Officials at Haydock are “pretty hopeful” Saturday’s meeting will go ahead after the course surprisingly passed a Thursday morning inspection.
Prospects of racing at the Merseyside venue appeared bleak on Wednesday, with the ground already described as heavy, waterlogged in places and further rain expected from Storm Christoph.
It was widely expected that a fixture featuring four Grade Two races would be abandoned after clerk of the course Kirkland Tellwright called an inspection for 8am on Thursday morning.
However, despite a further 35 millimetres of rain falling on Wednesday, and many parts of the north-west suffering from flooding, Tellwright reported conditions at Haydock to be raceable.
He said: “It is remarkable – we’re fit to race today.
“I suppose we can take certain quantities of rain – and beyond that, it’s just going down the drain.”
A further precautionary inspection has been called for 8am on Saturday morning because of the threat of frost.
Tellwright added: “We’ve called a precautionary inspection for Saturday morning, just to cover us for the forecast frost.
“We’d be pretty hopeful that shouldn’t be an issue. It (the course) is under frost covers. They won’t work as well as they would on dry ground, but we’ll cross our fingers and expect to race.
“In terms of rain, we’re forecast the odd shower, but nothing in the context of what we’ve had in the previous three days.”
Elsewhere, both Ludlow and Wincanton passed 8am inspections for Thursday’s seven-race cards.
At Ludlow, the ground is heavy, soft in places, on the hurdles course and soft over fences – while at Wincanton it is heavy all round.
Friday’s card at Ffos Las was abandoned following an inspection on Thursday morning, with the ground waterlogged, while racing at Musselburgh the same day is subject to a precautionary 8am check, with freezing temperatures the concern.
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Haydock’s meeting on Saturday will be subject to an inspection on race-day morning after the course passed an initial check on Thursday.
An inspection was called for 8am on Thursday, with the ground already described 24 hours earlier as heavy, waterlogged in places and further rain expected from Storm Christoph.
The track passed that early assessment of conditions, but a second inspection was announced for 8am on Saturday before a fixture featuring four Grade Two races – and the possible return of dual champion hurdler Buveur D’Air – can go ahead.
The remaining threat to the feature card is from a forecast cold snap, according to a Tweet on Haydock’s official account.
It read: “Today’s inspection has passed for Saturday’s Peter Marsh Chase raceday. The track is currently fit to race. Another precautionary inspection is due at 8am on Saturday due to risk of frost.”
Elsewhere, both Ludlow and Wincanton passed 8am inspections for Thursday’s seven-race cards.
At Ludlow, the ground is heavy, soft in places, on the hurdles course and soft over fences – while at Wincanton it is heavy all round.
Friday’s card at Ffos Las was abandoned following an inspection on Thursday morning, with the ground waterlogged.
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The current cold snap is threatening to play further havoc with upcoming fixtures as Ludlow’s card on Tuesday and Ayr on Wednesday both face inspections.
Ludlow will inspect at 9am on Monday with parts of the track currently frozen. While the course was unraceable on Saturday there is some hope for warmer temperatures on Sunday and Monday.
Ayr’s meeting on Saturday was called off at the 11th hour due to a frozen track and due to another extremely cold night their meeting on Wednesday is already in doubt.
Temperatures dropped to -6C on Saturday evening and are not scheduled to get much above freezing for the next couple of days.
An inspection has been called for 7am on Monday but clerk of the course Graeme Anderson tweeted: “With below freezing forecast for next few days there is very little chance of improvement.”
Sunday’s meeting at Fairyhouse did, though, survive a morning inspection.
Looking further ahead, officials at Chepstow are taking precautions ahead of the rescheduled Welsh Grand National meeting on Saturday.
A tweet from the course said: “We are deploying frost covers ahead of next Saturday’s rescheduled Coral Welsh Grand National – temperatures are forecast to drop towards the middle of the week. Regular updates about the going will be posted here.
