Horseracing ready for starters orders

Eager to return to the track to avoid devastating losses cascading through its ranks, horseracing is undeterred by the prospect of smaller prize pots and no spectators.

Racing is resuming in France and Germany, while the sport hopes to be among the first to return from coronavirus lockdown in the UK.

Richard Morecombe, founder and chairman of Chelsea Thoroughbreds, an ownership members club, said there was “no choice” but to accept lower prize money, “but the important thing is to get the sport back on track again. If racing starts within the next two to three weeks . . . the season can be saved.”

However, the UK must wait longer to learn when racing can restart.

With UK prime minister Boris Johnson set to detail the next phases of the lockdown and how restrictions will change on Sunday, the British Horseracing Authority on Thursday said industry leaders will meet the following day to discuss the implications.

“We understand that everyone across the industry wants to know the date on which racing can resume,” the BHA said. “We are continuing to have positive conversations with government, including public health officials.

“At this stage, the race programme — and particularly the date on which it can commence — is still subject to guidance from the relevant public health authorities and the conditions in place during a phased return to racing.”

The BHA has warned UK racing risks losing £193m of revenues if fixtures do not resume by the end of June. Prize money is expected to fall from the £158m paid out last year as racecourses and bookmakers, which contribute to prize money funding, have suffered big revenue hits.

A jockey wears a protective mask © REUTERS

Managing the risk of infectious diseases is nothing new to racing. An outbreak of equine influenza, a respiratory virus, forced the BHA to cancel a series of races in February last year, though it was the horses rather than jockeys and racegoers that were at risk.

That experience has been “very helpful” as the sport draws up plans for a safe return in the UK, said Brant Dunshea, chief regulatory officer at the BHA, which has said racing is likely to return without spectators, at least initially.

“Strict hygiene conditions” and social-distancing measures will be imposed alongside testing, and maximising the use of private health resources in case of jockey injuries.

Racing has continued elsewhere, albeit with safety restrictions and without spectators. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison noted this week that British monarch Queen Elizabeth II had been “pleased to hear” fixtures were still being held there.

In the US, the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the famed US Triple Crown, has been pushed from May to September. The Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York have also been postponed. But other races continue, for example at Florida’s Gulfstream Park, which has closed to members of the public.

Bar chart of British racing industry inflows in 2019 (£m) showing Owners are critical to racing income

Alongside races without spectators, measures in Japan include restricted movement between courses, no photo sessions or winner presentations, as well as temperature checks and face masks.

In the UK, roughly 18,000 people are directly employed in the industry and as many as 15,000 horses in training. Indirectly, horseracing supports local businesses, including feed suppliers, vets and the hospitality sector, and contributes £4.1bn a year to the UK economy, according to the BHA.

“The industry is a very important source of jobs and revenue for the rural economies of England, Scotland and Wales,” said Richard Wayman, chief operating officer of the BHA.

France Galop, the country’s governing body, said its €431m budget supported 77,000 jobs in 2018 and more than 7,000 races at 142 venues.

Owning a racehorse can be an expensive hobby at the best of times, never mind in an economy that has been paralysed by the pandemic. A long hiatus could test the patience of owners, who contributed a gross £621m into UK racing in 2019, the single biggest inflow.

A long hiatus could test the patience of owners © PR IMAGE

“Trainers are dependent for revenue on the thousands of people who own racehorses paying to keep them in training, despite the impact of the crisis on their own finances,” said Mr Wayman.

So far, owners have been supportive, keeping most of the country’s 15,000 horses in training, according to the BHA, a plus for the 550 trainers and 6,500 stable staff who rely on their fees.

“We’ve been very lucky that the vast majority of our owners have kept [their] horses with us in training because they are very keen to be able to race their horses at the earliest opportunity, said Jim Boyle, a racehorse trainer in Epsom, less than 20 miles south-west of London.

Another trainer, Hugo Palmer, said businesses such as his were run on “very tight” margins and cash flow and would swiftly suffer if horses were removed from training.

David Armstrong, chief executive of the Racecourse Association, agreed that it was “absolutely critical” to keep existing owners in the sport. “The biggest threat we face . . . is preserving the number of horses in training. That’s the risk that probably keeps us all awake at night the most.”

He called for “simpler and more efficient syndicate structures” to help owners.

While trainers have been able to maintain some of their revenues, the Racecourse Association’s 59 members saw theirs rapidly disappear when racing was suspended in March.

“We went from full income to zero income literally overnight,” said Mr Armstrong. “And we still have an operating cost base so that’s fixed costs every month across the 59 racecourses of £8.2m pounds a month.”