Member Insights: Could Coronavirus Force A Reduced Format For Horse Racing Upon Resumption?
March 27, 2020
Paul Fisher, former CEO of Jockey Club Racecourses who left the organisation after almost two decades of service earlier this year, looks at how the horse racing industry can compare the current crisis to that of foot and mouth, and a key problem that will soon be faced over the possible resumption of racing.
Who would have thought some eight weeks ago that we as a country would be experiencing a period of complete closure of the Sports, Leisure and Hospitality Industry?
These are now unbelievably challenging times for every organisation, participant and individual not only in this country but also around the world. It could never happen, it was never meant to happen. It has, however, happened and after a quarter of a century in the horse racing industry I had hoped to never have to experience a complete shutdown of a sport I love, but it is entirely the right decision at this time.
For the second most attended sport in the country which employs over 85,000 people directly and supplies the multitude of betting platforms with a ‘seven day a week’ product to just stop, it’s terrifying.
The horse racing industry in particular came close to a similar closedown across the UK back in 2001 when the last Foot and Mouth epidemic slowly but surely closed the countryside from its beginnings in rural Essex in February to the cancellation of that year’s Cheltenham festival a few weeks later. On that occasion the effects on the rural economy were devastating and the scenes on the nightly newscasts of the culling of infected herds will live long in the memory of many of us involved in racing.
Racing is intrinsically linked to the countryside and many racecourses fell within exclusion zones and could not race. But racing did continue at more urban locations which did not have infected animals close by and, thanks to biosecurity measures adopted by us at the tracks, we were welcomed by the public which enabled us to continue. Both the Grand National and The Derby took place that year! Finding Vets who weren’t involved in helping quell foot and mouths spread was the big challenge for everyone and through great efforts racing and the betting industry continued in a limited format during that year.
This is different. It’s really different! It’s scary for all of us and for the second most attended sport in the country which employs over 85,000 people directly and supplies the multitude of betting platforms with a ‘seven day a week’ product to just stop, it’s terrifying. Racing ceased on March 18th for an initial period of 6 weeks and racing in Ireland initially carried on behind closed doors before ceasing until April 18th at the earliest. The flat season will not start on time and there will be no Grand National this year. As with the availability of vets 20 years ago this time it is medical staff for the human participants which will be the problem.
If private provision could be sourced is it a good image to see resources deployed servicing a sport rather than front line NHS requirements?
Jockey’s earn their money the hard way in a sport in which every race is rightly followed by a doctor and emergency vehicles. It is the ultimate extreme sport. These boys and girls are tough sports professionals. No medical staff equals no racing and if the statistics are to be believed everyone with any semblance of medical training is going to be required on the front line of our wonderful NHS over the coming weeks. Plus even if private provision could be sourced is it a good image to see resources deployed servicing a sport rather than front line NHS requirements? I suspect not only racing will be faced with these moral/commercial dilemmas over the coming weeks.
During both World Wars racing continued in the UK when the country’s and every member of the public very existence hung in the balance on an almost nightly basis. It helped that many of the war cabinet including Sir Winston were huge racing fans but they also recognised how important sport was to national morale during the darkest times. I’m sure Boris and his Cobra team also recognise this and it is vital that we all have something to cheer for over the coming weeks during this worldwide social experiment with restrictions on our daily lives feeling similar to those my parents experienced during the war. I never thought I would experience this in our liberal democracy I was lucky enough to be born into. My own nightmares were shaped from potential nuclear oblivion during the cold war of the 70’s, at least that would have happened quickly and I would have had 3 minutes warning!
Please let us get this virus under control quickly and hope we can find a way to safely resume racing and other sport in some shape or form so all of us can have that great feeling of either backing, owning or riding a winner. Sadly, I think I may be waiting for some weeks or months and the racing industry could unfortunately emerge in a much reduced format once we have stopped this silent killer.