‘Start of the beginning’ with racing all set to return at Newcastle
Racing makes its long-awaited return at Newcastle on Monday – the first major sport to resume in Britain following the coronavirus shutdown.
Meetings were last held on March 17, when Wetherby and Taunton were in action behind closed doors, before racing was brought to an immediate halt.
The suspension was in line with other sports, with the last game in the Premier League having taken place on March 9, while Champions League football has been on hold since March 11.
Football’s top flight is pencilled in for a return on June 17, but having received Government clearance on Saturday, racing will kick off the return of mainstream sport with a bumper 10-race card in the north-east, ahead of a high-profile weekend featuring the 2000 and 1000 Guineas at Newmarket.
A total of 369 initial entries were whittled down to just 120 runners before any defections, as Gosforth Park stages the first fixture under strict protocols enforced by the British Horseracing Authority.
Only limited personnel will be allowed on course, with detailed hygiene and social distancing measures employed, along with personal protection equipment where necessary – including jockeys wearing face masks.
BHA chief executive Nick Rust said: “Our focus is obviously on returning safely and protecting all those taking part in behind closed doors racing, while also reassuring the communities that racing takes place in that the risk of transmitting the virus has been minimised.
“We’re all very passionate about racing and like the participants and anyone connected with the sport, we’ve all missed it.”
He added: “This is only the start of the beginning. We will need to work very hard as a sport to battle our way through the next six to 12 months, as our revenue streams are reduced compared to the model we were operating before the coronavirus.
“We are very, very proud that we are the first major professional sport that is back on the first possible day that we could have been back in line with the Government’s guidelines.”
The BHA has issued an extensive document outlining the guidelines and Middleham trainer Jedd O’Keeffe believes the governing body’s work should stand the sport in good stead.
He said: “I’m absolutely thrilled to be racing again – although there is a small amount of anxiety. We all want it to go well, as we don’t want anything to happen that would put the restart in jeopardy.
“There’s been so much planning that has gone into this and it seems very well thought out.
“It’s been very, very well laid out for us – we received a 33-page protocols document last week that we’ve all been reading and it’s incredibly comprehensive.
“There’s clearly been a huge amount of work that has gone into this and we’ve been well briefed.”
O’Keeffe has four runners on the opening day of action, but newcomer Continental is very much his headline horse having cost owner John Dance £240,000 as a yearling.
Dance has compared the Acclamation filly, who hails from the family of Swiss Lake, with his former Group One star Laurens, so O’Keeffe is eager to see how she shapes up in the second division of the Betway Novice Stakes.
He said: “We really like her, she’s beautifully bred and she’s been working nicely at home.
“Obviously there’s a bit of depth to the race with Tim Easterby’s (Art Power) and James Tate’s (Magical Journey) in there, so it won’t be easy to win first time out.
“Hopefully she will run a nice race, get a good bit of education and we can see where we are.”
Rebecca Menzies is relatively local as she trains near Sedgefield and she has three runners heading to Newcastle.
She reports her horses to be ready for action, despite the long absence of racing in Britain.
She said: “We kept going through lockdown without Flat horses, not galloping them as often as we might, but we kept them cantering and they haven’t missed any work.
“It’s a little bit disappointing there’s not the programme there for the lower-banded horses at present, but I think the race programmers are looking at this.
“We’ve a few in that spectrum and those owners kept them in training throughout and they might not get an opportunity to run for another month.
“We made quite a few entries for Monday and while only three got in, we’re just grateful to be back racing.”
Menzies does not anticipate staff having any issues with the new hygiene measures, as stringent cleanliness is part of every day stable life.
She added: “Racing staff are used to biosecurity measures in terms of dealing with simple things, like ringworm, and we are disinfecting things all the time.
“We all have the right PPE, and have done for a while, and all the staff have completed the online module required by the BHA – we’re all taking it very seriously, as you should.”
Newmarket trainers are well represented, with John Gosden and Sir Michael Stoute fielding runners, and champion jockey Oisin Murphy will be in action along with the likes of Andrea Atzeni, Jim Crowley and leading all-weather rider Ben Curtis.
While horse racing is the first headline sport to resume business, greyhound racing will get the ball rolling on Monday morning.
Greyhound racing was staged behind closed doors in March before the shutdown and, following successful trials at most tracks in the last two weeks, the action will restart at Perry Barr.