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Racecourses in England set to welcome return of full crowds

Officials at the Racecourse Association and British Horseracing Authority have welcomed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that the limit on numbers attending sporting events is likely to be lifted as part of the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in England on July 19.

Though a final decision will not be made until next Monday, the Prime Minister outlined plans that include the one-metre social distancing rule to be scrapped, as well as the compulsory wearing of face coverings.

The RCA, through its working groups and partnerships within the sport, will now focus its attention to supporting racecourses in preparing for full capacities and seeking similar clarification from devolved governments in Scotland and Wales.

Since May 17 there has been a cap of 4,000 allowed at meetings, except for Royal Ascot where up to 12,000 could attend as part of a Government pilot scheme.

Crowds were back at Royal Ascot this year
Crowds were back at Royal Ascot this year (David Davies/PA)

The news of the lifting of limited numbers will come as a boost to the sport, especially with big meetings such as the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on July 24, five days of Glorious Goodwood from July 27-31 and York’s Ebor meeting from August 18-21 on the horizon.

RCA chief executive David Armstrong said: “It has been 476 days since British racecourses were able to welcome racegoers without restriction. Clearly this has been a difficult time for racecourses on both a commercial level, we estimate the pandemic has cost racecourses £400 million, and human level — we have deeply missed the atmosphere and presence of racegoers.

“The clarity provided by today’s Government announcement is wonderful news for racecourses in England and we will continue to work closely with our industry partners and the devolved governments for an update from Wales and Scotland.

“With some of the sport’s marquee events to come including the Qatar Goodwood Festival, York’s Ebor Festival and the Cazoo St Leger Festival at Doncaster, our attention now turns to helping racecourses prepare for a fantastic summer.

“Certain restrictions may remain in place to protect racing’s participants, but we will work closely with our partners across the sport to remove these as quickly as is possible whilst maintaining their safety.”

Until recently, racing had been held behind closed doors since its resumption in June last year
Until recently, racing had been held behind closed doors since its resumption in June last year (David Davies/PA)

BHA chair Annamarie Phelps also reacted positively, saying: “We are delighted to hear the Prime Minister’s announcement today. Monday July 19 will be a significant day for all sports, and very much so for British racing.

“This news comes as a huge boost to an industry which relies so heavily on its nearly six million racegoing fans each year. A day at the races with the wonderful atmosphere generated by our racegoers is an experience unlike any other.

“Everyone involved in our sport has been looking forward to this news for the last 13 months, and worked tirelessly and with great patience to safely keep the show on the road in this time.”

However, Phelps added: “While racing is perfectly suited to spectators enjoying a sporting experience in a safe environment, it may remain the case that some protocols around the operation of sporting events for participants and officials remain in place in order to protect sports from the potential impact of positive cases and close contact self-isolation requirements, and permit international competitors.

“We are currently working with our industry colleagues to consider how this might apply to racing and how our racedays will therefore operate from July 19 onwards, and we await further clarity from Government.

“We also look forward to spectators being permitted to return to sporting events in Scotland and Wales in greater numbers in due course, and continue to engage proactively with the Devolved Administrations on this issue.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during a media briefing in Downing Street
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during a media briefing in Downing Street (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)

The Prime Minister said that it is a “propitious moment” to ease coronavirus restrictions, suggesting it would be harder to end them in the autumn and winter months.

He told a Downing Street press conference: “If we do find another variant that doesn’t respond to the vaccines, if heaven forbid some really awful new bug should appear, then clearly we will have to take whatever steps we need to do to protect the public.

“But on balance, given the massive success of the vaccine rollout, given the fact that this is a propitious moment, a good moment to do it given the coming summer holidays, the natural firebreak we have there, and given the difficulty of then imagining us opening up in the context of the colder autumn/winter months, I think this is a balanced and cautious approach.”

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)

“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.”

Racecourses chief admits Grand National crowd a ‘long shot’

Spectators may yet be a possibility at the Randox Grand National but are a “long shot”, as racing pushes to be included in the Government’s programme for pilot events on its road map to ease coronavirus restrictions.

Racecourse Association chief executive David Armstrong has confirmed representations will be made to Government and its Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport for at least one meeting to test the return of spectators before the potential resumption of limited crowds on May 17.

In line with the road map of dates for easing measures published by the Government this week, officials at the British Horseracing Authority and RCA are planning for the return of owners on course from March 29.

Racing will also ask Government if courses can be designated as ‘stadia’ – in which case, attendance from May 17 could increase from a limit of 4,000 to 10,000, before the proposed end to all restrictions at step four of the road map on June 21.

Armstrong told Racing TV’s Luck On Sunday: “During April and into early May, a new organisation has been set up called the Events Research Programme – and that’s going to be running a series of pilot or test events.

“That will allow us to potentially take part and host a pilot event on one or more racecourses in that period.”

Those opportunities are expected be very limited for racing, however – with many other sports and entertainment venues also sure to be considered – and Armstrong suspects Grand National day on April 10 may be a little soon.

“I think it’s a possibility, but probably a long shot at this point,” he said of the prospect of a test crowd at Aintree.

“It’s only five weeks or so until we get to the Grand National, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for preparation.

“But we’ll certainly be pushing hard for all our major events to be included in that ERP, and we would include the Grand National in that. It’s just a little bit higher up the ‘hard-to-do’ list.”

Tiger Roll is still on course to bid for a remarkable National hat-trick in April
Tiger Roll is still on course to bid for a remarkable National hat-trick in April (Mike Egerton/PA)

In the week before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the Government’s road map, Chester published a plan of its own to be able to welcome back crowds for the course’s Boodles May Festival.

That meeting, from May 5-7, precedes the date for spectators to return – but could yet be a contender for the pilot programme.

Armstrong added: “That is practical, and I’d hope that events like Chester’s May Festival would be very high on the list of potential pilot events.

“The number of events that racing might get, or sport in total, would be relatively limited.

“I would be hopeful we’d get certainly one event to trial – we might struggle to get more than that.”

Armstrong is delighted to see the Government’s schedule for a gradual return to normality after the latest pandemic lockdown.

It allows racing to make plans of its own and begin to assess the practicalities and possibilities – including the issue of stadium designation, to admit larger crowds.

“Currently, we’re working with DCMS and Government to see if we can ask for racecourses to be considered as stadia in that circumstance,” Armstrong added.

“It’s great to see the road map – and particularly steps three and four, which allow us to properly understand the way in which we’ll be able to bring racing back to normal.

“That’s very exciting.”

Sounding notes of caution too, however, he said: “Each of those dates are ‘not-before dates’.

“They rely on everything moving smoothly, and on certain tests being met by Government – (so) we’ll only find out that we’re definitely moving from one step to another one week before the step actually starts.

Chester could be in the reckoning to host a crowd pilot event
Chester may be in the reckoning to host a crowd pilot event (David Davies/PA)

“So it will be quite short notice. But obviously, we want to plan on the basis that those steps are going to be achieved.”

Chester’s initial plans for a May crowd stipulated an on-site, race-day testing programme – and administrators are already considering how that could work nationally.

“There’s a possibility that mass testing would be included – and we’re working on a variety of potential solutions for mass testing,” he said.

“But of course it is a difficult thing to do, and very difficult if you try to do it on the racecourse on the race day itself.

“We’ll be looking at a number of options of how we might do that, so that we can simplify the process should we be required to do it.”

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.

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.”