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Crowd restrictions remain after lockdown relaxation is delayed

Some restrictions will remain in place on racecourses until at least July 19 after the Government announced a four-week delay to the planned relaxation of Covid-19 measures in England.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had intended to lift restrictions on June 21, but that date has been pushed back due to a rise in cases linked to the Delta variant of the virus.

He told a Downing Street press conference that the spread of the Delta variant meant “we have obviously faced a very difficult choice”.

“We can simply keep going with all of Step 4 on June 21, even though there is a real possibility that the virus will outrun the vaccines and that thousands more deaths would ensue which could otherwise have been avoided,” he said.

“Or else we can give the NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs into the arms of those who need them.

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“And since today I cannot say that that we have met all our four tests for proceeding with Step 4 on June 21, I think it is sensible to wait just a little longer.”

Racecourses are currently permitted to have a crowd of 4,000 people, or 50 per cent capacity, whichever number is lower.

This week’s Royal Ascot meeting will have up to 12,000 spectators a day though, as it is part of the Government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), with attendees having undergone lateral flow and PCR testing.

A statement on behalf of the racing industry said “the announcement is a further financial blow to the racing industry, a significant proportion of whose revenues are generated from racegoers’ attendance at race meetings”.

It added that “major events due to take place during the four-week period of delay include the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown Park racecourse and Newmarket’s Moët & Chandon July Festival. This is not a sustainable situation for a £4 billion industry”.

David Armstrong, chief executive of the Racecourse Association (RCA), estimates the delay to removing restrictions will result in a loss of between £15million and £20m for racecourses and intends to continue pressing for tracks to be allowed the same limits as seated sports stadia.

He said: “Naturally we are disappointed to hear of a delay to stage four of the route map to recovery but acknowledge it has been activated due to public health concerns.

“It is important to note that this will have a significant commercial effect on racecourses that had sold many thousands of tickets for events after June 21 – we estimate a loss of between £15m and £20m due to a four-week delay.

“The industry will continue to press hard for racecourses to receive the same 10,000 capacity limits as seated stadia. Whilst this will lessen the hit, it is still far from commercially viable in what is the peak season for welcoming spectators.”

Julie Harrington, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), added: “While it is disappointing that plans for the relaxation of restrictions and the further return of spectators have been delayed, we of course understand the principle that Government’s decisions should be evidence-based and public health must come first.

“Many of our racegoers will be frustrated by this delay, but we are doing all we can to work with national and local authorities to maximise the number of people allowed to attend race-meetings in safety.”

The statement added industry figures will now consider whether “it should seek further support through the Sport Survival Package” in the absence of spectators, while continuing to work with the HBLB on securing £21m in loan funding from the winter survival fund.

Royal Ascot to welcome back daily crowd of 12,000

Royal Ascot is set to host a daily crowd of 12,000 next month.

The racecourse confirmed on Wednesday that this year’s five-day showpiece meeting will be able to welcome back three times more than the attendance which had been anticipated.

Ascot officials were planning to have 4,000 racegoers each day, from June 15-19, under current national policy as coronavirus restrictions ease during step three of the Government’s road map.

However, the meeting has been added – alongside the second cricket Test at Edgbaston in England’s series against New Zealand – to the list of pilot events to take place before the possible lifting of all legally-imposed measures to curtail the pandemic, on June 21.

Among the pilots so far staged, a crowd of more than 20,000 was permitted for this month’s FA Cup Final at Wembley.

A statement from Ascot read: “Ascot Racecourse, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and the Racecourse Association (RCA) announce today that Royal Ascot (June 15-19) has been selected to be part of the Events Research Programme (ERP) on behalf of the sport.

“While the precise detail of what will be trialled and what the requirements from visitors to the racecourse will be remains work in progress, it is confirmed today that 12,000 people will be admitted each day to Royal Ascot.

“As details are confirmed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and following input from Public Health England and Ascot’s Safety Advisory Group, they will become available on: www.ascot.co.uk

“Today’s announcement means that all those who rolled over their 2020 bookings can now be accommodated, and an allocation of Royal Enclosure Badges and Queen Anne (General Admission) tickets will go on sale this Friday, May 28.

Ascot chief executive Guy Henderson said: “We are delighted that Royal Ascot has been accepted to play its part in the next phase of the Government’s Events Research Programme. We much look forward to welcoming 12,000 racegoers each day.

Royal Ascot will take place - with a crowd of 12,000 back this year - from June 15-19
Royal Ascot will take place – with a crowd of 12,000 back this year – from June 15-19 (Julian Finney/PA)

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“Our thanks go to our industry bodies, the British Horseracing Authority and the Racecourse Association, which led the preparation of the submission to Government.”

