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Racegoers to return to tracks in Wales next week

Spectators in Wales will be able to join those in England and Scotland in attending race meetings from next week after the Welsh government announced the public can return to sporting events on Monday.

Racegoers returned to tracks in England and Scotland on May 17, albeit in reduced numbers, and Chepstow’s meeting on June 11 will mark the first occasion Welsh fans can get back on course.

In both England and Wales, a maximum of 4,000 racegoers are permitted – excluding the pilot event at Royal Ascot which allows 12,000 people – while the limits in Scotland vary from track to track, with Ayr having a cap of 250 and up to 1,400 at Hamilton.

Racegoers watch the action at Haydock Park
Racegoers watch the action at Haydock Park (Tim Goode/PA)
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The next stage of the road map out of Covid-19 restrictions is pencilled in for June 21, although it is not expected to confirm until June 14 if it will go ahead, and what guidelines will apply to sporting events in England.

David Armstrong, chief executive of the Racecourse Association, said: “The government said when it published the road map that it wanted Covid restrictions to be lifted from June 21 at the earliest, but it has also said repeatedly that it wants to proceed with caution.

“Racing is pushing hard for the maximum attendance at race meetings from that point and to remove the current rule that has a lower limit for outdoors sports compared to those that take place in stadia with ticketed seating. Our venues have very significant outdoors space, where transmission rates are lower, allowing spectators to be distributed over large areas.

“We may not find out what the guidelines are until a week before this change comes into effect but will be ready to reconfigure racecourses depending on decisions made by national and local authorities, who license each event.”

Royal Ascot is set to have a crowd of 12,000 on each day of its five-day meeting later this month
Royal Ascot is set to have a crowd of 12,000 on each day of its five-day meeting later this month (Julian Finney/PA)

Julie Harrington, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, added: “I’m very positive about the ability of racing to take place safely as we’ve demonstrated throughout the long period of racing behind closed doors. I have been able to make that point directly to ministers and am delighted that Royal Ascot has been selected as a pilot event.

“We are now awaiting the government’s review of social distancing rules, which need to be relaxed if we are to welcome back more spectators from June 21.

“There is a lot of speculation in the media, but the government has told us no decision has yet been made. We are working closely alongside other elite sports to seek clarity from government at the earliest possible moment. There are a number of major sporting events shortly after June 21, such as the Euros, Wimbledon, the Open Golf and the British Grand Prix.

“We thank all those owners and spectators attending racing at present for their patience in bearing with restrictions and look forward to the day when these can be safely removed.”

Racing continues in Ireland but owners to be excluded once again

Racing in Ireland is to continue but without owners in attendance after the Irish Government rejected expert advice to introduce the highest level of restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) recommended that all 26 counties be elevated to level five restrictions for the next four weeks, which among other things would have meant no organised sport would be allowed.

The Government will instead move the whole country to level three, which is already in place across Dublin and Donegal.

“It’s back to racing behind closed doors so level three, which means it will only be essential workers allowed,” said Horse Racing Ireland chief executive, Brian Kavanagh.

“We’re back to the situation we were in a month ago, but the good news is racing can continue and will continue, which is great.”

The Irish Cabinet met on Monday afternoon to discuss the recommendations after the coalition leaders spoke to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan about proposals for tighter restrictions, which would have seen the country return to lockdown.

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The recommendation from Nphet was made as the country struggles to get to grips with rising infections, with almost 1,000 cases confirmed over the weekend.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said the new restrictions will last for three weeks.

He said that some people are taking a more “lax” attitude.

Mr Martin said there will be an increase in the level of public guidance on compliance over the coming days.

“(The virus) has challenged us to our very core,” he added.

“This is not about public health and businesses competing against each, it’s about protecting and lives and livelihoods.

“If we all act now we will stop the need to go further and I have no doubt we can and will get through this. We will reach a time when we can go through our
lives without worrying if we will catch this virus.

“What happens next rests in our own hands.”

He went on: “We have had detailed discussions since receiving Nphet’s recommendation to move straight to a level five lockdown.

“Central to our discussions has been looking at the wider implications of moving immediately to level five rather than realising the full potential impact
of lower level restrictions.

“It’s important to understand that we are in a very different situation to last March.

“Businesses are beginning to recover and vital public health services are still backlogged, severe restrictions now would have a very damaging impact,
which those services and businesses may not be able to recover from.

“That said, the Government has decided to increase the level of controls in most of the country and to step up efforts to ensure compliance with
guidelines.

“As part of this we have decided at this stage, not to move to a more comprehensive lockdown.

“It’s important to understand that the potential implications of such a move are severe and very different from those we faced earlier this year.

“It could involve the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs with these concentrated in families and communities, which are already experiencing
difficulties.”

