Amateur riders will be missing from next month’s Cheltenham Festival.
A ruling was made in January that amateurs would be temporarily prevented from competing under rules because of an ongoing rise in Covid-19 infections in Britain.
The move was made by the racing industry’s Covid-19 steering group, which constantly reviews coronavirus protocols to determine how racing can continue to strengthen its approach.
The group said at the time it had reached its decision because it “is in line with Government restrictions around the definition of elite sport and the associated suspension of grassroots sport”.
The four-day Festival begins on March 16, and in his road map unveiled on Monday for exiting lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a date of March 29 for the resumption of grassroots sport.
Three races at the Festival are confined to amateurs – the National Hunt Chase, Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Amateur Jockeys’ Handicap Chase and the St James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase.
Derek O’Connor has ridden four Cheltenham Festival winners and is the most successful Irish point-to-point rider of all-time.
He said: “I would have hoped to have picked up rides in all the amateur races, and obviously it’s disappointing – but it’s just unfortunate.
“I suppose the most important thing is the Festival going ahead. If this is a small, little help to getting the Festival to go ahead trouble-free, it’s not a big ask.
“I hope we’ll be able to be back for Aintree, which is quite important as well. The hunter chases would be the biggest loss because those are the races that are most associated with amateur riders – the hunter chase in Cheltenham and the hunter chase in Aintree. Hopefully things will have settled down a bit by the time we get round to Aintree.
“I’ll have been going to Cheltenham for 17 or 18 years, but I’ll be sat at home watching it on the television this year. Hopefully the meeting can go ahead trouble-free, and with no bad press, which is very important.”
Fellow Irish rider Jamie Codd has 10 Festival winners to his name, and was set to partner Weatherbys Champion Bumper favourite Sir Gerhard for Gordon Elliott.
He said: “For us qualified riders in Ireland, and the amateurs in England, it’s a huge blow.
“Cheltenham is where we really like to be competing and showcasing our status. It’s hugely disappointing, but the UK Government have their decision made and fingers crossed we can all get back for the hunter chase in Aintree.
“We’re in strange times, so we just have to dust ourselves off and there’s a lot of people worse off than us – that’s the way you have to look at it.
“With the restrictions that are in place, I don’t think I’ll be travelling over. We’ll probably sit at home and cheer Gordon’s horses on from there.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve missed Cheltenham and it’s been a very lucky hunting ground for me, but that’s the way it is and we’ll have to put up with it.”
The British point-to-point season has been suspended since January 4, but could resume on March 29.
Peter Wright, who is CEO of the Point-to-Point Authority in Britain, told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast: “Sadly, I think we have to accept the Government position, therefore there will be no amateur riding under rules until (March 29), unless there is a sudden change of heart by Government, but I don’t think that is likely.”
A spokesperson for the British Horseracing Authority said: “We would love to see amateurs able to ride again as soon as possible and will be working with DCMS, as we have throughout the pandemic, to ensure that happens.”