BHA chief executive Julie Harrington added: “It is excellent news that Ascot will be included in the Events Research Programme as a pilot event.

“It is an opportunity to demonstrate how racing events are perfectly suited to safely hosting spectators in greater numbers as we progress through the Government’s roadmap for the easing of lockdown restrictions.

“We are grateful to DCMS, and this outcome reflects the strong and positive relationship between racing and Government. Working with colleagues, we will ensure that our participants remain protected to the same degree that has been achieved with racing’s bespoke coronavirus protocols since resumption in June 2020.”

RCA chief executive David Armstrong said: “I am so pleased that Royal Ascot has been selected as part of the ERP program.

“The RCA and the Industry Return of Spectators Group have worked closely with the ERP (and its predecessor groups) to develop pilot options across racing which demonstrate the safe nature of the racecourse environment and the strength of our operating protocols.

“The Ascot team have done an outstanding job in configuring the course for this pilot, and racegoers and participants alike can look forward to an exceptional Royal Ascot experience delivered to the highest standards of safety.”

Ascot director of racing and public affairs Nick Smith reiterated the course’s gratitude to those who helped as pilot status was sought – and confirmed the task to contact 2020 ticket-holders is about to begin.

“A lot of credit (must go) to the BHA, the RCA for helping us get this over the line,” he told Sky Sports Racing.

“The Government is obviously very pleased with our submission and see very clearly that an event like Royal Ascot – which is spread over such a huge site, so much of it outside, so much track and parade-ring viewing – suited their programme well.

“At the end of last week, because we were unsure whether we were going to get the go-ahead for this pilot, we’d begun the process of informing our rollover customers – those who had Royal Enclosure badges or Queen Anne, general admission badges – that in all likelihood some of those badges would be balloted out.

“So we set the unfortunate groundwork for that process. Now it’s a process of going back to those people and saying ‘We’re really pleased to be able to tell you we’re 12,000, you’re top of the list, you’ve already got your tickets or your badges, (so) whatever you bought for 2020 is now valid for 2021’.”

Most are expected to take up the offer, and Smith added: “I should imagine those on the rollover will be very keen to come – but of course, if they’re still uncomfortable about coming, they have the opportunity to take a refund or to roll over again until 2022.

“Once we’ve sorted that side of things out, we go on sale on the 28th, this Friday, for both Royal Enclosure and Queen Anne – and we’ll be able to welcome many more people than we thought we may be able to.

“It certainly is (going to be busy couple of weeks). It will be an interesting period – we still haven’t got all the details, for example, of the testing procedures that are going to be required.

“But it’s safe to say that everybody who comes on site – whether they’re a participant, or a visitor, or working on the site – will have to return a lateral flow test, at the bare minimum.”

The arrangement of pilot events, which have so far taken place elsewhere, appears to have gone well.

Smith said: “It really has – which is why the Government has given the green light to these phase two events now, with much larger crowds.

“This will help build the data they need to try to get things back to normal as soon as possible.

“That won’t happen overnight, on June 21 – I’m sure of that. But it’ll be a phased approach to letting more and more people in, and the data from these events is going to be absolutely pivotal.

“So we’re very, very pleased to be able to play our part in that.

“I wouldn’t normally be so bold – but I’d say we’re quite confident that it will be quite popular, and we’ll have nearly 60,000 people on the site during the week.

“It’s going to feel like a normal Royal Ascot, just a bit of a mini one.”

William Haggas and Roger Varian practice social distancing before the Hardwicke Stakes during day four of last year's Royal Ascot
William Haggas and Roger Varian practice social distancing before the Hardwicke Stakes during day four of last year’s Royal Ascot (Edward Whitaker/PA)

Top trainer William Haggas also welcomed the news – and praised those involved in keeping racing going during the pandemic.

The Newmarket handler said: “I think it’s fantastic all round, but I was pretty disappointed you could get 10,000 watching Wolves (in the Premier League) and only 4,000 at Ascot. I think it’s hopefully a sign there is light at the end of the tunnel – it can’t be anything other than fantastic news for racing.

“This time last year none of us had any idea what would happen – would Ascot happen, would it be a month later, we didn’t know. The BHA got that bit right, and we’ve raced as an industry every day bar Christmas – and to do that has been pretty phenomenal.”

Tracks poised for return of racegoers

Monday marks the end of racing behind closed doors as courses are permitted to welcome a limited number of spectators.

The latest milestone in the government’s roadmap out of lockdown allows racecourses to host 4,000 fans or fill the course to 50% capacity – whichever is the lesser number.

There is also a slight easing in restrictions on course, with owners able to access the parade ring to meet trainers and jockeys and masks only compulsory in the paddock and indoor areas.