Warwick looking forward to staging latest racing crowd pilot

Warwick officials have spoken of the “massive undertaking” in preparation for the crowd pilot at Monday’s meeting.

The jumps track will welcome 500 people as part of a Government-backed trial event. Since racing resumed on June 1 following the coronavirus shutdown in mid-March, only Doncaster has been able to allow racegoers in – but that just lasted one day after the local public health authority pulled the plug due to an increase in Covid-19 cases.

“It’s been an incredible challenge to get this event up and running,” racecourse manager Andre Klein told Racing TV’s Luck On Sunday programme.

“It has been a huge challenge, a massive undertaking. We went into it quite naive not knowing exactly what was going to be required. After 20 odd years of managing racecourses around the world, this is unique and is probably the most fascinating one I’ve ever tried to stage and it’s only for 500 people.”

Klein explained no one will be allowed into the course if they live in an area that is under local restrictions.

“We’ve got 150 of our members coming. Warwick has got more members than that and we’ve had to go back to a significant percentage of those in the last 24 hours and tell them they can’t come as they are domicile to an area that is under a local lockdown,” he said.

“We’ve had to do the same with 124 hospitality guests. Most of those are returning customers so they didn’t necessarily go on public sale for hospitality. We had a bit of warning so they have had to change guest lists.

“There is nothing on sale for the general public. When we went into the process of developing the pilot plan it was always our hope we would get some general public here. But it became increasingly apparent we wouldn’t get a green light of any sorts if we just fought that general admission battle for much longer with public health authorities here.”

A larger-scale pilot is planned for later in the week at the three days of Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire meeting.

Danny Sheehy latest Irish rider to test positive for Covid-19

Danny Sheehy has become the third Irish jockey to test positive for Covid-19.

He had two rides at the Curragh on Sunday and was replaced on My Good Brother, his only booked ride at Tipperary on Monday.

Sheehy’s brother, fellow jockey Mikey, tested positive over the weekend and followed the news on Friday that his housemate Shane Crosse had returned a positive test on Friday ahead of a planed trip to Doncaster.

Crosse had to abort that and as result missed the winning ride on Galileo Chrome in the Pertemps St Leger for Joseph O’Brien.

Horse Racing Ireland said in a statement on Monday: “Following precautionary tests taken over the weekend, jockey Danny Sheehy has returned a positive test for Covid-19. He was asymptomatic prior to the test and is now self-isolating. Contact tracing continues.

“All other tests taken over the weekend, including contact tracing and those at the yard of Joseph O’Brien, returned negative.”

Dr Jennifer Pugh, senior medical officer of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, said: “We are liaising with public health in assisting them with contact tracing and all of their requirements. Public health are satisfied with all approaches we have taken and we will continue to be in regular communication.”

Monday Musings: A Minor Miracle in the Numbers

Most numbers associated with the last two months of life in the UK, first under the imminent threat, and then quickly the awful reality, of the Coronavirus pandemic have been shocking, writes Tony Stafford. More than 28,000 deaths with at least 75% of them in the 75-and-above age group justifying the Government’s initial and apparently over-the-top strictures that it could be several months before those over 70 could be allowed freely to leave home except under highly-limited conditions.

But one statistic which has been little discussed is the most miraculous. The latest detailed data is up to April 22, showing that 119 NHS staff died from the virus. With more than 1.5 million people working throughout the NHS and a further 350,000, taking in temporary staff and also medical workers in the private sector, that means fewer than 1 in 15,000 have died. That said, many more will have been infected in differing degrees of severity and have recovered.

Considering the exposure to patients in hospitals suffering from the virus – Boris Johnson talked of having up to eight nurses and others attending to him during the most severe stages of his stay in ICU – those 119 deaths are truly miraculous. Approaching 200,000 people have been admitted to hospitals suffering from Covid-19. The overall death rate in the total population is closer to 1 in 2,500. In the NHS 60% of those that have died have been age 50 and above.

Numbers have been the key to the Government’s release of details over the last two months with sensitivities in the media and how it would react to the numbers being paramount. You can only draw that conclusion when upon the figure of 20,000 deaths being reached, even though it was inevitable for some time beforehand, it brought the usual BBC and Piers Morgan blame-game hysteria.

Much has been said about the rights and wrongs of allowing Cheltenham to go ahead. For it to have been cancelled, it would have meant a decision at least a week before the March 10 starting date. At that time, the daily briefings were still two weeks off, and the first figure I have found for daily deaths is the 15 on March 15, two days after Cheltenham finished.

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Since the end of March I’ve kept a table of the daily fatalities and until early last week, the highest single number was an admittedly-shocking 980 hospital deaths on April 10. Then last Tuesday, with figures clearly on a downward curve among people dying in hospital, for the first time the increasing proportion of fatalities in care homes and elsewhere was included. Now April 10 is revealed to have had an even higher overall number, 1,152, one of eight days when the total death toll exceeded 1,000.

