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Champion and Rust receive New Year Honours

Grand National-winning jockey Bob Champion has been made a CBE for his charitable services to prostate and testicular cancer research.

There is also recognition in the New Year Honours list for Nick Rust, the outgoing chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority – who has received an OBE for services to the sport.

The Bob Champion Cancer Trust has raised £15million since it was founded in 1983, two years after the jockey made a remarkable recovery from cancer to win the world’s greatest steeplechase on Aldaniti at Aintree.

Bob Champion and Aldaniti return after their famous Grand National triumph in 1981
Bob Champion and Aldaniti return after their famous Grand National triumph in 1981 (PA)

The trust raises funds for the Bob Champion Cancer Research Laboratory – part of the largest male-dedicated research facility in Europe, situated at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton – as well as for the Bob Champion Research and Education Building at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Champion admits he was totally taken aback when he was told he was to receive the honour.

“I’m absolutely chuffed to death. It was a big surprise to me,” he said.

“I got an MBE quite a long time ago, when I won the National, but this is for my cancer trust.

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“It’s for everybody that works and has been involved in it and for the people that have supported it through the years.

Bob Champion in his Aldaniti colours before the John Smith’s Aintree Legends Charity Race on Grand National Day at Aintree in 2011
Bob Champion in his Aldaniti colours before the John Smith’s Aintree Legends Charity Race on Grand National Day at Aintree in 2011 (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

“They have done so much for me, racing especially, and we’ve got the two research laboratories up and running – and they are doing a great job. We’ve got to keep raising the money to run them. Science costs money.

“We’re very fortunate we’ve got some top people working in there – and they are coming up with results, which is the main thing.”

For all charities, 2020 has been a tough year to raise money because of the many constraints of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been a struggle this year – every charity is finding it difficult,” added Champion.

“Hopefully, this time next year things could be back to normal.”

Champion recalled how the cancer trust came to be set up, soon after his and Aldaniti’s famous victory.

“When I won the National quite a lot of people backed me and they sent their winnings to the Royal Marsden Hospital, care of me,” he said.

“Nick Embiricos, Aldaniti’s owner, and Professor Peckham, my specialist, thought it would be a good idea to set something up.

“Then quite a lot more money came in, so we thought we’d better start being professional. We went from there, and we’ve raised a lot of money.

“That money is going the right way. That is the main thing – with the two laboratories we’ve built and run coming up with the goods.

“Hopefully we’re going to keep helping a lot of people.

“We’ve raised money in different methods and ways, and that’s down to the people in this country. They are amazing, and it’s not just the racing side.”

BHA Chief Executive Nick Rust has been awarded an OBE
BHA Chief Executive Nick Rust has been awarded an OBE (Victoria Jones/PA)

Rust, meanwhile, steps down as head of the BHA after nearly six years leading racing’s governing body and regulator.

During his tenure, he has dealt with a range of issues – including significant change in the Levy, a review of the buying and selling of horses, improvements to horse welfare, the challenge of increasing diversity and inclusion and, this year of course, a pathway through the coronavirus pandemic which halted racing’s calendar for two months in spring and early summer.

Monday discussions set to decide owner attendance in lockdown

Meetings will take place on Monday to determine whether owners can still attend British racecourses when the new national lockdown kicks in.

Nick Rust, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, is relieved that racing can continue through the tighter restrictions imposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – which are set to last for four weeks from Thursday – but the participation of owners is once more up in the air.

Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck On Sunday, Rust said: “The Government has shown plenty of faith in us, and we can show what an important role racing plays in national life over the next month.

“There will be meetings tomorrow to work everything through, because there are arrangements which are different in Scotland and Wales – but fundamentally, on first assessment last night, the only query is going to be participation of owners.

“Obviously we’d love to keep them coming – but there have been some tough restrictions re-imposed on hospitality, so there are no guarantees on that. We will fight hard on it, but the main thing is that we comply and we keep racing going for the next month.

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“I doubt there will need to be substantial changes – if any – to the requirements placed on participants during this period. We’d already tightened a few things up, including the wearing of face coverings, last week.

“We made the case originally to bring back owners, that they were an essential part of the activity, but the sentiment is very much around essential work – we’re not making a decision on that until we’ve had further discussions.”

Another key area for discussion for Rust and the BHA is when the return of paying spectators will be permitted, with racing’s finances taking a huge hit the longer they are absent from racecourses.

“We have to keep going with trying to bring crowds back,” said Rust.

“It won’t be a public campaign – that is not the way to deal with it, given the announcement which has just been made, but we have not stopped behind the scenes, working with other sports as well, trying to pave the way for spectators.

“It’s a massive issue facing the sports sector – and racing in particular – if we aren’t able to bring spectators back.

“We’re not expecting to have pilots back before Christmas now, but we have to pave the way to have pilots in January and February looking to bring crowds back from spring onward, if conditions allow generally.

