British racing faces a “severe threat” if crowds are not allowed back on racecourses for another six months – as suggested by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The stark warning was issued on behalf of racing’s tripartite leadership bodies (British Horseracing Authority, Racecourse Association and Horsemen’s Group) following Tuesday’s announcement that plans to get spectators back to sporting events from October 1 had been postponed in response to a national resurgence in coronavirus infection rates.
Barely 24 hours after Warwick had staged a seemingly successful pilot scheme with up to 450 racegoers, hopes were dashed that Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire meeting could hold something similar later this week.
A statement read: “The delay to the public’s return to sporting events is a serious blow to the horseracing industry and to the people and communities who depend upon it for their living.
“Our sport has worked hard with public health officials to return safely and carry out pilot events. The exemplary response from the spectators in following the measures we put in place has shown that organised events can be run safely. We look forward to a full evaluation of the pilots and for the evidence to be used to inform future decisions about sporting events.
“Despite all those efforts, our industry is now facing a severe threat.
“We are the second most attended spectator sport in the country. Without the millions of people who normally enjoy a day at the races, many people’s jobs are at serious risk, as are the businesses they work in.
“We know this is recognised from the regular discussions we have had with ministers and we thank them for their strong support in these difficult times.
“We have kept the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments updated on the financial impact of COVID and the effects on the rural economies in which so many of our racing staff live and work.
“We have told the UK Government our racecourses were facing a loss of £250 to £300 million of revenues this year, which in turn means less prize money flowing through to our participants and our owners.
“We will be conducting a further economic impact assessment and will work with Government to put in place financial assistance to protect livelihoods and rural communities.
“We have worked closely with the betting industry during our safe return from lockdown. Responsible betting is part of the fun of racing. It benefits both industries, flowing back into racing to create jobs and fund the care of horses.
“But British racing does not benefit to the extent of our European counterparts for structural reasons. We have seen growing signs that our best horses are being lured elsewhere by the promise of greater financial rewards. We believe the case for urgent reform has been made. This will be part of the assessment we share with Government.”
Everything was in place at Newmarket to welcome back a crowd of up to 1,000 on each of the three days of its Cambridgeshire meeting – but for a third time, as at Goodwood and Doncaster previously this summer, plans had to be scrapped as infection rates prompted revised Government restrictions.
The Jockey Club, which owns Newmarket, has backed calls for the Government to support the industry.
Group chief executive Nevin Truesdale said: “The two pilot events staged by racing showed that we can host people safely, with so much outdoor space for social distancing and stringent protocols in place. Nevertheless, we respect the Government’s decision to pause their pilot programme across sport as part of trying to reduce contact between people.
“Without paying spectators, the largest revenue streams for many sports have been cut off for six months to date and, with no prospect of a change soon, this threatens the survival of sports organisations and the many livelihoods they support.
“Now is the time that sport needs the Government to step in and provide direct support to the industry, as they did when awarding £1.57 billion to the arts in July. Sport and physical activity sustains 600,000 jobs and contributes more than £16 billion per year to the UK economy. British Racing alone contributes more than £4 billion a year in normal times, which clearly these are not.”
David Armstrong, of the Racecourse Association, called the postponement of the pilot events “incredibly disappointing”.
He said: “The news that all elite sporting pilot events are to be postponed is incredibly disappointing. The sport has worked tirelessly to develop protocols to allow spectators to safely enjoy a day’s racing, and early indications from our pilot events are that these were a success.
“All sports are suffering from the effect of zero admissions income, and racing is no different. It is imperative that discussions continue with Government to highlight the economic impact of this decision.
“My thoughts are with Amy Starkey and the team at Newmarket—this news will be difficult to take following weeks of work to prepare the site for customers.”
Earlier, Prime Minister Johnson had confirmed that steps needed to be taken – and ditching the pilot schemes for up to as long as six months was on the cards.
Speaking on Tuesday lunchtime in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Johnson said: “We will spare no effort in developing vaccines, treatments, new forms of mass-testing but unless we palpably make progress we should assume that the restrictions that I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months.
“For the time being, this virus is a fact of our lives, and I must tell the
House and the country that our fight against it will continue.”