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RCA will work with Government over coronavirus contingency plans

The Racecourse Association is anticipating a “significant logistical operation” after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced full Covid vaccination will be a requirement for entry to “venues where large crowds gather” from October.

The Prime Minister was speaking on ‘Freedom Day’ as previous coronavirus restrictions come to an end in England – permitting the return of full crowds to racecourses and other major venues for the first time since March 2020.

However, he spelled out that a new regulation will come into force this autumn when proof of double vaccination against coronavirus will be needed for admission to “nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather”.

Mr Johnson said: “I should serve notice now that by the end of September, when all over 18s will have had the chance to be double jabbed, we are planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather.

“Proof of a negative test will no longer be sufficient.”

The RCA will seek further clarification of detailed plans but has issued a statement confirming the intention to work with Government on necessary contingency plans.

It read: “The RCA notes today’s announcement from the Prime Minister that as of October 1 2021, the Covid Pass is to be made mandatory for certain events in England.

“We welcome the fact that this inception date will allow all British adults to have the option of being double vaccinated.

“While we all sincerely hope the days of Covid restrictions are behind us, it is vital that horseracing and the wider sports/leisure economies have contingency plans to avoid commercially damaging restrictions being re-imposed but equally allow us to host safe events.

“Our immediate attention now turns to working with Government, stakeholder partners and member racecourses to understand the detail behind this plan and map out what will be a significant logistical operation.”

Racing crowds will return as pandemic restrictions ease next week

Racecourses in England will be able to welcome customers through their gates from next Monday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced step three of the road map out of lockdown will go ahead as planned.

The British Horseracing Authority responded to the Prime Minister’s confirmation by giving the green light for crowds to return from May 17 – up to a maximum of 4,000 or 50% of capacity, whichever number is lower.

The first meetings able to race in front of a crowd will be Redcar and Carlisle on Monday afternoon – before Leicester and Windsor race in the evening.

Ffos Las race on Monday too, but the Welsh Government has still to announce a change to protocols – so for the time being, meetings will continue behind closed doors there.

The partial lifting of coronavirus restrictions means the Cazoo Derby meeting will be run in front of paying customers next month, and Royal Ascot will also have a crowd – although because stage four does not begin until June 21, it remains unclear whether that showpiece meeting will be able to host 10,000.

Since lockdowns began last March, spectators on racecourses have been restricted to pilot events at Doncaster and Warwick in September and limited crowds at a handful of meetings in December.

In a joint-statement issued by the BHA, the Racecourse Association and the Horsemen’s Group, it was also confirmed that owners will also be allowed to see their horses and meet with their trainers and jockeys in the parade ring from next week.

Richard Wayman, Chief Operating Officer of the BHA, said: “It is extremely exciting that we are finally able to welcome racegoers back to our racecourses.

“It will allow racing’s many fans to come back to the sport they love after more than a year away. We know there is a huge public demand for families and friends to meet up, outdoors, enjoy great food and drink and the unique social occasion of a race meeting.

“In addition, from next week, racing can once again offer our owners the opportunity to feel much closer to the action on a racecourse by returning to the parade ring. Racing’s leaders very much appreciate the commitment and patience shown by owners over the past year when their attendance and experience at racecourses has been restricted by the pandemic.”

David Armstrong, chief executive of the RCA, said: “This next step in the Government’s road map is hugely important milestone in the recovery of British Racing.

“Racecourses are very excited to welcome racegoers back and to be able to offer them a full race day experience whilst extending our provision for owners to whom the sport remain greater in for their continued support.

“Lockdown began almost 14 months ago, and it has been a very challenging journey for the industry and for racecourses in particular through several false starts and aborted pilot events. May 17 marks a key step on the return to normality.”

Charlie Liverton, Chief Executive of the ROA said: “Owners have played a critical role in keeping horse racing going behind closed doors throughout the past 12 months, contributing over £30million a month in training fees alone.

“While the invoices have continued, the ability to go racing and be a part of the race day experience has been greatly hindered as the country, and the wider industry, dealt with the pandemic at large.

“It is therefore a welcome step that come May 17 owners can get a step closer to the action with a return to the parade ring.

“There is more work to be done, and we will continue to work with the BHA and RCA to improve the race day experience for owners, while recognising this milestone in the Government’s roadmap.”

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.”