Carlisle, Redcar, Leicester and Windsor all host fixtures on Monday and will therefore be the first tracks to benefit from the change in policy, with Ffos Las still restricted to racing behind closed doors due to the differing stance between the English and Welsh governments.

The impact of Covid-19 left Carlisle unable to host a single Flat fixture last year, but the Cumbrian track was able to run a behind-closed-doors jumps programme from October onwards.

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Officials at Carlisle are excited to reinstate the Flat action in front of paying spectators.

“We’re delighted to be able to welcome back Flat racing to Carlisle after such a long absence and it’s particularly fitting that it coincides with the first day of spectators being allowed to return to racecourses,” said Molly Dingwall, general manager at Carlisle.

“The pandemic has had a huge impact on sport as a whole and we’ve felt that just as keenly at Carlisle racecourse. It was disappointing not to be able to host our Flat programme last year and that meant some historic races did not take place, but we couldn’t be more excited about Monday.

“Owners, trainers and spectators have been so supportive of the course over the years, not to mention incredibly patient.

“The team here have been absolutely brilliant and have worked incredibly hard to keep the course in great condition. We can’t wait to welcome everyone back for what should be a fantastic summer of Flat racing.”

Redcar will have spectators on course on Monday
Redcar will have spectators on course on Monday (Tony Knapton/PA)

Redcar stages an eight-race card, with the first race fittingly named the Great To Welcome You Back Median Auction Maiden Stakes.

Redcar’s general manager Amy Fair said: “We’re really looking forward to welcoming spectators back after so long, we’ve really missed the atmosphere they bring, but the emphasis has to remain very much on public safety.”

Leicester will also be in action, with a seven-race evening card kicking off at 5.05pm after over a year of racing in front of empty grandstands.

Empty stands at Leicester in March
Empty stands at Leicester in March (Tim Goode/PA)

David Maykels, general manager of the racecourse, said: “We are looking forward to welcoming annual members and the public back after 15 long months.

“Tomorrow evening sees further relaxation also for owners, who can now enter the parade ring and winners enclosure for their race.

“We have hired a large marquee until September to facilitate hospitality clients and owners due to losing our boxes and club room for jockeys and stewards.

“Tomorrow we will be providing the paddock pavilion for owners and trainers, plus in annual members we will be providing some welcome-back bubbly to thank them for their support.

“Let us hope this is the start of a special summer and beyond.”

Gosden keen to welcome owners and spectators back this spring

John Gosden believes owners will be “in as safe an environment as you can possibly have” when they return to the racecourse in the spring.

British racing has confirmed plans to welcome owners and amateur riders back on course from March 29 – with a mid-May return of spectators, in line with the Government’s road map for easing coronavirus restrictions.

The British Horseracing Authority announced its proposed schedule on Friday evening, following this week’s publication of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s four-step route towards the end of lockdown over the coming months.

Winter Derby debrief with Robert Havlin and John Gosden
Winter Derby debrief with Robert Havlin and John Gosden (PA)

The champion trainer – who enjoyed another big-race success at Lingfield on Saturday – attributes the huge open spaces on our racecourses as a watertight reason why the Government should loosen the shackles and allow owners and then crowds into the racing arena.

He said: “We proved all last year that we are in as safe an environment as you could possibly have.

“Through lockdown, we’ve all looked forward to late March and early April when spring happens.

“We must be thankful that we have been able to tick along – but as soon as the Government gives us the green light we have hundreds of acres of huge open spaces on our racecourses, which some people haven’t quite clocked.”

BHA welcomes road map announcement

The British Horseracing Authority has underlined its commitment to getting both owners and racegoers back on course after Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a possible mid-May date for the return of limited crowds to English sports venues.

Aside from a couple of trial events and a handful of fixtures before Christmas, racing has been staged behind closed doors since its return last June following the first national lockdown.

Owners were permitted to return in limited numbers in July and throughout the summer, but the third lockdown imposed on January 4 meant on-course attendance was again limited to essential personnel only.

The Prime Minister laid out his road map for the easing of coronavirus restrictions in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, with a limited return of crowds put into step three of a phased recovery plan, with a date of no earlier than May 17.

Indoor events will be capped at 50 per cent capacity or 1,000, whichever is lower, and for outdoor events this will be 50 per cent capacity or 4,000, whichever is lower, with special provision for large, outdoor, seated venues where crowds can be safely distributed, allowing up to 10,000 people or 25 per cent of total seated capacity, whichever is lower.

Pilots will also run to examine how such events can take place without the need for social distancing, using other mitigations such as testing, the Government said and the BHA has indicated it will seek discussions regarding possible test events.

