Ludlow racegoers cheer return from lockdown

Sounds of cheers echoed from the stands once again as spectators returned to Ludlow on Wednesday after six months of racing behind closed doors.

Aside from two pilot events, staged on the opening day of the St Leger meeting at Doncaster in September and a jumps fixture at Warwick later that month, only a limited number of essential personnel have been allowed on track since the sport’s resumption on June 1 following the Covid-19 lockdown.

With Ludlow placed in Tier 2 under the Government’s restrictions, allowing outdoor sporting venues to host 2,000 spectators or 50 per cent capacity – whichever is lowest – a crowd of around 600 was able to enjoy the seven-race card.

There was no roof-raising roar as Falberto claimed the opening Shropshire Mind Novices’ Claiming Hurdle, but the sight and sounds of hoofprints hitting the turf was music to the ears of racegoer Rhiannon Linington-Payne – who was attending her first meeting since New Year’s Day.

She said: “I felt very safe, which is obviously the most important thing. As just a general fan of the sport, it is just nice to be back.

“I don’t come to the races to get drunk or lose my money; I come because I appreciate the sport, and I’m sure I speak for a lot of people here who are glad to be back watching the horses again.

“I didn’t back the favourite in the first, so didn’t get that first winner, but it is just nice to be back on track – you can’t beat the atmosphere of being on a racecourse really.

“We normally go to the Cheltenham Festival. But we didn’t this year because we didn’t feel safe, but it is nice to be enjoying what we love safely.”

Tickets for the fixture were always going to be in high demand, and the 29-year-old was quick off the mark to secure hers.

She added: “I rang my dad up on the day they made the announcement to say ‘book us in, we are going, and I’ll take the day off work’.

“It’s really nice to be back on track, and I’m sure it gives people a much-needed lift with the year everyone has had. It has been a long old slog, but hopefully it will give everyone a bit of a boost before Christmas.”

There were queues at the entrance at Ludlow
There were queues at the entrance at Ludlow (David Davies/PA)

Despite encountering a few teething problems getting in, and being restricted to limited amenities once inside, track regular Don Ward also enjoyed the experience of being back in the stands.

He said: “It’s very good to be back. It was a bit slow to get in, but apart from that it has been magnificent to be back. I’m 79 and I’ve been coming here all my life.

“I’ve missed the people – and being part of the crowd with everybody here is so friendly, because you get the same people at every meeting.”

Members of the Owners Group 034 ensured their share of atmospheric noise as the Paul Nicholls-trained Miranda landed the feature Shropshire Mind Mares’ Handicap Hurdle for them.

Syndicate spokesman Ryan Bliss said: “We have been lucky enough to have two or four owners on track for a while, but to be able to have good few owners here means so much to us.

“The more people we can get going racing, the better. We have been exceptionally lucky during lockdown that we have been able to have some owners go racing, but for more people to be able to see their horses is tremendous – and the atmosphere is so much better.”

Leading rider Harry Skelton has partnered plenty of winners at the Shropshire track – and although out of luck on his sole ride, he was delighted to see a crowd back in the stands.

He said: “It’s brilliant to have the crowds back – they are great supporters of the game, and it is very important to have them on course.

“We were told in the autumn it was more likely to be six months before crowds returned – and when we were told that, none of us expected to see them back so early, so this is a step in the right direction.

“When you go out there to ride, you are in your own little bubble really. On a day-to-day basis you might not notice it as much. But on the smaller tracks, where some of the areas aren’t as big – like here – you definitely feel the atmosphere.”

Bookmakers in action as crowds returned at Ludlow
Bookmakers in action as crowds returned at Ludlow (David Davies/PA)

Gold Cup and Grand National-winning trainer Kim Bailey has attended every meeting at the course since the resumption of racing, and he echoed the thoughts of Skelton.

He said: “It’s very important we have these spectators back, and the more it keeps going forward, the better, because it has been soulless without them.

“It is a very positive move, but I think the whole thing has been completely bizarre.

“I’ve been here every single meeting and I’ve not seen any people on those stands, so it makes a big difference.

“The other thing is confidence – people will get confidence to go racing and travel the countryside to start going again. It is just good news all round.”

As one of the first four tracks alongside Haydock, Lingfield and Kempton to welcome back crowds, there was no margin for error for clerk of the course Simon Sherwood – who hailed the event a success, despite the challenging circumstances.

He said: “We always said it was going to be a learning curve, because the protocols are that much more challenging from what it was before. We will improve after this meeting if we are allowed to do the same thing through December and expand.

“It is great to have members back and some atmosphere back, and that is the most crucial thing we have been lacking since racing started up again. This is just hopefully a tiny step in the right direction.

“I think people are just happy to have the day out. There has been the odd grumble with people in the queues to get in, and we can speed that up next time, but on the whole people are just happy to have a day out.

“I think on the whole the feedback has been pretty positive.”

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