Racecourse Association chief executive David Armstrong described the return of limited crowds on English tracks as a “baby step” in the recovery of the sport.
Ludlow, Lingfield, and Haydock all welcomed paying spectators on Wednesday afternoon – with Kempton set to have a crowd for its evening fixture following the lifting of the national lockdown.
All four tracks are in Tier 2 areas, allowing crowds of up to 2,000 people or 50 per cent capacity – whichever is lowest – and Armstrong was among those on course at Ludlow.
Aside from two pilot events in September, racing has been held behind closed doors since its resumption on June 1, and Armstrong admits it is a “bonus” to have racegoers back in any capacity before Christmas.
He said: “It’s definitely a step in the right direction. What I wouldn’t describe it as is a pilot or test. It’s step in the right direction, but it’s a baby step.
“It is important here at Ludlow today, where 650 people will make it quite a good atmosphere. If you think about most racecourses, if they have 2,000 people, it is barely touching the sides – so it doesn’t yet get back to where we create the atmosphere or make it more economically viable.
“Those are steps that are still to come, but we have to start with a baby step – and in the current environment, we are very fortunate to get the opportunity to bring this number of people back so soon.
“I probably wasn’t expecting it until after Christmas, so this is a bonus. But the real work is how we bring crowds back at a significant scale, because that is where the economics start to work.”
Fears were raised about the future of racecourses if the absence of spectators continued in the long term, but Armstrong is “confident” all venues will be able to weather the winter and remain operational in 2021.
He added: “Yes, (I expect every course to still be operating next year).
“There are some in a more fragile position than others – and if in 12 months’ time the crowds weren’t allowed back, then I don’t think they would all survive, but I’m confident they all will.
“We are seeing the first step of it today. We are on a journey to bring back crowds in sensible numbers – and once we do that, then they will all be fine.”