It’s still horrendous, but when the Government’s reaction to the situation initially instructed people to stay home, no single day had yet brought more than the 43 deaths, on Wednesday March 19, by which time I, and many in my advanced age group, was already locked away. The first three-figure “score” was the 149 on Monday March 24 but by eight days later it was 670 and soon after it reached those eight thousand-plus spikes.

As racing fans we’ve been denied so much normal action where, in my case, reading a book every two days, catching up on television and our once-a-week walk were only partial consolation; although somehow I’m almost a stone lighter! But then an hour on Racing TV yesterday brought home the frustration of our missing the scheduled Guineas meeting over last weekend.

It was great to see the last 30 years of what is probably the most significant race in the selection of stallions. Not all of them won the race, notably Dubawi, only fifth in his year to Footstepsinthesand, and both Kingman and Australia just a few years ago, stumped late on by Night of Thunder despite the winner’s across-the-course wanderings in the last 150 yards.

We saw Sea The Stars denying my 33-1 win only ante-post bet on Delegator and Camelot’s narrow defeat of formerly Ray Tooth-owned French Fifteen in two thrillers, but still pride of place goes to the extraordinary Frankel, off like a scalded cat under Tom Queally and thereafter never closer to his pursuers than his six-length winning margin over Galileo Gold. In 14 unbeaten runs, this highest-rated horse of all time gets my vote over another Guineas hero, Brigadier Gerard from the 1970’s, and Sea Bird II, a brilliant Derby winner from my youth a decade earlier. Can Frankel’s romp really have been nine years ago?

The timely reminder of the pre-eminence of that race comes with racing deriving positive vibes from recent meetings with Government. May 15 is now being suggested as a likely starting point with Lingfield close to London and Newcastle in the north providing the initial hubs for behind-closed-doors sport. Both have hotels, in the case of Lingfield, part of the grandstand, while Newcastle’s well-appointed Gosforth Park Hotel is a walk along the avenue of rhododendrons which always brightens the spring and especially the summer meetings there.

My first visit to Newcastle was in my Press Association days to cover a jumps meeting one May Bank Holiday in the early 1970’s. Arthur Stephenson dominated the card that early evening and I still remember the leisurely stroll down after lunch in the hotel and the surprising discovery that the horses had gone out of sight behind the trees down the far side. I found it difficult to find them again when they came back into view.

Racing has advantages over other sports in that you need not be there to get the impression that you are; in fact sometimes you get only a limited view of the race compared with viewers at home. A commentator’s crescendo as the horses near the line is much more vital than any crowd noise. The big races that have continued in Hong Kong and Australia without the public have given the UK authorities a blueprint of why and how it should be possible, while as I’ve said before, it must help that the Health Secretary’s East Anglian constituency includes Newmarket.

I haven’t been able to check this fact, but one friend yesterday told me that the Minister is also godfather to one of John Gosden and Rachel Hood’s children. If it is true that can’t hurt either.

The ambitious plan for two weekends of Group races in the lead up to the revised proposed Guineas meeting on the first Saturday of June means that if racing does get the go-ahead, it will start with a flourish. The bookmakers will do wonderful business and I can imagine action-starved horse racing enthusiasts jamming the phone lines and internet connections to get on.

Bookmakers do not always get the best of press coverage, but I was gladdened to hear last week that the 2019-20 Levy yield at £97 million is £2 million higher than the top estimated figure. It seems to make the BHA’s “promise” of races at reduced prize money more than niggardly. Apart from the better races, foreign owners laugh at what’s on offer here day to day. As trainers and owners will tell you, the one thing that never reduces are BHA and Weatherbys’ administration costs.

But in these times, I prefer to take a glass half-full attitude rather than the faux-combative criticism of Government. The Nightingale hospitals haven’t really been needed and within the awful figures, at least one miracle – those 119 deaths where thousands were being predicted – exists whatever the point-scoring after-timers think.

- TS

Monday Musings: Different Numbers

Did you miss me? I missed myself. I think that was only the second blank week since I started my musings more than eight years ago, writes Tony Stafford. I relayed my withdrawal symptoms to the boss and he gave me the all clear to resume, but no 4 a.m. Monday for me. The other day, the phone rang and I looked at the clock, it was 8.45 a.m., the latest I’d awakened in decades.

There’s been a slight confusion whether these offerings have been musings or meanderings – the latter term hardly describes my physical movement over the past three housebound weeks.

No racing, football, cricket or anything else. Just three-hour daily afternoon sessions with eons-old reruns on Channel 120 – ITV4, the place we see ITV racing when 103 is tied up – of Minder, The Professionals and The Sweeney from around 1980.

