The Government's current policy on the resumption of horse racing doesn't make any sense. It's unfair, ill-judged and inconsistent. As things stand the sport won't be able to resume until June 29, which is the day slated for the return of competitive non-contact sports behind closed doors.
eople within the horse racing industry had hoped they would be given the all clear for a May 18 restart. This now appears to be a non-starter although Horse Racing Ireland is negotiating with the Government and Chief Executive Brian Kavanagh says he's hopeful the sport will return "sooner rather than later".
Personally, I think erring on the side of caution is no harm in the current circumstances. That's why the return of the building industry on May 18 seems somewhat premature to me. But if large-scale construction is judged to be a safe proposition in less than ten days' time, what's the justification for making racing wait another six weeks?
Building, gardening et al are apparently top of the queue for a return because they are "outside work". But so is horse racing. Meetings behind closed doors would seem to pose less of a public health risk than the widespread operation of building sites.
We know this because all through the current crisis racing has continued in Australia, Hong Kong and Japan. No infections have been linked to the meetings involved and no cancellations have been necessary.
So there is a large body of evidence indicating that it is possible for horse racing to safely take place during the era of Covid-19. This may be an inconvenient truth for the sport's critics but it's the truth all the same.
Racing's credentials on this matter have been recognised elsewhere in Europe. On Thursday, a meeting at Hanover provided Western Europe with its first sporting fixture in several weeks.
You could posit Germany as an exceptional case given that country's impeccable handling of the crisis. But tomorrow racing will return in France, a country far worse hit by the virus than Ireland, with a major meeting at Longchamp. Racing has been exempted from the blanket ban on sport imposed until September by the French government. It's likely that English racing will return before the end of the month. It will certainly be back well before June 29.
Meanwhile, Irish racing people fear that some owners will abandon their horses, some trainers could be forced to the wall and that a lack of money will adversely affect bloodstock sales.
The anomalously late Irish return date seems odder still when you consider that in no other country is the horse racing industry as economically important as it is here. A survey carried out by Deloitte on behalf of HRI found that racing generates over €1.8 billion in economic activity and supports almost 29,000 jobs, largely in rural areas. Like it or not, in this country racing is not just another sport.
Given this status and the fact that it comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Sport there were hopes that, as in France, Irish racing might receive a special dispensation to return to action. Yet there have been no indications so far that any exception will be made.
Racing is not the only industry which has taken a hit during the lockdown. But it seems strange to prolong the suffering of a sector which could be safely restored to health for reasons which seem all the more capricious for remaining unstated by the government.
The building industry's return has probably been helped by its economic importance and its political clout. Horse racing indisputably possesses the former quality but there's a suspicion that a lack of the latter has stymied its hopes of a quick restart..
It's been suggested that one reason the sport didn't get the green light for a May 18 return is the fear of an adverse public reaction because of lingering anger over the fact that the Cheltenham Festival went ahead. But this seems like the very worst reason in the world to hold up a resumption. Politicians shouldn't pass too much heed on those obsessed with portraying Irish racing fans as a gang of Typhoid Marys with unique responsibility for the spread of the virus.
Yet the current Government often seems to confuse broad public opinion with the unrepresentative but extremely vociferous cohort on social media. So perhaps they really are swayed by such petty considerations.
In which case, we have the appalling vista of an important industry suffering unnecessary damage simply because Leo Varadkar doesn't fancy getting monstered on Twitter.
It may have been unwise of HRI to continue running meetings behind closed doors in March until they were forced to shut down by Government diktat. A voluntary shutdown on racing's part then could have earned them some political capital which would come in handy now.
But horse racing, or any other industry for that matter, is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of political ego. Especially when the evidence from Australia, Japan and Hong Kong is that the sport could probably have continued here for the past couple of months without contributing to a rise in Covid-19 cases.
The Irish shutdown was necessary for reasons of social solidarity and because extreme caution was a wise strategy given the possibility of the kind of meltdown witnessed in Italy. Now with at least some sectors of the economy beginning the trek back towards normality, it makes no sense to leave racing on the naughty step.
Racing's situation is vastly different from that of Gaelic games, rugby and soccer. And there is a real fear in the racing world that an unnecessarily elongated shutdown at the height of the Flat season could be, in the words of excellent At The Races columnist Kevin Blake, "The costliest and most damaging eight-week period in the history of Irish horse racing".
The great trainer John Oxx has raised the possibility of owners moving their horses abroad if Ireland lags way behind France and England in terms of a restart. "It would make us look very odd," he notes.
Another top trainer, Ger Lyons, said that a June 29 return date "would be huge, very negative," and claims that HRI Chief Executive Brian Kavanagh "was adamant May 18 was the date and when your man Varadkar made his phase three speech Brian was caught as unawares as the rest of us."
Suggestions that HRI were caught completely on the hop are not entirely outlandish. The Taoiseach has shown a penchant for solo runs, his talk on The Late Late Show about the All-Ireland championships came as a surprise to the GAA for one thing. Indeed, the GAA situation shows that the Government roadmap need not be treated as holy writ. The document suggested it would be possible to reopen club grounds on May 18, to begin training on June 8 and to return to competitive action on July 20. But the GAA are having none of that.
As far as the Association is concerned, the roadmap doesn't recognise the particular challenges of their sports. A similar misjudgement has taken place, but in the opposite direction, when it comes to horse racing. That's why the Government should listen to HRI's representations on this matter. They have a strong case.
Not simply because of economic considerations, which are not the most important thing at this moment in time, but because horse racing has proved to be as safe as a sport can possibly be right now. Is it one hundred per cent safe? Is building? Is going to the garden centre or the golf course?
Elsewhere the equine show is beginning again. On Thursday at 1.0pm, 13/10 favourite More No Never, trained by Markus Klug and ridden by Michael Caddedu, welcomed racing back to Europe with a two-and-a-half-length win over Mrs Applebee at Hanover. Tomorrow's Longchamp card will include last year's French Derby winner Sotsass and this year's French 2000 Guineas favourite Victor Ludorum.
If all goes according to plan, golf and tennis clubs will reopen in nine days' time. Builders and gardeners will be back at work, electrical, hardware and DIY stores will reopen. On June 10 you'll be able to buy cattle at a mart and, theoretically at least, train for team sports. But it will be another 19 days after that before horse racing is allowed to begin again. That doesn't make sense.
The middle of May might still be too early for normal life to resume. But, seeing that a phased resumption is Government policy, racing deserves a fair crack of the whip. If May 18 is a bridge too far, the sport should at least be included in the second phase on June 8.
June 29 will be too little too late.