Shortly after 1.05pm on Monday, one of a dozen horses will cross the winning line at Newcastle racecourse and racing will become the first major professional sport in Britain to log a result in its record books since the middle of March. A few hours later, there will be handshake-free conclusions to the first matches in snooker’s Championship League tournament in Milton Keynes. Sport, of a kind, is finally returning and until the Premier League resumes on 17 June racing will have the spotlight largely to itself.
As well as an opportunity to attract new fans, Monday’s 10-race card in the north-east will come as an immense relief for the tens of thousands whose livelihoods depend on racing, above all the freelancers – jockeys included – who have not earned a penny from their trade for nearly three months. On-course bookmakers, though, will not be present just yet.
But it will also be a real-time experiment, with significance for other major sports too, in whether it is safe or sensible to return to action when the number of new positives for coronavirus each day, though apparently in decline, is still running at around 2,000 per day. Government approval and public acceptance are very different things.
Racing, like snooker, lends itself more naturally to an early return than many others. Its participants are also instinctively aware of the importance of biosecurity, since horses, unlike people, cannot necessarily tell you that they are feeling off-colour. Ask any trainer who has had a season blighted by a virus in the yard.
But it will still be operating within strict new protocols to keep Covid-19 out and minimise any risk of adding to its spread. Anyone arriving with a temperature will be denied entry and so will anyone who has travelled with them – even if it is the jockey booked for the favourite in the day’s big race.
Social distancing will be strictly enforced at all times and on the few occasions when this is not always possible – for instance, during the loading process at the stalls – “risk mitigators such as wearing facial coverings and using hand sanitisers before and afterwards have been factored into our approach,” said Brant Dunshea, the British Horseracing Authority’s chief regulatory officer, on Sunday.
The BHA also believes trial runs at Lingfield last week have helped to iron out any remaining wrinkles in its plans. “The public will see a very professional group of people operating on racedays,” said Nick Rust, the BHA’s chief executive, on Sunday, “and following the social distancing guidelines, doing all they can to minimise the risks of transmitting coronavirus.
“We had a test day at Lingfield on Wednesday with a limited number of officials and horsemen and then a more full test run on Friday with a series of mock races, essentially, going through the whole race-day procedure. Although our plan was in pretty good shape that has really helped us tune it. This will be one of the most controlled environments in which people are returning to work on Monday.”
Rust also estimated the depth of the financial hole from which racing will start to extract itself as being “around £50m”, lest anyone should imagine that the process will be quick or easy. That includes the fixed costs of Britain’s 59 racecourses – around £8.2m a month – and lost revenue from the off-course betting Levy, also at least £8m a month. Media rights payments from betting shops will also return slowly as chains, starting with those in England, begin to re-open, while Tattersalls much-delayed “Breeze Up” sale on 23 June will be an early indicator of whether the bottom has fallen out of the bloodstock market.
It will be a cause for much relief in racing that money is starting to circulate through its system once again, but without its spectators, most meetings will be run on a break-even basis at best. Prize money has been cut by as much as 50% for some big races. Some of the businesses associated with the sport, from training yards to race-day hospitality, will not survive, perhaps even including some of Britain’s 59 tracks.
“It’s going to be very tough for them and it isn’t just smaller racecourses,” said David Armstrong, chief executive of the Racecourse Association, on Sunday. In many ways the larger ones have larger problems.
“About 1,400 of 1,800 staff have been furloughed and there’s been a reduction of rates, but racecourses are still losing £8.2m a month until fixtures become profitable. So if each course could make £10k in profit per fixture behind closed doors, we’d have to run 27 fixtures a day to break even. That’s the worrying position we find ourselves in.”
Newcastle’s card is the end of a near three-month suspension, but only the start of a much longer journey back to some kind of normality for a sport and industry that employs many thousands and entertains millions more.