The devastating damage to the sporting programme caused by the coronavirus continues across the globe. What was originally expected to be a temporary suspension is starting to roll into weeks and months with no clear indication of a return to normal. Horse racing is suffering along with every other sport and nowhere are the effects of the lockdown being more keenly felt than in the UK.
Grand National first major loss for UK racing
The UK racing programme revolves around the two different codes of flat and National Hunt racing. The flat turf season traditionally opens in March and ends in November when attention switches to jump racing for the winter months. The climax of the National Hunt season is the Cheltenham Festival which controversially went ahead this year from 10th to 13th March. It was staged at a time when the banning of large sporting events seemed inevitable and may have done the sport more harm than good.
Just five days later, racing was brought to a standstill and the 2020 Grand National meeting was the UK’s first high profile fixture to be lost. Irish racing soon followed, including the Punchestown Festival and the Irish Grand National. Although these losses are significant, the impact on National Hunt racing seems relatively minor compared to the flat racing season.
The authorities have already been forced to postpone the first four Classic races in the calendar; 1000 Guineas, 2000 Guineas, Derby and Oaks. There is now talk of attempting to stage Royal Ascot behind closed doors in June. This would surely be a travesty for one of the social highlights of the summer sporting calendar.
International racing helps to fill the void
With racing suspended in Britain, UK punters have been turning their attention on the action from the United States. OLBG.com has provided an invaluable guide to racing fans for 18 years and is helping them through the lockdown. The site’s well-informed tipsters are providing racing tips for you to follow on a daily basis, focussing on the US and Australia.
Alternative plans to hasten the return of racing include festivals at specially selected venues in order to meet the social distancing and travel guidelines. Newmarket is an obvious candidate, home to 76 training yards in a town dedicated to the sport. The yards are usually busy preparing their Classic runners for the trials but they now face an uncertain future.
What would normally be busy ante-post betting markets on the Guineas, Derby and Oaks are currently dormant. Godolphin’s Champion two-year-old Pinatubo remains a hot favourite for the 2000 Guineas and a clear favourite for the Derby, although it is impossible to say for certain if or when these races will take place.
At best, trainers will be preparing their horses for a condensed season with the Classic races staged much later in the year. The American Triple Crown has already been pencilled in for September/October and it is not inconceivable that the UK Classics could also take place in the Autumn. The inevitable knock-on effect will also see changes to the big summer festivals like Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood.
Prize money likely to be cut
Looking further down the scale, the loss of the bread-and-butter meetings could have massive financial implications for lower-grade racecourses. Racehorse owners will be increasingly desperate to get some return on their investment. When racing does return, races are likely to be heavily over-subscribed.
At this stage, nobody is talking about the loss of an entire season but it must be a possibility. The flat turf racing season is ground-dependent and can not go beyond November. The all-weather tracks could have a big part to play with an estimated 14,000 racehorses currently burning a hole in their owners’ pockets.
Prize money is also likely to be cut to compensate for the loss of revenue and there is little sympathy for the racing industry in the wider public. There are clearly very challenging times ahead for the horse racing industry in the UK.
By Harvey Mayson