Horse racing’s return: Five viewpoints on the sport’s comeback

There has been no racing in Britain since the hurdles were packed away at Wetherby on the evening of 17 March

On the evening of Tuesday 17 March, just before 17:29 GMT, jockey Aidan Coleman steered Glencassley to victory in front of empty stands on a gloomy evening at Wetherby.

Two and half months later, Coleman and Glencassley remain the most-recent winners in the British racing calendar.

On Monday though, that will change.

At 13:00 BST, 12 runners will line up, again in front of empty stands, for the Brenkley Handicap Stakes at Newcastle in the first race back.

With Aintree’s annual festival, featuring the Grand National, cancelled and Royal Ascot planning to stage races behind closed doors, BBC Sport finds out what impact the lay-off and the continued restrictions have had.

‘I have put on a bit of weight’ – the jockey

Murphy is given a guard of honour by his fellow jockeys as he is crowned champion jockey

Oisin Murphy was crowned champion jockey in October and is the number one rider for the prestigious Qatar Racing owners.

“I have put on a bit of weight because when you are riding five or 10 races a day you are burning significant amount of calories and you can’t really replicate that.

“I have been walking for hours and hours a day to try and help, which is something I would never do normally.

“Jockeys are not part of a ‘team’ like you have in football or whatever, but we have been Zooming and Whatsapping to keep in touch. It is important. We are all dealing with this together and have to stick together.

“It can’t have been easy for some jockeys. This is normally our busiest time of year and some people have earned nothing. A lot of us couldn’t be furloughed, so of course they felt a pinch.

“I have got no concerns at all at going back. The measures have been put in place by the British Horseracing Authority and it has worked perfectly in Australia, Japan, France and Hong Kong. Why won’t it here?”

‘It has been very, very frustrating’ – the trainer

Fellowes (far right) saddled 33 UK winners in 2019

Charlie Fellowes is into his sixth season as a trainer and moved into new, larger premises at Bedford House in Newmarket a year ago.

“I am sure every trainer will say the same, but I feel I have the strongest group of horses I have ever had and so it has been very, very frustrating to be twiddling our thumbs for the past three months, trying to keep them on the boil, without doing too much.

“We have put in a whole load of Covid-19 precautions at the yard but some have actually turned out to be changes for the better. We would previously send out the horses to train in a 20-long string. Now, because of social distancing, we send them out in twos or threes which I feel actually means I can give them more individual attention.

“Contact with owners is more and more important, but communication is pretty easy these days with the technology.

“I will have Whatsapp groups for the various owners and connections of a particular horse and so I will take a video of the horse in the morning, record a little voice note about their form and possible upcoming races, and it is with them all 20 seconds later.”

‘Everything gets disinfected twice a day’ – the stable staff

O’Meara is in charge of a barn of two-year-old colts and oversees horses’ international travel as part of her job

Maddy O’Meara is head girl in trainer Andrew Balding’s yard in Kingsclere in Hampshire. She has worked for Balding for seven years.

“Our day-to-day working lives have barely changed. The horses still need looking after the same as ever regardless of what is going on in the world.

“Some of the way we go about things has however.

“Everything gets disinfected twice a day, before we start work and after we finish; that is all the horses’ tack, stable doors, feed buckets, caps, door handles. Everything that gets touched gets disinfected.

“Our temperatures get taken every single morning and anyone with a high temperature out of the ordinary would have been sent home.

“The absence of racing has not really affected the horses’ moods. They are all looking great and ready to run.”

Serving up meals for the community – the racecourse official

Newbury racecourse will reopen for the first time after racing’s suspension on 12 June

Harriet Collins is the marketing communications and sponsorship director at Newbury Racecourse. The Lockinge, one the venue’s biggest fixtures of the year, was due to take place on Saturday, 16 May.

“The suspension of racing has a big impact obviously. We rely on mass gatherings. Without those taking place you have got no income coming in.

“You can’t just shut up a racecourse and walk away from it for two or three months. There is the maintenance of the buildings, but also, really importantly, the maintenance of the track. We have an excellent clerk of the course who has been looking after the course with a skeleton ground staff, making sure it gets the on-going work and watering to be in perfect condition.

“Like many racecourses, we are a community hub. We have been working with Age Concern to set up a meals on wheels service, using the kitchens here. We have been working with West Berkshire Clinical Care Group to set up a primary care unit at the other end of the racecourse, as well as hosting regular blood donor sessions.

“It has been important and valuable to be able to use the abundant space and facilities to ease some of the pressure on vulnerable people in the area.”

‘We are part of the fabric of the racecourse’ – the bookmaker

Geraghty Racing has stalls at Aintree, Ascot, Doncaster, York and other racecourses

Andy Geraghty (left, in the picture above) is the third generation to take charge of his family’s book-making firm and has been on the course taking bets for 21 years.

“I’ve only worked seven days this year, the last of which was Cheltenham Gold Cup day back in March.

“It is a body blow to us as a firm to miss out on these key meetings at Aintree, which would be about 15-20% of our profits for the year, and Royal Ascot. There are only around 300 independent on-track bookmakers left in the UK. Some of them definitely won’t survive.

“Cash is king on the racecourse, but it is a problem that it is perceived as ‘dirty’. We are all dinosaurs on the racecourse. There are not many of us that take debit cards. We got asked for it a lot before and after this I guess we will get asked a heck of a lot more.

“But that is part of the attraction of the on-course bookmaker: Something tangible in your hand, seeing the tears in the bookies’ eyes as he pays out a big winner, the banter and the service you get. We take the bets with a smile and pay out with a smile.

“That is our USP – we are part of the fabric of the racecourse.”

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