Sometimes, when I was the editor of the Racehorse magazine at that stage of my career – doubling up with my Daily Telegraph job to help pay off Mr Lippman – we’d be out for lunch In Battersea and see them filming The Sweeney. – Sweeney Todd, Flying Squad for those of you without the rudiments of Cockney rhyming slang.

In those days I had a fair knowledge of day-to-day form. Racing was not encumbered with anything like the volume of bookmaker-benefiting dross of today, but I had an opinion on pretty much every race, just as well as I had to make a selection in them all each day for the Telegraph. Even holidays brought no respite from the sausage-machine of racing and betting even if most of it was not televised.

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Now we see it all, except in Covid 19 Great Britain there’s nothing to see. There’s only Hong Kong twice a week or the odd still-soldiering-on action from one or two tracks in the US. I rarely bother with either.

Then suddenly, on Saturday, the 18th consecutive day without horse racing in the UK, we had the Computer Grand National, 40 runners over what passed quite impressively and realistically for the track. The horses’ gaits and strides over the fences, while a generation up from the early betting shop “jumps” computer tracks, still had an artificial look about it. I suppose it would!

What struck me again, and I’d mentioned it after the autumn Aintree meeting, was the totally-unexpected difference to Becher’s Brook. Where the horses used to have to stretch to clear the gaping breadth of the brook while ideally half-turning in midair to take the immediate left turn towards Valentines, they now appear to go straight on. The fence has been rendered pretty innocuous in fact and its computer-model looked even more straight-forward on Saturday. That’s a big loss for purists, but then 30 fences and almost four and a half miles is test enough for most people.

Anything computer-generated needed human input to provide the data for whatever device crunched the numbers to elicit the result, so the outsiders in the market almost by definition, were most unlikely to prevail. Punters, or even in many cases, non-punters, because in normal times plenty of once-a-year bettors break their annual disinterest with racing and have a flutter on that Saturday in April at Aintree, grabbed at the chance of relieving the present torpor.

Trainer Ian Williams had the initiative to set up a sweepstake on the race, offering handsome prizes for the lucky few to secure horses “finishing” in the first four. As I said, the computer was hardly going to reward those of us unlucky enough to land on a rag.

In the old days, I’d invariably had a Grand National fancy on the day of the weights, always tipping and backing it at that stage, and enjoyed plenty of winners over the 30-year spell. Those were the times of office sweeps when unfailingly I’d get one of the outsiders. Yesterday my name came out alongside the 66-1 shot Peregrine Run. I can safely say I’d never previously heard its name and marvelled that his black and red colours were relatively prominent for much of the “race” before wilting away as 66-1 shots were bound to do.

It seemed after the event that Ian reckoned around £4,500 had been earned for charity from that single event. I think he had multiple – possibly four – full fields, so the offers of expensive meals for two in a top Birmingham restaurant, champagne breakfasts for four at his stables quite close to the Second City and other lesser prizes were recycled and put up for auction by at least one of the winners.

On his What’s App feed, Ian even showed pictures of his stable’s real horses gently exercising with the riders all keeping appropriate Social Distancing. For those of us who did take part, it was great to see somebody bringing enjoyment at such a time of fear and unease.

When I first got to know Raymond Tooth, one of the main reasons we met was the input of Derek Hatter who had known Ray in business for many years. Derek dropped out of our little team around six years ago when already just into his 80’s and it was sad to hear that his elder brother Sir Maurice Hatter had died aged 90 last week. Sir Maurice was a great man in charity work with his wife Lady Hatter for many years and the news of his death made me wonder if Derek is fit and well.

So where are we now? After a couple of weeks, I’m reading almost a book a day; am surprisingly rubbish at sudoku; only slowly taking off the surplus pounds from the last year’s excesses – probably solely because there are no more Set 1 breakfasts at the café – and am still in the early stages of a fitness regime.

Meanwhile horses have to be exercised and fed, although most jumpers will have been “roughed off” with the BHA announcing no jumping until July, concentrating on a return to Flat racing before that. The jumps trainers will have had some respite in that at least the weather has become much more Spring-like with the prospect of new young grass on the horizon in place of the bare and flooded fields of winter enabling turning out.

Everyone is raring to get going again, but as Derek Hatter always used to say when discussing anything to do with money or life. “Everything’s the same all the time, it’s just different numbers!”

The key will be those graphs which will hopefully show a slowdown and then downturn in deaths and new Covid 19 cases. At the moment, the total to have died in the UK is fewer than 5,000, which is less than one in 10,000. As one of the leading healthcare experts suggested last week, the UK will be “doing well” if the death toll is restricted to 20,000. That would be around one in 3,000. If you stay healthy and stay safe at home, as I intend to continue to do, we should hopefully all be around when the world gets back to normal. Different numbers.