COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis is the biggest challenge to face the thoroughbred industry in any of our lifetimes, yet it may also be a massive opportunity. Can racing continue uninterrupted by a once-in-a-century pandemic?

Government

It’s the Federal Government’s job to manage the country’s response to the pandemic. For ‘outdoor gatherings’, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee’s (AHPPC) latest recommendations are:

Outdoor events of less than 500 attendees can proceed. However, there are general precautions that all events should follow:

  • considering the size of the space, the number of people in it, and how much room people have to move around safely — as a general rule, people should be able to keep 1.5 metres apart
  • hand hygiene products and suitable rubbish bins should be readily available, with frequent cleaning and waste disposal

Community sport can continue at this stage. However, only essential participants should attend activities, i.e. players, coaches, match officials, staff and volunteers involved in operations and parents/guardians of participants.

So none of that is necessarily a problem for racing. The crowds have been kicked out, and you can run a race meeting with just the essential people – jockeys, transport, strappers, vets, course staff, barrier staff and broadcasters – numbering less than 500.

Racing administrators

So there’s nothing illegal about race meetings right at the moment. It’s up to the state racing bodies and racing clubs to decide whether they want to race.

They’re pushing ahead, with strict rules in place. There are Racing Victoria’s current guidelines:

  • only essential persons to attend race meetings, trackwork and training centres
  • attendees subject to temperature checks by medical staff at the entrance

“We have two clear priorities at this time,” said Racing Victoria CEO Giles Thompson.

“To protect the health and wellbeing of our industry stakeholders and indeed the wider community, and to provide an appropriate framework under which racing can continue for the many people whose livelihoods depend on it.”

Here you can listen to Thompson, Peter V’landys (CEO of Racing NSW) and Greg Nichols (Chairman of Racing Australia):

LISTEN |@pvlandys on how @racing_nsw will deal with Coronavirus https://t.co/Gf6v5SsKol

— RSN927am (@RSN927) March 17, 2020

Jockeys

The livelihood of jockeys obviously depends on racing, so a suspension would see them out of work and out of pocket. All will do everything they can to ensure no jockey contracts COVID-19 – though even if one does, it doesn’t necessarily mean that racing would be suspended. Jockeys are a very decentralised group which can help to battle infection.

Unlike many other athletes, jockeys are also somewhat more “interchangeable” in their roles. If one has to step away then another can step in, perhaps with less impact on the sport than – for example – a star footballer.

Listen to Des O’Keefe, Chairman of the Australian Jockeys Association:

Another issue that’s been raised relating to jockeys is weight. They’re often required to waste hard to make weight, a practice that’s not good for the immune system. Authorities in New Zealand responded earlier this week by raising weights, and Racing NSW have now done the same.

“Racing NSW is to raise minimum weights by 1kg for the health benefit of jockeys and improve their resistance to getting sick,’’ Mr V’Landys said.

“The well-being of our participants is paramount” Mr V’landys added. “This change will stay in place indefinitely until the virus situation changes”.

Racing Victoria has announced that as of Tuesday March 24th minimum weights have been raised 2kgs for day meetings and 1kg for night meetings. Interstate jockeys will not be allowed to ride if they arrived by commercial aircraft.

It’s expected other states will follow.

Overseas

So how are other country’s racing authorities handling it?

Well, it varies.

In a huge move, the British Horseracing Association shut down racing entirely earlier this week after consulting all stakeholders and considering the issues at length.

The decision was taken to reflect government advice around social distancing, and will have enormous consequences for the livelihoods of trainers, staff, jockeys bookmakers and others.

“The world changed a bit yesterday and I think we need to listen very carefully and make sure we’re helping the public effort,” said chief executive Nick Rust.

“We want to return when the time is right and when the conditions are right and when we’re not being a drain on public resources and social distancing can be relaxed a little bit. I just don’t know when that might be.”

That means Ireland is the only major racing jurisdiction in Europe where the sport is continuing. They’ve gone behind closed doors but with a few significant changes:

  • maximum of one meeting per day
  • no night meetings
  • no overseas runners
  • on-course saunas closed
  • 2lb weight increase to help jockeys
  • maximum of 30 minutes between races

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, things are pushing ahead. Racing is continuing but with course entry restricted to key personnel, staff, owners and voting members – looser restrictions than in Australia. That’s helped, of course, by Hong Kong’s small population. But officials are keeping an extremely close eye on developments and may impose further restrictions.


Other sports

COVID-19 has torn through the sporting world, with many top sporting leagues globally suspending competition indefinitely. The pandemic has hit just as the season starts for Australia’s two biggest leagues – the AFL and the NRL – and both are making efforts to continue, albeit in a compromised fashion.

Racing, of course, if a little different. While the likes of the football codes are having enough trouble ensuring appropriate isolation for players and officials, racing is a whole other beast. There are thousands of jockeys, trainers, racetracks, training centres and private facilities all up and down the country. Isolation could not, and won’t, happen – beyond social distancing regulations set out by government.

An opportunity?

All of this begs the question: could racing find itself in a surprisingly strong position if it can manage to keep the show going?

The biggest impact at the moment has been the removal of crowds, but that’s no longer a major financial hit for racing.

The main game for racing is, of course, wagering.

The boost for racing could actually come from a lack of competition. With other sport falling by the wayside, people will turn to what they can… which may be racing and not much else.

Bookmakers, desperate to bring in volume with much of their sport products not an option, will promote racing hard.

Champion Bets ran a Twitter poll yesterday and, although only a small sample, it supports the idea that many people would bet more on racing in the absence of sport…

Interesting times… and it’s changing by the minute. We’ll keep you posted as best we can.

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