Coronavirus: Horse racing in England and Wales set to be run behind closed doors

In a photo taken on March 15, 2020, Rachael Blackmore celebrates on Minella Indo after winning the 2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (GUARDIAN) - British racing is likely to go behind closed doors from later this week, initially until the end of March but potentially for much longer, following a recommendation of the industry's Covid-19 working party, which will be considered on Monday (March 17) by racing's senior executives.

Possible changes to the fixture list will also be considered, while a statement issued by the British Horseracing Authority on Sunday evening said the government "has been briefed on the issues involved in staging the Grand National" on April 4 and "a decision will be announced as soon as possible".

Racing has already moved behind closed doors in France and Ireland while the meeting on Monday at Kelso - which is subject to a Scottish rule banning gatherings of more than 500 people - will be the first meeting held without spectators on the British mainland.

Cards are also scheduled for Southwell and Hereford on Monday, however, and also at Wetherby and Taunton on Tuesday, which will not be subject to a ban on spectators as things stand.

The four-day Cheltenham Festival, one of the sport's most important meetings, took place as scheduled last week with up to 68,000 people in the grandstands on any one day.

Handwashing stations were deployed around the track, but as the festival unfolded, one sport after another decided to suspend all activities until racing was left on Friday evening as the only major sport still operating as normal in Britain.

"Racing has worked hard to look after our customers and our staff by following the government's guidance and taking proportionate action," Nick Rust, the BHA chief executive, said on Sunday.

"We will agree plans to limit attendance to participants and staff only at race meetings from this week and put in place the contingency plans developed by the industry."

In a press release, the BHA said its "intention is to agree a programme that is sustainable in the light of possible staff absences, including in critical roles, which protects industry staff and supports the wider effort to free up critical public services".

It added that "details of contingency plans have been shared with the department for digital, culture, media and sport" and that racing "has continued to observe the government's request for a proportionate response that takes into account public health and the impact on jobs and businesses".

After the Premier League decided on Friday to suspend its season following the news that Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, had tested positive for Covid-19, it was widely reported the British government would ban large gatherings from as early as next weekend.

No figure for the limit has yet been confirmed, however, or whether there will be a different limit for indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Racing is an industry as well as a spectator sport - and in particular an important employer in rural areas where other jobs are often scarce. The most recent report on racing's economic impact, in 2013, suggested around 20,000 jobs depend directly on the sport, while it has an important role to play in as many as 50,000 more including those in the betting industry.

Britain's 60 racecourses, which will inevitably bear the immediate brunt of the cost when paying spectators are excluded, operate a variety of business models. Some stage meetings with few live spectators but which get enough interest from betting-shop and online punters to earn media-rights payments from bookies.

A few stage major, money-spinning festivals such as Cheltenham, Aintree, Royal Ascot and the Derby meeting, while others rely on one or two big days to support the remainder of the programme.

Some tracks even change their approach according to the season. Lingfield, for instance, staged 78 fixtures in 2019, and the top three days in terms of attendance - two summer Saturday afternoons and the All-Weather Championships on Good Friday - pulled in more paying spectators than the bottom 45.

They will all feel the pinch in various ways as racing continues without paying spectators, and require some extra funding to make up the shortfall. With the betting industry equally in need of turnover with all other sports suspended, it is clearly in the interests of racing and the bookmakers to work together as never before in the coming weeks.

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