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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.”

Boris Johnson gives go-ahead for return of limited crowds

Spectators are set to return to sports venues – including racecourses – next week as coronavirus restrictions are eased in areas with lower infection rates.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that outdoor and indoor 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, but did not confirm what the capacity limits or percentages would be.

It has been reported that 4,000 spectators or 50 per cent capacity limits – whichever is lowest – would be in place in tier 1, dropping to 2,000 or 50 per cent for indoor venues.

In tier 2, it has been reported it would be 2,000 outdoors and 1,000 indoors, or 50 per cent capacity.

Racing has taken place behind closed doors since its resumption in June, with the exception of two small pilot events at Warwick and Doncaster.

Johnson also said outdoor grassroots sports and indoor sports facilities like gyms would be able to reopen.

A limited crowd attended the first day of the St Leger meeting at Doncaster
A limited crowd attended the first day of the St Leger meeting at Doncaster (David Davies/PA)

Johnson said in a statement to the House of Commons: “Spectator sports and business events will be free to resume inside and outside with capacity limits and social distancing, providing more consistency with indoor performances in theatres and concert halls.”

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Spectators had been due to be allowed to return to stadiums from October 1 but the Government pressed pause on that decision due to a rise in infections nationwide.

Last Thursday the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a £300million ‘Winter Survival Package’ of loans and grants to sports which are facing financial losses as a result of the absence of fans from stadiums, with up to £40m available to racing.

A joint-statement issued on behalf of the British Horseracing Authority, Racecourse Association and The Horsemen’s Group welcomed the latest developments, adding: “The change to restrictions announced by the Prime Minister will now be considered by racecourses and the BHA’s medical team.

“Further engagement will also be required with local public health officials. We thank ministers and officials at DCMS for their support which was crucial to today’s announcement, and all those involved across government and in Parliament.

“The details of the government’s new approach to tiering are not due to be announced until later in the week. Until this has been published and individual racecourses are made aware of the restrictions in their area, it will not be possible to confirm which venues will be admitting spectators.

“We continue to encourage the UK government to allow betting shops to reopen in all areas as part of the change to restrictions.”

BHA chief executive Nick Rust: This is more good news for racing
BHA chief executive Nick Rust: This is more good news for racing (Victoria Jones/PA)

BHA chief executive Nick Rust said: “This is more good news for racing and for our many millions of fans who have been unable to watch in person the sport they love since March.

“We know the numbers are limited to begin with and not all venues will be allowed to admit spectators, but this is progress. I am confident that all our racegoers will follow the government’s public health guidelines when they return to racing and this will allow us to increase the numbers attending.

“We have always said that racing will act responsibly and we all look forward to getting back on the track.”

RCA chief executive David Armstrong said: “Following on from last week’s announcement of financial support, this is a very welcome development for racecourses across England. Even with limited numbers, racecourses can start to reopen facilities for racegoers, hospitality guests and owners.

“Work continues to prepare for larger-scale pilots across the sports sector and racing will continue to play a key role in this vital recovery phase.”

Charlie Liverton, chief executive of the Racehorse Owners Association, said on behalf of The Horsemen’s Group: “This is welcome news and a further step forward for racing after a challenging period for the sport.

“I am grateful to all those across the industry and government who have worked hard to get us to this position and look forward to constructive conversations on owner attendance at racecourses. Owners and other participants have played a vital role in ensuring racing could continue behind closed doors and under tight restrictions.

“Their support continues to be valued enormously and I very much hope all owners will be able to be back on course soon.”

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said last week there was “definitely a chance” of some venues being able to reopen on a limited basis by Christmas in the areas with the lowest infection rates.

He later confirmed the detail around spectators returning in a tweet that said: “Sports fans back in stadia from 2nd Dec 4K or 50% of capacity in Tier 1, 2K or 50% of capacity in Tier 2.

“A big step forward for fans as we work towards fuller capacities.

“Thanks to pilot hosts & fans for showing this can be done safely.”

Boris Johnson says Government working to get sporting crowds back ‘as soon as possible’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says his Government is working to get crowds back into venues “as soon as possible”.

Reports emerged on Tuesday evening the Government was exploring the possibility of spectators being allowed into venues by Christmas in areas with the lowest coronavirus infection rates.

He was reported to have privately told MPs that reopening sports grounds was a “personal priority”, but did not give any specifics on the issue when the matter was raised during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

“I understand the frustration over fans and we hope to get crowds back in the ground as soon as possible,” he said in answer to a question from Karl McCartney, the Conservative MP for Lincoln.

Barring two successful trial events at Doncaster and Warwick in September, racing has been staged behind closed doors since the sport resumed on June 1 following the first Covid-19 lockdown.

An initial test event at Goodwood at the beginning of August was called off at the 11th hour, while Doncaster’s trial was cut from a planned four days to one after the local authority intervened due to fears over rising infection rates.

Newmarket also had its plans to welcome a limited number of spectators to the Cambridgeshire meeting called off in September.

The British Horseracing Authority said it is awaiting “further clarity” from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the issue of crowds.

A BHA spokesperson said: “We remain in ongoing liaison with DCMS regarding the return of spectators to sporting events, both through direct routes and racing’s seat on the ‘major sports’ group which supports the work of the Sports Technology and Innovation Group.

“We are currently awaiting further clarity from DCMS on the situation, though we are of course aware that this will be a cross-Governmental decision.”

