Horse racing: Iconic Grand National axed as sporting cull continues

A horse race at the Grand National Festival at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool on April 6, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Britain's most iconic horse race and betting bonanza the Grand National has been cancelled as the coronavirus pandemic further decimated the nation's sporting calendar on Monday (March 16).

The Jockey Club announced the news in a statement, hours after the British government ramped up its response to the health crisis sweeping the world.

"Following the Government's new public health guidance regarding avoiding social contact and stopping non-essential travel, and its statement that emergency services are withdrawn from supporting mass gatherings from tomorrow (Tuesday), the Jockey Club has decided that it is no longer appropriate to stage the event," it said.

The festival, first staged in 1839, was due to be held from April 2 to April 4 at the Aintree course near Liverpool where Tiger Roll would have been going for an unprecedented hat-trick of victories.

Not just a wildly unpredictable horse race that attracts punters who never usually place a bet, the gathering is one of the highlights of the British social calendar, with thousands, especially from the north of England, descending on the course near Liverpool to wine and dine and try their luck.

Monday completed an almost clean sweep of British sporting fixtures cancelled or postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak which has killed 55 people so far in the country and more than 7,000 worldwide.

The University Boat Race held on the River Thames, like the National something of an institution, was also cancelled for the first time since the Second World War.

"Given the unprecedented situation our country and each of us as individuals faces, the public good far outweighs all other considerations," Robert Gillespie, chairman of The Boat Race Company Limited, said in a statement.

The Premier League and Football League seasons have been suspended, as has rugby.

The cancellation of the Grand National is a huge blow to British horse racing and to the betting industry which enjoys one of its busiest days at Aintree.

Last year an estimated 300 million pounds (S$524 million)was wagered on the four-mile, 514 yards slog which features 30 fences including the brutal Becher's Brook, The Chair and the Canal Turn. Around 500 million people tune in to watch the race.

Earlier on Monday, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced that all racing in Britain would take place only behind closed doors from Tuesday.

The Jockey Club said it had considered holding the race without fans on the course but that was no longer viable.

"The Grand National Festival was just three weeks away and it's very clear to us it will not be possible for the event to take place," Sandy Dudgeon, senior steward of the Jockey Club, said. "Public health must come first.

"We were working on a plan to stage the Grand National behind closed doors, given its importance to the racing industry and beyond, but following the new government measures confirmed this evening to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak, this is not a viable option.

"I know this is hugely disappointing news for the many people who work in our sport and the many millions who were looking forward to this year's event, but very sadly these are exceptional times and this is the responsible thing to do."

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