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.

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“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.

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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.”