After a first week of a successful and seemingly uneventful return to racing on the Flat, over jumps and, no doubt, while unseen on our screens, the equally popular trotting, the French government surprisingly invoked their colour co-ordinated map to ban racing in the Northern and Paris regions, but allowed it to continue elsewhere, writes Tony Stafford.
Fortunately for Sky Sports Racing, it was still able to continue with its daily offerings. Once I heard though on Monday the first strains of South African tones, with its accompaniment of some odd pronunciations, identity-delaying tactics like “in second placing, in third placing, and then came” <a switch of tenses another irritation> “in fourth placing…” one sole non-Ian Bartlett commentary was more than enough.
Mr Bartlett it seemed had done his bit for now, his rather posh and supremely accurate English “chalk” superseded by southern hemisphere cheese for the latest week. Smaller fields were the norm for this period compared with the generally bigger and therefore more demanding line-ups in the Paris region before Longchamp and the rest closed their doors once again. Maybe from today another commentator might be on duty for the third and final week before France becomes more of a side-show as, everything crossed, domestic sport gets going at last next Monday.
The French government’s unexpected pull back away from the country’s red zone prompted scepticism that the June 1st date might not be adhered to over here. One friend, in particular, who with two family members was laid low (though happily not hospitalised) with the virus in its early days, predicted that the hoped-for Monday week restart in the UK, would not go ahead. He pointed out that the schedule had never (and still hasn’t) been formally confirmed by government.
Now though we have a much more detailed programme of fixtures from the BHA, with races and prizemoney fully documented. Initially after the French decision on red zones, Betfair’s market on the June 1st resumption had swung to odds against. Early today it was around 4-1 on to resume on that date or earlier. Indeed the delay until the first day of June, after an earlier hoped-for date two weeks prior by trainers, owners and the BHA, has been fortuitous.
Last week’s article outlined evidence which showed that the infection had been steadily reducing week on week for the previous month or so. One week further on, the trend has continued apace so that for each of the past five weeks, the number of fatalities and people remaining in hospital with the virus has continued its steady decline.
Most encouragingly, for the fifth week in a row, the percentage decline in deaths has been in double figures. Week one, Sunday April 19th-26th fell from 6207 to 5573, representing a fall of 11%; week 2, 5573-4791, 14.6%; week 3, 4791 to 3409, 28.3%; week 4, 3409 to 2781, 18.4% and the latest period until yesterday it was 2781 to 2157, and 22.4%.
A similar level of decline into the middle of next month – by the time of the behind closed doors’ five days of Royal Ascot – could coincide with the number of deaths falling some way short of 1000 per week. Most striking has been the very small numbers for London, fewer than 20 mortalities a day over the past week, astonishing for a city of around 10 million inhabitants.
I’ve looked back again at the March 15th bulletin, when the first briefing from Downing Street was called. It was announced that there had been 15 UK deaths over the previous 24 hours. That day, one official predicted that as many as 80% of the population, thus potentially approaching 50 million people, could become infected. Of the three million plus people that have now been tested, around one in 20 (fewer than 270,000) have been found to have had the virus.
A couple of weeks ago I was pretty rude to Weatherbys, suggesting that while owners will have to be prepared to accept smaller prizes when racing resumes, Weatherbys’ administrative costs never seem to go down. In retrospect I have to agree with one of the firm’s top officials who pointed out how unfair a side-swipe it was. I had been referring to a small increase in the Levy yield for the past year, without factoring in that there would be no spectator or corporate catering income for the foreseeable future. No wonder prizes need to be reduced.
Over the past week the timetable for the early part of the revived season has firmed up. Most exciting and best received by all quarters has been the five days of Royal Ascot which will now include six extra races, seven rather than six each day from Tuesday June 16th to Friday the 19th and then eight instead of six on the Saturday. Racing will also begin earlier than usual each day.
There will be a maximum field size of 24, and three of the meeting’s existing races are now being divided with the Royal Hunt Cup and Wokingham both having consolation races. The Buckingham Palace Handicap has also been revived, the race having been lost upon the founding of the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup sprint for three-year-olds a few years ago.
My wife usually comes racing once during Royal Ascot every year although in 2019 she could not attend. She suggested to me that it would be fun if on the one day she normally goes, we could put on our finery and wear it while we watch the sport from home – she’ll stretch to one race at least! She did tell me the name of a site where such things are habitually shared with others, but I cannot remember what it’s called and I daren’t wake her at 5 a.m. I know my top hat still fits and the lockdown slimdown means the morning suit and waistcoat will also have a little welcome room. Join us if you will!
Ireland’s revived start of June 8th begins at Naas, while the following weekend features the opening fixtures at The Curragh with the Irish 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas staged on June 12th and 13th respectively.
Four tracks have not been included in the initial provisional UK fixture list which stretches to the end of August. Brighton and Worcester have had damage caused respectively by gales and flooding and, combined with the lockdown, it has proved impossible for ARC (the Arena Racing Company) to undertake the necessary repairs in time. Jockey Club Racecourses also have had to forego any fixtures during the resumption period at Carlisle and Nottingham, two of my favourite smaller tracks.
Many of the other highlights later on from the initial flurry are scheduled pretty much on their customary timings. If the recovery from the worst excesses of the virus continues at its present rate, it could even be that by Goodwood or York’s Ebor meeting some elements of a crowd could be possible.
We’ve missed coming up for ten weeks of racing, with Aintree, Chester’s and York’s May meetings as well as the Guineas lost, though thankfully those two Classics will be held over the first weekend at Newmarket. I reckon I would normally have been racing at least 30 times in that period which is always the most enjoyable and informative time of the year for me.
Thank goodness we have the two specialist channels able to televise the sport. Roll on next Monday and Newcastle. The entries will be out by noon tomorrow for the eight races (1.00 to 4.30) and I expect them all to be vastly over-subscribed. Good luck to everyone for the resumption.