COVID-19: Classics postponed and Royal Ascot behind closed doors at best

Horse Racing Ascot racecourse
If Royal Ascot takes place, the stands will be empty owing to the coronavirus crisis.
Photo: Ascot racecourse

By Jon Lees

GB: The first four Classics of the British Flat season will not be run on their scheduled dates and Royal Ascot, if it does take place, will not be open to the public.

The announcements, both of enormous significance for the 2020 Flat season, were made within minutes of each other on a day of massive upheaval for British racing owing to the coronavirus crisis.

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News of the two developments broke in quick succession on Tuesday afternoon. Shortly after the Jockey Club announced it was seeking alternative dates for the Qipco Guineas and Investec Derby Festivals, Ascot said it was exploring the possibility of staging the meeting behind closed doors. However, there remains no certainty the meeting will take place at all.

A Jockey Club statement said: “Given the importance of the three-year-old Classic programme to the careers of that generation of horses, and the racing and bloodstock industries as a whole, JCR is now in talks with the British Horseracing Authority, participants and other key stakeholders, including the Horserace Betting Levy Board and commercial partners, to reschedule the first four Classics at later dates, once racing has resumed in Britain.

“JCR is looking to provide participants with the opportunity to ensure their horses are in peak condition with preparation races and adequate spacing between the Qipco 2,000 Guineas and Qipco 1,000 Guineas, run over a mile, and the Investec Derby and the Investec Oaks, run over a mile and a half.

Amy Starkey, who runs Newmarket Racecourses as East Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses, said: “With less than a month until the Qipco Guineas Festival, trainers need to know whether to step up preparations for their Guineas horses or put that on pause for a later date.

“The future is too uncertain at the moment and there is no opportunity for any preparation races before such important contests for the 2020 Classic generation.

“Therefore we feel now is the right time to take the decision to cancel the Qipco Guineas Festival and turn our attention to determining, in conjunction with the BHA, participants and stakeholders, the earliest possible opportunity to reschedule the Qipco 2,000 Guineas and the Qipco 1,000 Guineas.”

Horse Racing Investec Derby
Derby day at Epsom will be postponed until later date in 2020. Photo: Jockey Club Racecourses

Phil White, who runs Epsom Downs Racecourse as London Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses, said: “Following consultation with our many event stakeholders and in order to comply with current government guidance, given the unique nature of the Downs as a public space, sadly it is not practical to stage The Investec Derby Festival on 5th and 6th June.

“We are now working with the sport to explore our options to reschedule, at minimum, The Investec Derby and The Investec Oaks, as part of delivering the 2020 Classic programme for three-year-olds. We thank all involved for their pragmatism and patience as we work this through together.”

The BHA’s director of international racing and racing development Ruth Quinn said the BHA had “a responsibility to safeguard the staging of our Classics, and to position them within a sensible, balanced schedule of complementary events wherever possible.

“We are developing plans to help ensure that a suitable race programme, for the long-term health of the sport, can be delivered in these challenging times. Naturally one of the key priorities is the staging of the generation-defining races.”

Royal Ascot is the biggest Flat racing event in the calendar and is scheduled to take place from June 16 to 20.

Chief executive Guy Henderson said: “For public health and safety reasons we have reached the difficult but unavoidable conclusion that Royal Ascot 2020 (Tuesday 16th – Saturday 20th June) will not be able to take place as an event open to the public. This will of course be a great disappointment for everyone planning to attend.   

“It may prove possible to run the Royal Ascot races behind closed doors, dependent on Government and public health policy and the approval of the BHA for us to re-start racing.  This would be for the benefit of the industry, our valued partners and suppliers and our television audiences at home and internationally. Planning for this is now our complete focus and we will update on progress as and when we can.

“The pandemic will have a significant financial impact on our business in 2020, along with so many others. Nevertheless, Ascot racecourse will come through this crisis and we look forward to being able to welcome racegoers back when it is safe to do so.”

Racing in Britain has been suspended until the end of April due to the coronavirus pandemic and the 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas were due to be run on May 2 and 3 at Newmarket and the Oaks and Derby on June 5 and 6 at Epsom.

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