A statement read: “On behalf of British racing and all those who work in our industry, we very much welcome the government’s announcement today of a road map for the removal of the current Covid restrictions.

“The whole sport has worked hard to abide by our race-day protocols to allow racing to continue behind closed doors and support the many livelihoods that depend on our industry. British racing’s classification as an elite sport made this possible. But we do miss owners and we do miss spectators whose presence at meetings contributes so much to the thrill of our sport.

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“We have already introduced additional measures to reduce the risks of transmission of the virus and have further options under consideration. We will now engage with government to highlight our ability to move beyond the current limitation on essential staff only as soon as that is possible and allow the return of owners.

“Racing continues to benefit from the incredible loyalty shown by owners. We will clarify as soon as possible when they can return to race-meetings, and when amateurs can resume riding.

“The government has also published details today on the potential timings for the return of spectators to elite sport. We have further discussions with officials scheduled which will enable us to draw up specific proposals for race meetings, including potential pilot events.

“We also expect to hear further details of the plans for Scotland and Wales which are not covered by today’s announcement.”

Betting shops are not due to reopen until April 12 at the earliest
Betting shops are not due to reopen until April 12 at the earliest (Liam McBurney/PA)

Non-essential retail will not reopen until April 12 at the earliest, meaning betting shops will remain closed for both the Cheltenham Festival and the Randox Grand National meeting at Aintree – two of the biggest betting events of the year.

The BHA statement added: “Whilst the publication of dates is a very positive sign, the absence of spectators from our big events is continuing to put a strain on racing’s revenues. This has been exacerbated by the closure of betting shops. Our financial discussions with government are ongoing.”

The Government’s plan sets out the lifting of restrictions in four steps. At each one, the success of the vaccine rollout, vaccine efficacy, the presence of variants and infection rates will be measured before deciding whether to take the next step.

The Prime Minister announced there will be a minimum five-week gap between each step – and easing of restrictions will happen on a nationwide, rather than a regional, basis.

Doncaster hosted a crowd pilot last summer
Doncaster hosted a crowd pilot last summer (David Davies/PA)

Pilot events for the return of spectators are expected to begin as part of the Government’s Event Research Programme from April.

These will use “enhanced testing approaches and other measures to run events with larger crowd sizes and reduced social distancing to evaluate the outcomes”.

Findings from pilots across the sport and cultural sectors will be brought together to develop a “consistent approach” to removing capacity limits as part of step four – which would start no earlier than June 21.

That date would fall two days after the end of Royal Ascot, but a limited attendance at Epsom for the Derby meeting, which begins on June 4, could be a possibility along with spectators at Goodwood’s May festival and the Temple Stakes fixture at Haydock on May 22.

Royal Ascot was held without spectators last year
Royal Ascot was held without spectators last year (Julian Finney/PA)

The Racecourse Association were satisfied with the news and is eager for racegoers to be “amongst the first sports fans to safely return”.

A statement read: “The RCA welcomes the announcement made by the Prime Minister outlining the route map out of national lockdown and a timeline for the safe return of spectators to major outdoor events.

“We will continue to work closely with our member racecourses, Government and relevant health and safety authorities to ensure that racegoers are amongst the first sports fans to safely return and enjoy a day’s racing.”

Mid-May return at earliest for racing crowds

Spectators are not expected to return to racecourses until mid-May at the earliest after Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out his road map for the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

While schools are set to return on March 8 and grassroots sport will be reinstated not before March 29, along with larger groups being allowed to gather in parks and gardens, the Prime Minster is planning to allow limited crowds back to sports venues only from May 17 at the earliest.

Indoor events will be capped at 50 per cent capacity or 1,000, whichever is lower, and for outdoor events this will be 50 per cent capacity or 4,000, whichever is lower.

Racing has largely been behind closed doors since last June
Racing has largely been behind closed doors since last June (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The road map includes special provision for large, outdoor, seated venues where crowds can be safely distributed, allowing up to 10,000 people or 25 per cent of total seated capacity, whichever is lower.

Pilots will also run to examine how such events can take place without the need for social distancing, using other mitigations such as testing, the Government said.

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Non-essential retail will not reopen until April 12 at the earliest, meaning betting shops will remain closed for both the Cheltenham Festival and the Randox Grand National meeting at Aintree – two of the biggest betting events of the year.

The plan sets out the lifting of restrictions in four steps. At each one, the success of the vaccine rollout, vaccine efficacy, the presence of variants
and infection rates will be measured before deciding whether to take the next step.

The Prime Minister announced there will be a minimum five-week gap between each step – and easing of restrictions will happen on a nationwide, rather than a regional, basis.

A socially-distanced trial event took place at Doncaster last September
A socially-distanced trial event took place at Doncaster last September (David Davies/PA)

Racing returned behind closed doors last June following the first lockdown.