“It’s currently heavy with a generally dry week ahead.”
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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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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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.”
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.”
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Racecourses are ready to welcome spectators back on track, albeit with limited numbers, on Wednesday.
Hundreds of punters will be allowed through the turnstiles at Haydock, Kempton, Lingfield and Ludlow for the first time since the end of 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 Wednesday, 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 can get racing on the way back to some kind of normality.
Haydock and Kempton come under the Jockey Club Racecourses banner.
They have made the maximum number of tickets available between annual members, owners and general admission.
Nevin Truesdale, group chief executive of the Jockey Club, said: “Aside from our successful pilot race day at Warwick, it’s been more than eight months since we’ve been able to welcome spectators on course – and racing fans have been incredibly patient in that time.
“Since the restricted number of tickets went on sale for our race days in Tier 2 areas of the country, we’ve seen a really positive response, including our general admission allocations selling out for this weekend’s feature race days at Sandown Park and Aintree.
“Last week’s Government announcement that a limited number of spectators will be allowed to return is a great first step on the road to recovery for sport in general.
“But there is no magic switch you flick to ensure your venues are instantly ready, and I’m very proud of all our teams around the country who have been working tirelessly to ensure that racing fans can purchase tickets as smoothly as possible and will then have a safe and enjoyable day out.”
Ludlow are limiting their numbers well below the 2,000 mark at about 650 as they look to find their feet before their Christmas meeting on December 16.
General manager and clerk of the course Simon Sherwood said: “The phones have been very busy. We’ll probably be up to our maximum allocation as far as numbers are concerned.
“Hopefully we’ll be around the 650 mark, plus essential workers.
“It’ll be good to have people back on the race track. We’ve had to change our zones a little bit.
“It will be nice to have the owners back properly – because they have been restricted up until now – and members who, likewise, have been sitting on the sidelines for a long time. They are obviously our most important people.
“We are very much limiting our numbers, because it is a step in a new direction and we’re using it as a stepping stone to hopefully opening up a bit more for our December meeting.”
Lingfield is preparing for a few hundred patrons as it too looks to future meetings over jumps and on the all-weather.
Mark Spincer, Arena Racing Company’s managing director, said: “We’ll get a few hundred people. We’ll probably be a little busier than would be expected for a normal midweek all-weather fixture.
“We’re not doing any hospitality, only for owners – so we haven’t put any corporate on which would normally be a reasonably good corporate day there – but we decided that before Christmas we’re just going to focus on the owners and the general admissions area.
“We’ll learn a lot tomorrow, as we have done all along. We’re ready – we’ve got processes and procedures in place. The site is ready.
“We’ve got a lot of fixtures there in the month of December – that’s another factor.
“The team have worked so hard. They were one of the first sites to come back behind closed doors. Any last minute changes and tweaks that get thrown at us, we’ll be ready to deal with accordingly.”
Trainers have paid tribute to the British Horseracing Authority and other parties who have ensured racing has had a fair crack of the whip.
Nicky Henderson, who has runners at Haydock and Ludlow, said: “I think the first thing to say is how well the BHA have done to get us this far. To be the first to have crowds attend a sporting event is a great achievement, and something we’re all looking forward to.
“It has been slightly soulless, but it has been fantastic that racing kept going at all, even if it has been under weird circumstances.
“Yes, it’s been soulless – we’ve been quite a lot recently, and it’s been good, but a bit lonely. I think there were 42 people at Cheltenham the other week, but they did it really well and everything has gone well. It will just be nice to see a few different faces – you miss seeing people.”
David Pipe, who has just the one runner at Lingfield, said: “It’s fantastic for the sport. The sport has worked very hard with all the different parties for once working together – and look what we’ve done.
“We had to put it towards the Government, but we’ve done a fantastic job. Everyone has worked extremely hard – and everyone should be praised a lot for it.”
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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”.
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.
“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. of “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.”
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.”
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