Nicholas Godfrey: Get your ducks in a row – but don’t be afraid to hold your horses

Horse Racing Ascot
Ascot lights up in tribute to NHS, care and key workers. Photo: Ascot Racecourse
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

We’re barely in this crisis, but everyone wants to know how to get back to normal. NICHOLAS GODFREY says racing shouldn’t push for a return date until the national lockdown is eased

Relief. That was my overriding emotion when news broke that British horse racing would not be rushing back on May 1 after the coronavirus suspension, still more when the Government extended the lockdown across the country for another three weeks until at least May 7.

Despite economic imperatives, it all just seemed far too soon to be thinking of anything else with little sign of the daily death rate coming down. And how chilling is that horrific daily toll? Human lives reduced to numbers on a news ticker at the bottom of a TV screen or a mention at the beginning of a press conference.

When it comes to racing’s smallish pond, of course, other racing jurisdictions appear to be taking a bolder approach than Britain. South Africa is aiming for May 1, when Germany is pledging to begin specially compiled six-week behind-closed-doors programme; even France, among the hardest hit by COVID-19, seems to be readying itself for a potential kickoff on May 4.

Bro Park racecourse, Sweden
Racing resumed recently to empty stands at Bro Park at the start of the 2020 season in Sweden.
Photo: Elina Björklund/Svensk Galopp

The Swedish season has started at Bro Park and Jagersro; Denmark is also on the go. Some places further afield never stopped – Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, a handful of places in America. That’s why we’ve all suddenly become wannabe experts on the delights of Will Rogers Downs and Kembla Grange.

British racing sounded too eager for a while

For a while, British racing too sounded like it was eager to resume on May 1, a date seemingly plucked from the ether soon after the shutdown. Thankfully, this has since been abandoned – if it was ever anything beyond a nominal date.

Let’s hope so, because an emotive response might be to ask how, frankly, could anyone be thinking of such fripperies as horse racing at a time when nearly a thousand people a day are dying? 

If you were trying to be more out of step with public opinion, it would have been hard to conceive of a more foolproof method. Who cares about such leisure industry side issues when the nightly news bulletins seem so utterly bereft of positive developments?

Hoppegarten: German racing plans a May 1 restart. Photo: Hoppegarten racecourse

Horse racing is already in the dock over the decision to allow the Cheltenham Festival to take place. While it is wholly unfair that racing is being singled out, in the general scheme of things it matters not that other major sporting events took place at the same time, Liverpool v Atletico Madrid at Anfield being merely the highest-profile example alongside Twickenham and Murrayfield. Four wrongs, or however many it was, don’t make a right.

Cheltenham criticism: hindsight is a wonderful thing

Yet with all that in mind, lambasting the decision to stage the Cheltenham Festival looks like an exercise in after-timing. A majority of those with any interest in horse racing, whether professionally or otherwise, were overjoyed with the decision to keep the show on the road. (Well, at least until people started coughing.)

At the time, plenty were of the mindset that coronavirus was no worse than the annual bout of flu. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and while not wishing to absolve those involved at Cheltenham from some degree of responsibility, they acted in accordance with the latest Government advice.

Which is where we get back to questions of resumption of racing. People’s livelihoods are on the line, hence the evident desperation to get going as fast as possible in many quarters. If this is a vested interest, it is also entirely understandable.

Horse Racing Chester
Racing at Chester: fans would love the lockdown to end, but it must be at the right time.

But here, not for the first time, I am in accordance with that sage Newmarket trainer John Berry who, in his latest blog, speaks of frustration over persistent calls for the Government to outline an ‘exit strategy’; we’re barely in this crisis, yet everyone wants to know how we can get back to normal. Guess what? We probably can’t, not for a while. 

Ditto racing. In this context, while it is right and proper for racing to be planning for how to effect any resumption, the industry ought not be pushing for a return date until the national lockdown is significantly eased.

The BHA seems to be working on that basis with no date set for the introduction of its “phased plan” for a limited programme “when it’s appropriate to do so,” according to chief executive Nick Rust. Good.

There is little to be gained by a hasty restart

Health and safety are the primary concerns, trumping everything else – including economics. And that means both the health and safety of participants, and the wider public beyond. Racing clearly won’t resume until the sport is sure it can deal with the former, and it is well used to looking after those involved on an everyday basis, but potential for social distancing advice to be flouted and a demand on emergency services are an issue. 

A BHA best-case scenario transmitted to trainers sees the Guineas at the start of June, Epsom in July; Royal Ascot, bizarrely, retains its traditional slot. Presumably not for reasons of the social calendar.

But when racing restarts, it must not represent any shade of danger to the public. Government advice, though hardly infallible, can be the only guide. 

There is little to be gained by too hasty a resumption of racing and plenty to be lost. In the kangaroo court of public opinion, horse racing might as well have been handed a suspended sentence in the aftermath of the Cheltenham Festival.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel came up with a phrase the other day that resonates when she talked about “a situation where caution is the order of the day and not overconfidence”.

Horse Racing Quinoa Tifah
Racing continues in the US, including at Gulfstream. Photo: Lauren King

Racing should take note. We would all like the sport to resume, just as we would all like the lockdown to end. Just not before we are entirely sure it is the right thing to do.

That is not to dismiss the concerns of those suffering at the sharp end in business terms – and as a self-employed freelance racing journalist, I’m not exactly living in the land of milk and honey myself. Moreover, crikey, I’d love to watch some British racing on the telly.

The racing community, like everybody else, is under serious threat, and nobody wants to prolong the hardship if there is a viable alternative. For now, though, there isn’t one.

Make sure you’re in place for a resumption, by all means, and continue with the necessary planning. At the risk of mixing metaphors, get your ducks in a row – but don’t be afraid to hold your horses. Patience, in this extraordinary unprecedented instance, looks like a necessary virtue.

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