Racegoers were permitted for trial events at Warwick and Doncaster last September, although the planned four-day pilot on Town Moor was cut to just one day on the instruction of the local authority.

Limited crowds were then permitted under the local tiers system in December, with Cheltenham hosting up to 2,000 spectators at its December meeting and both Sandown and Aintree welcoming racegoers at feature fixtures that month.

However, under current lockdown measures, no racegoers or owners are allowed – with the on-track presence limited to only essential personnel.

Pilot events for the return of spectators are expected to begin as part of the Government’s Event Research Programme from April.

These will use “enhanced testing approaches and other measures to run events with larger crowd sizes and reduced social distancing to evaluate the outcomes”.

Trainers William Haggas  (left) and Roger Varian practice social distancing at Royal Ascot
Trainers William Haggas (left) and Roger Varian practice social distancing at Royal Ascot (Edward Whitaker/PA)

Findings from pilots across the sport and cultural sectors will be brought together to develop a “consistent approach” to removing capacity limits as part of step four – which would start no earlier than June 21.

The Racecourse Association were satisfied with the news and issued a statement which read: “The RCA welcomes the announcement made by the Prime Minister outlining the route map out of national lockdown and a timeline for the safe return of spectators to major outdoor events.

“We will continue to work closely with our member racecourses, Government and relevant health and safety authorities to ensure that racegoers are amongst the first sports fans to safely return and enjoy a day’s racing.”

Racegoers cheer Cheltenham return

Spectators returned to Cheltenham on Friday for the first time since the Festival in March.

Meetings in October and November were run behind closed doors, with only essential personnel and a limited number of owners in attendance, but the change in Government restrictions regarding crowds at sporting events meant up to 2,000 annual members could be on track.

Social distancing was adhered to, with masks worn throughout.

“The signage is very clear and some of the bars are even open,” said Ben Bramley, who made the journey from North Yorkshire.

“All members had to go in a ballot for the two days, but I think I’m right in saying everyone got what they wanted.

Socially distanced bookmakers at Cheltenham
Socially distanced bookmakers at Cheltenham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

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“It’s very well organised, signs for where you can and can’t go, but it was a real whimper that greeted the first race – I was expecting a bit more of a cheer to be honest!”

Neil and Janet Iveson are annual members and were delighted to be back on a racecourse for the first time since attending all four days of the Festival in March.

“We don’t like to miss a meeting at Cheltenham if we can help it, so after the disappointment of being unable to attend in October or November, it’s brilliant to be back,” said Janet Iveson.

“We actually haven’t been racing since Cheltenham Gold Cup day. It’s obviously a very different experience, but it’s better than not being able to go racing at all and we’re just thankful to be here.

“It was exciting watching the first race as we actually ended up standing close to the winning owners, who were very excited.

Racegoers at Cheltenham
Racegoers at Cheltenham (PA)

“We definitely feel very safe. Everyone is wearing a mask and you’re not stood that close to anybody else as there is so much room.”

David Pipe won the opening race with Make Me A Believer and said: “He got a great reception and it was lovely to hear it again.

“This is the first time I’ve been back at the races when there has been a crowd. It is great to have them back. Walking back into that winner’s enclosure, there was still an atmosphere.”

Ian Renton, Cheltenham and South West regional director of The Jockey Club, said: “We are close to the 2,000 limit.

“We’ve managed to accommodate virtually all our annual members, those that are eligible to come. Those that are in Tier 3, unfortunately we have had to exclude them. There is no public here, it is just members.

“It is a very small crowd, but it is lovely to see such happy people racing here for the first time since March. We had a fantastic finish to the first race. The atmosphere is surprisingly good for a small crowd.

“In October we had a good complement of owners here, November seemed a very strange meeting where we were limited to 45 owners each day.

“Normally you would look back at the stands and think ‘isn’t this sad to see it so sparse’, but for us it is fantastic to look back at the stands and think we have socially-distanced people doing exactly what they should be doing and wearing their masks.”

Aintree and Sandown delighted to welcome Saturday crowds

Aintree and Sandown were among the tracks to welcome back crowds on the first Saturday since the easing of coronavirus restrictions.

The end of the second national lockdown on Wednesday allowed sports in Tier 1 and 2 areas to have limited spectator attendance once again under the Government’s latest guidance, with up to 2,000 permitted in Tier 2 areas.

Both Aintree and Sandown come under the latter category – and officials at both courses spoke of their delight at another step towards normality.

One of the main fixture casualties of the original coronavirus shutdown was the Grand National at Aintree, meaning the paying public had not attended the Merseyside venue since the Becher Chase meeting a year ago.

