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Depiction of those who attended Cheltenham as pariahs is not accurate

Daragh Ó Conchúir



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Stable grooms and officials watch the Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Steeplechase from the stand while maintaining social distancing at Thurles Racecourse yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne

Stable grooms and officials watch the Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Steeplechase from the stand while maintaining social distancing at Thurles Racecourse yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne

SPORTSFILE

Stable grooms and officials watch the Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Steeplechase from the stand while maintaining social distancing at Thurles Racecourse yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne

Horse racing is up there with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Malone's in Temple Bar and teenagers who think they're bulletproof continuing to congregate in numbers, as a pariah of society.

It is very legitimate to question why Cheltenham remained open to the public, even if the powers that be on both sides of the Irish Sea had no issue with it, and the 15,000 Irish who descended on Prestbury Park and its surrounding social sites were not subjected to testing or mandatory self-isolation on their return.

It is noteworthy, though, that the Irish who attended the Cotswolds Carnival are in receipt of far more bile than their compatriots at Anfield for the Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid, a team from a city with a severe spike in Coronavirus sufferers at the time. Or the thousands who attended Premier League games just days before. Or any number of concerts.

It was no surprise, therefore, that the decision to continue racing behind closed doors has been labelled irresponsible and money-grabbing.

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Trainer Paul Nolan

Trainer Paul Nolan

Racing Post

Trainer Paul Nolan

The decision by Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) was taken in consultation with medical advice and in conjunction with the Irish government, the vast outdoor expanse of a racecourse proving a considerable advantage.

Given that you need to be 15 minutes or more in the vicinity of an infected person to be at risk of contracting coronavirus, and within one and two metres of them in that period, the measures taken at racetracks are stringent.

One trainer, jockey and groom per horse will be allowed entry. They must leave as soon as their engagements for the day are complete.

No owners will be in attendance. There will be no hospitality, no food or drink. One representative from each media organisation is allowed and a pared-down television crew to provide coverage for those starved of live sport.

Jockeys and trainers have been allowed to drive their cars into the courses and have taken to spending the gaps between races in them, rather than in the weigh room. Even the press corps have been moved to larger quarters, where required, to ensure social distancing.

So, like any industry, and racing is an industry far more than sport, it makes sense and has been encouraged by the government to try to continue within stringent confines.

The employment figures in racing and its offshoot industries - bedding suppliers, feed companies, farriers, vets, stable staff, dentists etc - is around the 30,000 mark. Then there is the breeding and pinhooking (buying to sell at profit) business model that takes place even before a horse reaches the track. To that end, the cancellation of this weekend's point-to-point racing and threat to the remainder of the season is already a real blow.

"In Wexford, we rule the world as regards point-to-pointers," says trainer Paul Nolan. "There's more four-year-olds in Ireland here bought with savage bottle . . . the lads doing it are borrowing an awful lot of money to sell as four-year-olds to win their point-to-points. They're massively exposed. Do they say we're going to try and press pause, pretend it's next year? What do the banks do? I'm praying it won't get to that.

"I'd meet guys in the catering end, doing the bars and restaurants for the likes of Punchestown and Fairyhouse, depending on that. What are they going to do? The guys that work for them, what are they going to do?

"I'd be worried about the guys that work for us, that some happy medium can be come to. If you've a certain amount of horses, a handful of people won't handle a big amount of them. They end up being in the stables. You can't let them out into fields at this stage of their training career because they'd kick the lard out of one another and it's not possible to look after them all. So you need staff but you need to be able to pay them."

Andrew Hogan is manager of Cork and Tipperary racecourses. If the volunteer Order of Malta ambulance staff are not required in an escalating health situation, Cork will play host to a fixture on Thursday.

It was to be a student day, traditionally a big earner for the Mallow venue, but continuing to race and being at least able to avail of media rights income is the lesser of two evils, once health is not compromised.

"It's only day-by-day that we are taking it," Hogan admits. "We are hoping that we get to next week, to keep the whole industry going, and the amount of jobs that directly and indirectly are affected by us racing. There is a huge concern for our own staff at the racecourse.

"But at the end of the day, people's health is number one priority. When you see how serious all this is around the world it just puts this into perspective. Health is our number one and then after that it is keeping livelihoods going. There are people with mortgages and families to feed. They are worried about that.

"With the new measures that have come in now, it is strictly work. We have a venue capable of taking 10,000 people that will probably have max 50 people in at one time if you take each race throughout the day. It is as safe as can be in the current environment. We have the hand sanitisers up.

"Since last weekend, highlighted by the Temple Bar thing, the whole country has just stopped and anyone who last week was in doubt about how critical this was, isn't now. I have spoken to other managers in other tracks, everybody within the industry from stable staff to jockeys, they are being so careful. I have heard of jockeys getting changed in their cars and not even going into the weigh room. Everyone sees how critical it is.

"If we were able to stay racing behind closed doors we could continue and keep everybody's job safe. Our student day and Easter Festival, that is where the majority of our income comes from for the year. But half a loaf is better than no bread. If we keep racing, we have turnover and we keep going. We keep everybody in a job."

Hogan is confident the measures in place are safe. Staff who must work on site can be segregated, given the size of the facility, while the office staff are working from home.

"We are lucky because it is work and you have no public. But we all need food so people having to work in supermarkets that are at a lot higher risk. Anyone on the frontline, doctors and nurses . . . We are very lucky in racing, we can work with much lower risk."

He understands the backlash and believes it comes from mistaking the depth of the business as well as the low risk on race day.

"Racing is looked on as a sport. I can see why people would see it as a sport and why aren't all sports stopped? But you have to look behind it with the whole industry. The racecourse is only a small cog in the wheel. It's every trainer, every jockey, every groom, feed companies, vets. It has so many different facets to it.

"At the moment we are planning for next week. Every day is a bonus. We just don't know. I would be delighted if we got through next Thursday at the moment. Every day you are looking at the updates. There is just so much uncertainty there.

"I know the current measures of mass gatherings by the government are up until the 29th of March, but you would have to be blind not to see how serious things are and that this looks like lasting a lot longer."

But if racing can continue, as a place of work and an end point to a vast industry, let the show go on.

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