“The Government trusted us with pilots – we were the first major sport really to run events and we still had between 200-400 people in those early days of racing as well, so we’ve shown that we can do it and we want to use the evidence to help Government with the road map.”

Another blow to the racing industry is the closure of betting shops, which is expected have a knock-on detrimental effect on prize moeny.

Rust added: “With betting shops closed for a month, that will have an impact on media rights income and of course the Levy, which could cost around £2,500,000 and possibly more – I don’t know the figure for media rights.

“We know that 50 per cent of racecourse income is from spectators – and we know that is not going to be there – and there will be a reduction in activity from betting-related income.

“Through Levy Board support, we have enough to run the fixture list at minimum prize-money levels for about 75 per cent of the races, certainly up until Christmas, and we’re looking to confirm for the first three or four months of next year on the same basis.

“The return of spectators from spring next year is absolutely vital.”

BHA chief Rust confident racing can continue

British Horseracing Authority chief executive Nick Rust “firmly believes” racing can continue behind closed doors in the event of another lockdown in England.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will host a press conference with his chief medical and scientific advisers on Saturday afternoon, amid speculation he will impose a national lockdown in England next week.

Racing resumed on June 1 after a near three-month break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with strict measures in place to help reduce the spread of the virus and only essential staff initially allowed on course.

Owners were allowed to return to the track in a limited way on July 4, with those restrictions steadily eased in the following weeks, and two successful trials for the return of spectators were held at Doncaster and Warwick in September.

However, the Government put a hold on those trials as Covid cases began to increase and with its behind-closed-doors policy in place, the BHA thinks racing can continue even if restrictions are tightened.

Rust said: “Racing is categorised as an elite sport and has in place strict Government-agreed protocols, which have been brilliantly observed by our participants and attendees. We have been monitoring racing since June and have seen no evidence of transmission of the virus at any of our near 500 events.

“Racing has continued behind closed doors in Wales and other nations which have enacted lockdowns and we firmly believe it can continue behind closed doors here.”

Rust warns 2021 crowd absence may present ‘strong risk’ of losing racecourses

British Horseracing Authority chief executive Nick Rust has restated his fear that there is a “strong risk” of racecourses being closed down if crowds are unable to return in 2021.

Plans for spectators to attend sports venues from October 1 were placed on hold by Government last month, because of rising coronavirus infections.

Speaking in an interview on Sky News on Monday morning, Rust praised those who have enabled racing to “keep the show on the road” since the resumption of fixtures at the start of June – and added racing will continue to work with other sports to try to get crowds back as soon as possible.

“With the exception of two pilot days, we haven’t had any spectators at racecourses, and more than 50 per cent of the sport’s revenue comes from spectators, so it’s hitting us pretty hard,” said Rust.

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“We’ve managed to run more than 450 events behind closed doors since June 1, with no evidence of transmission of Covid. The sport has done superbly well, and the 17,000 people who work in it directly have followed a strict set of guidelines to help ensure we can keep the show on the road.

“The decision by Government, which we understand, to cease having crowds for the moment – and ceasing the pilots that we had in place back in August and September – is giving a bleak look for our sport over the next six months.

“If we don’t have a path back for spectators, racecourses who are clinging on through cost-saving measures and using Government help, are going to really struggle – and that is going to have a knock-on effect to our sport.

“We know of no racecourses that are going to close in the immediate future – but if we don’t have spectators in any meaningful way in 2021, we’re at strong risk of losing racecourses.”

The BHA board and its member bodies agreed earlier this month to take a united stance, after developing a single set of proposals for reforming the Levy.

A steering group is tasked with assessing all the options for Levy reform in light of the impact of Covid-19 and the expected economic downturn.

Rust added: “Other countries have had advantageous policy on the funding from betting for a number of years. Our off-course betting was legalised in 1961 and was set up in a way that was less favourable than in Hong Kong or indeed our near neighbours in France and Ireland.

“We have huge investment from international investors in the heritage and the wonder of British racing. I’m not expecting to have the very best prize-money here, because we’ve never offered the very best prize-money, but when prize-money is impacted and the pennies are short in these organisations, of course they’re going to look at where they spend their money – and we’re seeing evidence of some horses moving to be trained in France and Ireland, which is a worry.

“Government has offered us help, and we have a three-step plan. One is working to bring spectators back to the racecourse; secondly we need some direct support (from Government) to help us bridge the gap for when spectators can return, and finally we’d benefit from a horseracing betting Levy review to make sure that it keeps up with the situation.

“Betting shops are unfortunately being closed in Tier Three areas, so our income is reducing there, and more people are switching to digital betting, which ultimately means that we receive less through each bet placed.

“We need to adjust the model, so we’re looking for a review to make sure that it’s up to date for today’s times.”

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.”

Monday Musings: The End is Nigh?

At last some movement, writes Tony Stafford. The five-week-long stretch of mockingly-sunny days with unblemished blue skies is about to break in the South of England according to a weather forecast I took scant notice of on Saturday evening. Horse racing is about to start in Germany, on May 4th, and in France a week later.