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Sulekha Varma, who became Aintree’s first female clerk of course ahead of this fixture last season, said: “To have spectators on course, I think everyone can feel it’s just lifted things.

“We’ve got plenty of owners in attendance as well, which is really good news, and really good quality racing.

Racegoers study the form at Aintree
Racegoers study the form at Aintree (Tim Goode/PA)

“Our limit is 2,000 people – that’s the limit the Government has placed on us. We’re certainly getting close to that, if not quite at it.

“The beauty of Aintree is it’s such a massive space that 2,000 people can keep their distance from each other very safely.

“It’s a step in the right direction – that’s the best way to put it. It’s the first step in what will be an ever-faster moving journey for us, and let’s hope this time next year we won’t even be thinking about it any more – that would be nice.

“It would be wonderful if we were getting close to that (normality) by the time the National meeting comes around, who knows?”

The card at Sandown was also the first meeting to host Grade One contests – including the Tingle Creek Chase – since the return of crowds.

Clerk of the course Andrew Cooper said: “It’s great to have a crowd of sorts back here. Hopefully it is the first step towards bigger crowds being allowed back in as soon as it is safe to do so.

“You can sense the difference in the atmosphere compared to the behind closed doors meetings. There are PA announcements, the buzz of the crowd, a roar as they approach the last and a big round of applause as the winner comes back in after the race.

“It’s all progress. It’s not quite where we want to be and we are not back to the old normal, but it is a big improvement on how we have been racing since June.”

Crowds ‘impeccable’ on return as spotlight moves on to Sandown

Racecourse officials are eagerly awaiting this weekend’s big-race action after being delighted with the response of Wednesday’s crowds – the first to be allowed back on track following the coronavirus lockdown.

Four courses were permitted to welcome up to a maximum of 2000 people under Tier 2 of the latest Covid-19 Government restrictions, following six months of racing behind closed doors.

Two of the those which staged the first return of crowds, Haydock and Kempton, come under the Jockey Club Racecourses banner.

Dickon White, north-west director for JCR, said: “It’s a great privilege to have hosted racing yesterday.

“I’m a massive racing fan, so it means a great deal to see people back at Haydock Park. It was a really important day, not just for us and the Jockey Club, but also the racing industry.

“This is the first stage back to normality, and you could sense the atmosphere around the course. The feedback was exceptional, and everyone behaved impeccably.”

Phil White, who is responsible for Kempton and Sandown as JCR’s London director, said: “It was really great to see spectators back at Kempton last night, and those I spoke to commented on how much they enjoyed the evening.

“It was great to trial the racegoer experience before other forthcoming fixtures to help make sure we continue to provide safe and enjoyable days out for racing fans.”

Altior is due to delight the Sandown crowd on Saturday
Altior is due to delight the Sandown crowd again on Saturday (Julian Herbert/PA)

The immediate focus for White is the two-day Betfair Tingle Creek Chase meeting at Sandown – starting on Friday, and for which Saturday tickets, and the chance to see dual Champion Chaser Altior in action in the feature race, sold out within minutes at the start of the week.

“Looking ahead to Sandown Park and the Betfair Tingle Creek Festival this weekend, it’s been fantastic to see such demand for tickets – and all the allocated general admission tickets are now sold across both days,” he said.

“We are all very much looking forward to welcoming spectators back on Friday and Saturday for two days of top class racing.”

Ludlow racegoers cheer return from lockdown

Sounds of cheers echoed from the stands once again as spectators returned to Ludlow on Wednesday after six months of racing behind closed doors.

Aside from two pilot events, staged on the opening day of the St Leger meeting at Doncaster in September and a jumps fixture at Warwick later that month, only a limited number of essential personnel have been allowed on track since the sport’s resumption on June 1 following the Covid-19 lockdown.

With Ludlow placed in Tier 2 under the Government’s restrictions, allowing outdoor sporting venues to host 2,000 spectators or 50 per cent capacity – whichever is lowest – a crowd of around 600 was able to enjoy the seven-race card.

There was no roof-raising roar as Falberto claimed the opening Shropshire Mind Novices’ Claiming Hurdle, but the sight and sounds of hoofprints hitting the turf was music to the ears of racegoer Rhiannon Linington-Payne – who was attending her first meeting since New Year’s Day.

She said: “I felt very safe, which is obviously the most important thing. As just a general fan of the sport, it is just nice to be back.

“I don’t come to the races to get drunk or lose my money; I come because I appreciate the sport, and I’m sure I speak for a lot of people here who are glad to be back watching the horses again.

“I didn’t back the favourite in the first, so didn’t get that first winner, but it is just nice to be back on track – you can’t beat the atmosphere of being on a racecourse really.

