Aintree and Cheltenham will welcome back spectators next month – with both tracks falling under Tier 2 of the Government’s post-lockdown restrictions.
Outdoor venues in Tier 1 and 2 areas are allowed to admit spectators on a limited basis after the end of the national lockdown in England on December 2, with up to 4,000 spectators or 50 per cent capacity limits – whichever is lowest – in place in Tier 1, dropping to 2,000, or 50 per cent capacity, in Tier 2.
Cheltenham staged one of the last major sporting events to take place with spectators in Britain, when the Festival ended just days before racing was brought to a halt on March 17, before the full lockdown that was imposed later that month.
The Grand National meeting at Aintree was due to be staged in April but had already been cancelled before the racing shutdown, which lasted until June 1 when the sport returned behind closed doors.
The National fences are in action at the Aintree fixture on December 5, with both the Becher Chase and Grand Sefton on that course, and a limited number of spectators will be permitted – as they will for Cheltenham’s International meeting on December 11 and 12.
A spokesperson for Jockey Club Racecourses, which runs both tracks, said: “Based on the tiers the Government has confirmed today, Jockey Club Racecourses has 12 racecourses in Tier 2 and three in Tier 3. Therefore the bulk of our forthcoming meetings will be able to switch from behind closed doors racedays to instead welcome up to 2,000 spectators, made up of racehorse owners and racing fans.
“Our focus now will be on delivering Covid-safe events, as we have done without spectators since the sport’s resumption in June and at the successful spectator pilot we staged at Warwick Racecourse.”
JCR also operates Haydock, and that venue is one of four which will be able to welcome racegoers on Wednesday – the first date following the current lockdown.
Barring two pilot events in September, tracks have been without a crowd for the last six months – but Ludlow, Lingfield and Kempton will lead the way with Haydock as all tracks are located in Tier 2 areas.
No racecourses are located in Tier 1 areas – while those bound by Tier 3 restrictions, such as Newcastle, Wolverhampton and Leicester, will not be allowed spectators.
Ludlow’s general manager Simon Sherwood is looking forward to the return of a crowd, although he is anticipating no more than 600 spectators on the day as the track “treads cautiously”.
He said: “We’re trying to work out the configuration of the course with a crowd back. It will be great for the atmosphere.
“We’ll tread cautiously, being one of the first back. We’re allowed 2,000, but realistically we’ll be welcoming our members back first and then a small amount of the public. I wouldn’t have thought we’d be pushing close to 2,000 – our capacity wouldn’t allow that anyway, with social distancing.
“For that meeting in December, we’d normally get around 1,500 to 2,000, but I suspect we’ll be having between 500 and 600.
“No one will be allowed to turn up and walk into the racecourse. For the members, we have all their details and have informed them already what the protocol is going to be – they have to ring in advance. Because of our numbers, it is all going to be done through our office – but the actual detail, we haven’t been informed what that is.
“We need to decide if we’ll be selling alcohol. We might take a view that – as you have to serve substantial food to have alcohol – we might not make it available to the public. However, for the owners, because they’ll be having substantial food, alcohol would be available. We might just take a cautious route to start with on that.
“We have a Christmas meeting – so if all goes right next week, hopefully we can expand a little then.
“Financially this is not going to be a record-breaker, but what it will do is bring some much-needed atmosphere back to the course.”
The Racecourse Association has issued a new set of operating protocols for all tracks in to follow, with attendees required to purchase tickets in advance and supply full contact details for all in their party.
Racegoers are also asked to wear a face covering at all times, unless eating or drinking, travel by private transport where possible and ensure social distancing from fellow racegoers outside of their household bubble. A code of conduct, consistent across all major sports, will also be issued for each racecourse.
RCA chief executive David Armstrong added: “The RCA is pleased to see such progress being made with regards to the return of spectators, and we now have a clear date to aim for in December 2. The speed at which the new protocol has been created is testament to the skill and dedication of all who have worked on it.
“The RCA has consistently said throughout the pandemic that bringing back spectators at the earliest, safe opportunity was our priority. We are now in a position to do that, albeit in small numbers to start with, and begin to recover from the damage caused by Covid-19.
“We have all missed racegoers – the atmosphere, the camaraderie and the fact many livelihoods depend on them. I hope that being back on a racecourse goes some way to providing some much-needed respite from what has been an incredibly challenging year.”
British Horseracing Authority chief executive Nick Rust has appealed to racegoers to follow the new protocols in the coming weeks.
He said: “We’re all looking forward to welcoming spectators back to racecourses. Racecourses and the RCA are working hard, alongside the BHA and other industry bodies, to ensure that a visit to the racecourse will be a safe and enjoyable experience for owners, spectators, participants and other essential attendees.
“However, patience is still required before we get back to the sort of numbers we would all like to see, and which will generate substantial financial returns to racecourses.
“The sport has done itself proud in terms of how safety procedures have been observed since resumption. It is of paramount importance that we continue to follow those protocols, even more so now that spectators will be returning.
“Racing must continue to play its part in both lifting people’s spirits and setting an example for others to follow. Therefore we ask spectators and everyone who is attending race meetings in the coming weeks to, please, enjoy the experience, while carefully following Government guidance and racing’s protocols.”