At last some movement, writes Tony Stafford. The five-week-long stretch of mockingly-sunny days with unblemished blue skies is about to break in the South of England according to a weather forecast I took scant notice of on Saturday evening. Horse racing is about to start in Germany, on May 4th, and in France a week later.
Hints and allegations, to quote Paul Simon, swirl around the possible resumption in the UK, with mid-May being hinted and Nick Rust reportedly the target of allegations from some senior trainers according to yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. Rust, whose six-year stint as chief executive of the BHA will end at the conclusion of a year’s notice on Dec 31, according to the paper has been urged to step aside immediately by senior trainers including Ralph Beckett and Mark Johnston.
That pair is reputedly among a group that has canvassed Annamarie Phelps, chair of the BHA, to remove Rust amid disquiet about his handling of the sport during the suspension of racing as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. They clearly believe a rapid resumption behind closed doors is vital, with no racing having been staged in the UK since March 17th, a week after the beginning of the highly controversial Cheltenham Festival.
It is likely that any hesitancy by the sport and its figurehead Nick Rust to press for an imminent return is partly based on the lingering embarrassment that some feel because Cheltenham was allowed to proceed. Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, is also the MP for Newmarket and it would be interesting to discover how he voted when the calls by other politicians to cancel the meeting were being discussed in Cabinet.
Hughie Morrison, interviewed by John Hunt on Sky Sports Racing the other night, put a very strong case for an early resumption. He said that a behind-closed-doors race meeting could easily be staged with probably a much lower chance of spreading a contagion like Covid19 than mooching round a supermarket to do the weekly shopping. People might be asked to keep their distance in shops, not that they do, so it’s hard to see how anyone with the virus will contrive to keep it to him or herself in that environment.
Morrison reckons race meetings would be relatively easy to organise: with no racegoers other than trainers, jockeys, officials and the odd owner – one per horse the norm when Ireland were racing behind their closed doors before drawing stumps last month – and in the countryside, risks Hughie says would be minimal.
I like the potential look of a mid-to late-May restart, with the plan for both Guineas at the start of June, Royal Ascot – maybe Prince Andrew can be persuaded to come out of his Royal lockdown and tasked to present all the winners’ prizes – fan-free but in its usual slot, and the Derby and Oaks on one day at Epsom at the end of June or beginning of July. The May resumption would allow Classic trials to be staged in advance of the Guineas races.
One unkind soul, when the likelihood of crowd-free meetings extending some way into the future, suggested there might in that case be more people than is usual at some Newcastle and Southwell all-weather meetings!
But joking apart – this is no joking matter – we need racing to return. I heard second-hand from a friend of a friend, who is also a friend, that one major bookmaking company is suffering very little compared with normal activity, such has been the take-up of on-line games and the like.
There is such a hunger for something to bet on – as I hinted or alleged last week – that many bookmaker and casino-game firms are inundating the breaks between television programmes with advertising material.
Imagine how much more business they will be doing when racing and top-flight football return. As to the latter sport I find it totally mind-numbing the way certain newspaper web sites keep reporting on possible future transfer deals and what their tame football celebrities think on many matters, mostly about how little they deserve to have their salaries reduced.
For all the tragedy of at least 20,000 hospital deaths associated with the virus, while obviously by no means the only cause, and however many more elsewhere especially in care homes, some elements of normal life remain.
One long-term friend, a racing fan who had been struggling in the winter despite having for many years sold motor vehicles while also running a shellfish cabin in deepest Essex, told me the other day things have turned around. The fish bar was never a restaurant, so it didn’t need to close. Meanwhile he’s been furloughed from the car sales job so has been able to run the cabin full-time on the four days it opens from Thursday to Sunday, rather than just the weekend.
Now they are doing deliveries and take-outs and he says business is booming. When I’m allowed out again I’ll go down to Billericay and take up Kevin’s offer of a free surf and turf. It’s too far for their home delivery service to accommodate me in Hackney Wick, 30 odd miles away, so I’ll have to be patient.
There were two million-pound-to-the-winner races at Sha Tin in Hong Kong yesterday morning with mixed fortunes for jockey Zac Purton on the two odds-on favourites. Beauty Generation was foiled by a short-head in the Mile race, but Purton got his revenge aboard Exultant in the QEII Cup. Exultant, the champion middle-distance horse in HK is now a six-year-old; as a three-year-old for Mick Halford when called Irishcorrespondent, the son of Teolifio won his first two races and then finished third to Churchill in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.
The Irish Guineas, and all other Classic races in that country and the UK, will need to be slotted into the European programme and full marks to the French for getting their retaliation in first. One positive side-effect for racecourses is that their ground has had a much better chance to recover from the rigours suffered during the incessant rain and universally-heavy ground early in the year, while the Flat-only tracks will be looking pristine.
A happy consequence of that will be that they will last longer into the year when we resume. For instance, in Yorkshire, Ripon and Thirsk, which normally are looking to close their doors early in September, can be capable of going on much longer. I believe that Flat racing in the UK in 2020 could easily be staged on grass well beyond the normal early November finale at Doncaster. Who’s up for a New Year’s Eve spectacular at Newmarket?