“We normally go to the Cheltenham Festival. But we didn’t this year because we didn’t feel safe, but it is nice to be enjoying what we love safely.”

Tickets for the fixture were always going to be in high demand, and the 29-year-old was quick off the mark to secure hers.

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She added: “I rang my dad up on the day they made the announcement to say ‘book us in, we are going, and I’ll take the day off work’.

“It’s really nice to be back on track, and I’m sure it gives people a much-needed lift with the year everyone has had. It has been a long old slog, but hopefully it will give everyone a bit of a boost before Christmas.”

There were queues at the entrance at Ludlow
There were queues at the entrance at Ludlow (David Davies/PA)

Despite encountering a few teething problems getting in, and being restricted to limited amenities once inside, track regular Don Ward also enjoyed the experience of being back in the stands.

He said: “It’s very good to be back. It was a bit slow to get in, but apart from that it has been magnificent to be back. I’m 79 and I’ve been coming here all my life.

“I’ve missed the people – and being part of the crowd with everybody here is so friendly, because you get the same people at every meeting.”

Members of the Owners Group 034 ensured their share of atmospheric noise as the Paul Nicholls-trained Miranda landed the feature Shropshire Mind Mares’ Handicap Hurdle for them.

Syndicate spokesman Ryan Bliss said: “We have been lucky enough to have two or four owners on track for a while, but to be able to have good few owners here means so much to us.

“The more people we can get going racing, the better. We have been exceptionally lucky during lockdown that we have been able to have some owners go racing, but for more people to be able to see their horses is tremendous – and the atmosphere is so much better.”

Leading rider Harry Skelton has partnered plenty of winners at the Shropshire track – and although out of luck on his sole ride, he was delighted to see a crowd back in the stands.

He said: “It’s brilliant to have the crowds back – they are great supporters of the game, and it is very important to have them on course.

“We were told in the autumn it was more likely to be six months before crowds returned – and when we were told that, none of us expected to see them back so early, so this is a step in the right direction.

“When you go out there to ride, you are in your own little bubble really. On a day-to-day basis you might not notice it as much. But on the smaller tracks, where some of the areas aren’t as big – like here – you definitely feel the atmosphere.”

Bookmakers in action as crowds returned at Ludlow
Bookmakers in action as crowds returned at Ludlow (David Davies/PA)

Gold Cup and Grand National-winning trainer Kim Bailey has attended every meeting at the course since the resumption of racing, and he echoed the thoughts of Skelton.

He said: “It’s very important we have these spectators back, and the more it keeps going forward, the better, because it has been soulless without them.

“It is a very positive move, but I think the whole thing has been completely bizarre.

“I’ve been here every single meeting and I’ve not seen any people on those stands, so it makes a big difference.

“The other thing is confidence – people will get confidence to go racing and travel the countryside to start going again. It is just good news all round.”

As one of the first four tracks alongside Haydock, Lingfield and Kempton to welcome back crowds, there was no margin for error for clerk of the course Simon Sherwood – who hailed the event a success, despite the challenging circumstances.

He said: “We always said it was going to be a learning curve, because the protocols are that much more challenging from what it was before. We will improve after this meeting if we are allowed to do the same thing through December and expand.

“It is great to have members back and some atmosphere back, and that is the most crucial thing we have been lacking since racing started up again. This is just hopefully a tiny step in the right direction.

“I think people are just happy to have the day out. There has been the odd grumble with people in the queues to get in, and we can speed that up next time, but on the whole people are just happy to have a day out.

“I think on the whole the feedback has been pretty positive.”

Armstrong greets ‘baby step’ as crowds return

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.

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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.”

Falberto is Ludlow’s first crowd-pleaser

Falberto won Ludlow’s first race in front of a crowd since February – continuing the fine form of the Sam Thomas yard.

While the result of the Shropshire Mind Novices’ Claiming Hurdle might normally have had limited significance away from those most directly involved, it was of wider note – because it was witnessed by around 600 people, as the paying public returned to the course on Wednesday.

Since racing resumed on June 1, bar two pilot events at Doncaster and Warwick, all meetings have been held behind closed doors – with only essential workers allowed.

Following the introduction of the Tier system by the Government, those tracks in Tiers 1 and 2 can welcome a restricted crowd.

All four meetings on Wednesday fell in Tier 2, meaning an attendance of up to 2,000 was allowed – although Ludlow restricted theirs to around 600, with the aim to allow more for their Christmas card later this month.

Falberto was ridden by Jordan Nailor – and after six months of racing at empty courses, the jockey was pleased to see a few more faces.

“It’s good to have the crowds back,” said Nailor.

“It feels a bit weird to be seeing everyone here that is not normally here – but it is good to have them back.