Hints and allegations, to quote Paul Simon, swirl around the possible resumption in the UK, with mid-May being hinted and Nick Rust reportedly the target of allegations from some senior trainers according to yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. Rust, whose six-year stint as chief executive of the BHA will end at the conclusion of a year’s notice on Dec 31, according to the paper has been urged to step aside immediately by senior trainers including Ralph Beckett and Mark Johnston.

That pair is reputedly among a group that has canvassed Annamarie Phelps, chair of the BHA, to remove Rust amid disquiet about his handling of the sport during the suspension of racing as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. They clearly believe a rapid resumption behind closed doors is vital, with no racing having been staged in the UK since March 17th, a week after the beginning of the highly controversial Cheltenham Festival.

It is likely that any hesitancy by the sport and its figurehead Nick Rust to press for an imminent return is partly based on the lingering embarrassment that some feel because Cheltenham was allowed to proceed. Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, is also the MP for Newmarket and it would be interesting to discover how he voted when the calls by other politicians to cancel the meeting were being discussed in Cabinet.

Hughie Morrison, interviewed by John Hunt on Sky Sports Racing the other night, put a very strong case for an early resumption. He said that a behind-closed-doors race meeting could easily be staged with probably a much lower chance of spreading a contagion like Covid19 than mooching round a supermarket to do the weekly shopping. People might be asked to keep their distance in shops, not that they do, so it’s hard to see how anyone with the virus will contrive to keep it to him or herself in that environment.

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Morrison reckons race meetings would be relatively easy to organise: with no racegoers other than trainers, jockeys, officials and the odd owner – one per horse the norm when Ireland were racing behind their closed doors before drawing stumps last month – and in the countryside, risks Hughie says would be minimal.

I like the potential look of a mid-to late-May restart, with the plan for both Guineas at the start of June, Royal Ascot – maybe Prince Andrew can be persuaded to come out of his Royal lockdown and tasked to present all the winners’ prizes – fan-free but in its usual slot, and the Derby and Oaks on one day at Epsom at the end of June or beginning of July. The May resumption would allow Classic trials to be staged in advance of the Guineas races.

One unkind soul, when the likelihood of crowd-free meetings extending some way into the future, suggested there might in that case be more people than is usual at some Newcastle and Southwell all-weather meetings!

But joking apart – this is no joking matter – we need racing to return. I heard second-hand from a friend of a friend, who is also a friend, that one major bookmaking company is suffering very little compared with normal activity, such has been the take-up of on-line games and the like.

There is such a hunger for something to bet on – as I hinted or alleged last week – that many bookmaker and casino-game firms are inundating the breaks between television programmes with advertising material.

Imagine how much more business they will be doing when racing and top-flight football return. As to the latter sport I find it totally mind-numbing the way certain newspaper web sites keep reporting on possible future transfer deals and what their tame football celebrities think on many matters, mostly about how little they deserve to have their salaries reduced.

For all the tragedy of at least 20,000 hospital deaths associated with the virus, while obviously by no means the only cause, and however many more elsewhere especially in care homes, some elements of normal life remain.

One long-term friend, a racing fan who had been struggling in the winter despite having for many years sold motor vehicles while also running a shellfish cabin in deepest Essex, told me the other day things have turned around. The fish bar was never a restaurant, so it didn’t need to close. Meanwhile he’s been furloughed from the car sales job so has been able to run the cabin full-time on the four days it opens from Thursday to Sunday, rather than just the weekend.

Now they are doing deliveries and take-outs and he says business is booming. When I’m allowed out again I’ll go down to Billericay and take up Kevin’s offer of a free surf and turf. It’s too far for their home delivery service to accommodate me in Hackney Wick, 30 odd miles away, so I’ll have to be patient.

There were two million-pound-to-the-winner races at Sha Tin in Hong Kong yesterday morning with mixed fortunes for jockey Zac Purton on the two odds-on favourites. Beauty Generation was foiled by a short-head in the Mile race, but Purton got his revenge aboard Exultant in the QEII Cup. Exultant, the champion middle-distance horse in HK is now a six-year-old; as a three-year-old for Mick Halford when called Irishcorrespondent, the son of Teolifio won his first two races and then finished third to Churchill in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.

The Irish Guineas, and all other Classic races in that country and the UK, will need to be slotted into the European programme and full marks to the French for getting their retaliation in first. One positive side-effect for racecourses is that their ground has had a much better chance to recover from the rigours suffered during the incessant rain and universally-heavy ground early in the year, while the Flat-only tracks will be looking pristine.

A happy consequence of that will be that they will last longer into the year when we resume. For instance, in Yorkshire, Ripon and Thirsk, which normally are looking to close their doors early in September, can be capable of going on much longer. I believe that Flat racing in the UK in 2020 could easily be staged on grass well beyond the normal early November finale at Doncaster. Who’s up for a New Year’s Eve spectacular at Newmarket?

 - TS