 500-person limit.
“We’ve got to make sure there’s an economy left at the end of the crisis,” he said. “It’s an ever-changing situation. We use a private ambulance service so there’s no drain on NHS resources by us racing but it may well be that in weeks to come, the resources here today will be needed to help the NHS.
“But what we’re doing at the moment, I’ve no doubt it’s the right thing to be doing.”