“You don’t take much notice of the crowd when you are riding, but it is good to see when you pull up that they all there.”

Great demand for Tingle Creek Chase day tickets

Jockey Club Racecourses report a “fantastic” response after tickets for next week’s Betfair Tingle Creek Chase day went on sale.

Spectators are set to return to racecourses on Wednesday for the first time since March – barring two pilot events at Doncaster and Warwick in September – after the Government announced limited crowds would be permitted under the post-lockdown restrictions.

Outdoor venues in Tier 1 and 2 areas are allowed to admit spectators 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. No crowds are permitted in Tier 3 areas.

Ludlow, Lingfield, Haydock and Kempton all fall under Tier 2 restrictions and get the ball rolling on Wednesday, with the JCR-run Sandown also in the same level of measures.

Next Saturday’s card is set to feature the return of Altior in the Grade One feature and Phil White, Jockey Club Racecourses London director, is delighted with the reaction of potential racegoers, with general admission tickets having sold out.

He said: “The response to us going on sale for Betfair Tingle Creek Day has been fantastic.

“Racing fans have been incredibly patient these last few months and we’re looking forward to having them with us next weekend.”

The Racecourse Association has set out operating protocols for all tracks 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, ensure social distancing from fellow racegoers outside of their household bubble and abide by a code of conduct.

Crowds back in time for Aintree and Cheltenham’s big December meetings

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.

Aintree's Becher Chase meeting can have a limited crowd
Aintree’s Becher Chase meeting can have a limited crowd (Martin Rickett/PA)

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.

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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”.

Ludlow will be one of four tracks able to have spectators on Wednesday
Ludlow will be one of four tracks able to have spectators on Wednesday (David Davies/PA)

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.”

A crowd pilot was held at Doncaster in September
A crowd pilot was held at Doncaster in September (David Davies/PA)

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.”

BHA chief executive Nick Rust
BHA chief executive Nick Rust (Victoria Jones/PA)

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.”

Crowds could return on Wednesday under post-lockdown tier system

Spectators could be back on track at Ludlow, Lingfield, Haydock and Kempton on Wednesday – because all four tracks are in Tier 2 areas under the Government’s post-lockdown restrictions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday that outdoor venues in Tier 1 and 2 areas would be allowed to admit spectators on a limited basis after the end of the national lockdown 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.

With Shropshire, Surrey, Merseyside and London all falling under Tier 2 restrictions, as published by the Government on Thursday, all four tracks could welcome racegoers next week – although courses in Tier 3 areas, such as Newcastle, Wolverhampton and Leicester, will not be allowed spectators.

Racing has been staged behind closed doors since its return on June 1, barring two crowd pilots at Doncaster and Warwick in September.

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”.

Racing has been held behind closed doors since June 1, barring two crowd pilots
Racing has been held behind closed doors since June 1, barring two crowd pilots (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

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.

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“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.

“The fact the other meetings are in Tier 2 does take a bit of the pressure off, otherwise all eyes would have been on us. It will be interesting to see how people engage as I’m sure there will be a bit of nervousness to start with.
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“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.”

An example of the Covid-19 protocols in place at Lingfield
An example of the Covid-19 protocols in place at Lingfield (David Davies/PA)

Lingfield, which is run by Arena Racing Company, is staging an all-weather Flat card on Wednesday.

“It’s been a long time since March, so we’re delighted to hopefully be welcoming crowds back from Wednesday,” clerk of the course George Hill told Sky Sports Racing.

“We’re, I think, one of the first racecourses back on December 2 – so we’re looking forward to it.

“At racecourses throughout the country, it’s been shown how much of an impact (is made by) not having crowds or any catering or hospitality on offer for racegoers. To have no racegoers coming through your gates for six months plus, obviously is going to be a massive financial hit.

“So I think getting back to some crowds back is a massive step in the right direction, to start with.

“Then hopefully, 2021 – as we head towards the summer, with good news on vaccines coming out – we will eventually get back to normal.

“It’s quite a complicated set-up which, obviously until the last couple of days, it’s (been) difficult to plan too far ahead when you’re racing every second day at the moment here – we’re pretty busy,” he said.

“But it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I think even if you’re getting a couple of hundred through the gate, to show you can put on racing safely and it is a safe spectator sport is definitely a step in the right direction.

“Everyone has worked really hard to make sure it is as safe as possible and that we adhere to all the rules and regulations that are put in place – to make sure we can continue safely.

“Racing as a whole has proved itself over the last six months, especially since getting going again in June behind closed doors.

“The news of next Wednesday, starting again for some courses to get back with some sort of crowds, is definitely good.

“I think we’ll be able to do so safely.”