Horse racing across Ireland came to a halt last night following new restrictions imposed by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, which has seen all sporting events cancelled until 19 April at the earliest due to COVID-19.
Irish racing has been taking place without spectators since 13 March, and was subject to strict controls.
The restrictions meant that race meetings were closed to the public with recommended social distancing measures implemented on track, and access was also restricted to essential service providers and industry participants. Catering services, on course bookmakers and Tote services were prevented from accessing the tracks, while coverage of racing was made available to broadcasters.
However, Varadkar’s new measures will mean that 23 fixtures could be lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, unless they are rescheduled for a later date.
Addressing the nation on Tuesday evening, Varadkar stated: “All sporting events are cancelled, including those held behind closed doors. These are unprecedented actions to respond to an unprecedented emergency.
“We’re in this for the long haul and this could go on for weeks, if not months. Stay at home, if at all possible.”
Commenting on the cancellation, Horse Racing Ireland Chairman, Nicky Hartery said: “What is most important is that as a country we do all we can individually and collectively to fight the transmission of Covid-19 and focus on our health, ensuring that resources such as medical facilities and personnel are allocated where the need is most.
“We have consistently said that racing’s facilities are at the disposal of the Government. Yesterday (Tuesday), the HSE began preparations to use Cork Racecourse in Mallow as a much-needed testing centre for the virus and the centre will be operational from tomorrow. Horse Racing Ireland will be working with the HSE and the Government to identify other elements of racing’s personnel and infrastructure that could be used in the co-ordinated reaction to the crisis.”
The Board reviewed the ten fixtures which have been held behind closed doors since the original restrictions on public gatherings were introduced, with HRI emphasising that the ‘experience has confirmed that a safe environment which fully respects required social distancing and hygiene measures is achievable for race fixtures’.
HRI Chief Executive, Brian Kavanagh, said: “We have run ten race fixtures behind closed doors over the last two weeks through the diligence of key stakeholders in the industry; key personnel in the racecourses, HRI and the IHRB staff; the Order of Malta and medical practitioners; and the media.
“What this has proven is that race fixtures can be safely staged while at the same time offering some level of business continuity for a crucial rural industry. The vital experience gained from staging these meetings behind closed doors may assist us to return racing as soon as possible. For the immediate future, however, there are more important priorities.”
The Board also noted the ‘potentially catastrophic impact of a sustained period without racing on all sectors of the industry’ and agreed that a series of measures to support the financial, physical and mental wellbeing of industry participants was necessary.
Brian Kavanagh continued: “Similar to most industries, the racing and breeding sector will have to look forward now. We will continue our engagement with Government around the supports that are available for the many people in our industry who have now lost their jobs and whose earning capacity has dramatically reduced. Racing and breeding supports almost 29,000 FTEs – mostly in rural Ireland – and a sustained period without racing impacts thousands of those jobs.
“When racing went behind closed doors, many staff including bookmakers, Tote staff, catering staff and other racecourse service providers stopped earning. As of yesterday’s stoppage, many others including jockeys, trainers, stablestaff, media and many other service providers joined that list. In the long term, a cessation of racing has major financial implications for racecourses, sales companies breeders and betting organisations such as the Tote. Supports will be necessary for each of these areas and HRI will work with all parties to achieve this.”
Horse Racing Ireland Chairman, Nicky Hartery, concluded: “We fully understand the anxiety that people are experiencing. Together we are facing an unprecedented public health crisis and the health of our people is paramount. There is also considerable anxiety around the worsening economic situation.
“We are very aware that the thousands of people in our industry are facing into a great deal of uncertainty over the coming weeks and months. I would say to you – rest assured that we are working on your behalf with Government to put in place the supports necessary to get you through this crisis and back racing again as soon as we are able. Irish racing is a resilient sector and we have come through previous challenges such as Foot and Mouth disease and Equine Influenza. This is perhaps our greatest challenge, but working together, we will come through this too.”