Jockey Club Racecourses ‘revise up’ £75 million lost revenue

Jockey Club Racecourses expect revenue losses to exceed initial estimates of £75 million, following the announcement that crowds will be absent from sporting venues for the near future.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a number of new restrictions on Tuesday, because of rising Covid-19 infection rates, and called a halt to the pilot events for returning spectators to elite sport.

He warned the new constraints could be in place for up to six months, raising the prospect of the Cheltenham Festival having to be run behind closed doors in March.

Cheltenham is one of 15 tracks run by JCR, and group chief executive Nevin Truesdale is seeking further discussion with Government as to how long restrictions may be in place and what support could be offered in the meantime.

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He said: “Organisations in the sport and events sector are facing significant financial challenges after six months with no spectators or visitors to their venues.

“Previously we had estimated that revenues at Jockey Club Racecourses would be down this year by around £75 million out of an annual turnover that is normally circa £200 million, but that figure is being revised upwards on the basis we won’t have any level of spectators back from October 1.

“We need to discuss more details of this with Government – both in terms of the potential period we are looking at and the direct support for the industry that is now needed – but also making the case that restaurants and hospitality sales for example should be treated in the same way as the high street would make a real difference.

“In the meantime we will continue to race behind closed doors, as the teams have done a great job doing safely since racing resumed on June 1.”

Ascot has almost completed its Flat season entirely behind closed doors, with only three race days left in 2020.

The track staged the Royal meeting without spectators in June – and its other headline fixture and seasonal finale, British Champions Day, will also have to go ahead without racegoers on October 17.

Ascot’s director of racing and communications Nick Smith said: “Unfortunately we will not be able to welcome crowds on race days at this time in line with Government policy.

“In the short term, we will be refunding or offering rollovers to all who have booked for our October race days, including QIPCO British Champions Day.

“Champions Day entries were very strong, and the ante-post markets reflect that a high-class renewal is on the cards, so we are focussing on that.

“International interest is high – and like Royal Ascot, there will be Worldpool betting through the Hong Kong Jockey Club.”

Rust warns of ‘dreadful impact’ if crowds have to stay away

British Horseracing Authority chief executive Nick Rust has spelled out that there will be a “dreadful impact” on his sport if crowds are not permitted for the next six months.

Rust, speaking after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that plans for spectators to return to sports events from October 1 are on hold because of rising rates of coronavirus infections, confirmed he and his counterparts from other sports have subsequently discussed the situation with Government.

Following that meeting with Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Rust projected that racing will lose owners if the current situation persists – as Prime Minister Johnson suggested it may well, through the coming winter months.

In an interview on Sky Sports Racing, however, Rust also emphasised that he and his colleagues will continue to make robust representations about the success of two crowd pilot events held at Doncaster and Warwick this month.

He hopes too that a “strong relationship with Government” can still serve racing well in an hour of dire need – with ominous financial crises predicted by many.

Asked if racing could continue for six months without paying customers, or racecourses might be forced out of business, he said: “I don’t know about that, but it will obviously have a dreadful impact – which is why so much time and money has been invested in the pilots.

“We put ourselves at the front of the queue for that, because of the disciplined way racing returned behind closed doors after the lockdown.”

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Further crowd trials were due to take place at Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire meeting this week, but it has been confirmed – to no one’s surprise, in the circumstances – that those plans have been scrapped.

Rust added: “It’s really frustrating to see the pilots cancelled, but we have got a recovery plan which has nine strands to it.

“We’ve been getting on with that and will do all that we can to help ourselves along the way, but we will need Government support to get through this.”

The lack of turnstiles cashflow, he predicts, will bite as hard as anywhere at the top level of British racing.

“You can’t run a Cheltenham Festival without a crowd and sustain the levels of prize-money that are in place there for the future,” he said.

“You can sustain the day-to-day prize-money at smaller meetings, where media rights income is the main source of income, but there is no doubt that as things stand it’s going to have a dreadful impact on us.

“Government is aware of that, and the silver lining is that it’s pretty clear that (Chancellor of the Exchequer) Rishi Sunak, who is the constituency MP for Middleham, is working with Oliver Dowden, specifically under the Prime Minister’s instructions, to deliver support for sport.

“We will be going for meetings with their officials over the next few days to outline what we need and how we can access it as soon as possible.

“We’re in these meetings every day. We have a strong relationship with Government – that’s what we’re on every day and can be held to account for it.”

Rust acknowledges and shares the concerns of all in racing, nonetheless.

“I can understand that today people in racing will be feeling frustrated – I know I’m certainly very frustrated,” he said.

“There is no doubt that we are going to lose some owners. We are trying to do all we can to retain them.

“The sport has been so vigilant – we’ve run 390 race meetings now since June 1, and there is no evidence of transmission of the virus on the racecourse.

“I think we ran two very successful days at Doncaster and Warwick. It’s our job to to continue to try and ensure that we convince Government to support these events.”

The alternative is a huge financial shortfall.

Rust added: “The impact on our sport over the next few months – we’ve already said the impact on our sport this year of having no crowds in place could be up to £300million.

“Obviously, that pain is going to continue. I reiterated that to the Secretary of State again today.

“With regards to getting us back to crowds, we believe the pilots that have been done still need to be evaluated and we need to get the evidence out there that shows that people are safer in that environment than they are in a number of other environments that are currently being permitted.”