Like more or less every sport, horse racing in the UK of any kind is suspended right now.
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) briefly trialled staging their events behind closed doors, notably at Kelso in the Scottish borders on 16 March – the Monday after the Cheltenham Festival – but called a subsequent halt to all competition after consultation with the government.
This doesn’t just apply to National Hunt racing which won’t resume until 1 July at the earliest, but the Flat season and Point to Point events as well. A number of high-profile meetings and festivals on both sides of the Irish Sea have been lost or are in need of rescheduling as a result.
What’s happening in Ireland?
The current state in Ireland is different to Horse Racing Ireland’s (HRI) initial stance following government directives. One meeting per day was being staged behind closed doors, but the decision on 24 March to stop the sport until 19 April which was taken by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has since been extended.
There will be no Easter Festival – including the Irish Grand National – at Fairyhouse over the holiday weekend. The Punchestown Festival scheduled for 28 April to 2 May has been lost as well.
It is understood, however, that HRI will look at plans to stage the 2020 Irish National in the autumn. Interruptions to the British calendar have also been keenly felt as well.
Grand National and start of Flat turf campaign impacted
Among the major UK meetings to fall by the wayside are the Lincoln at Doncaster which is the traditional start to the Flat turf season, Aintree’s Grand National Festival over jumps and the Scottish equivalent at Ayr, the Craven at Newmarket and end of April fixtures in both codes at Sandown Park.
As things stand at the time of writing, the Flat season is to begin on 1 May but the Guineas Festival containing the first two Classics of the annual calendar is scheduled just 24 hours after the ban on horse racing is lifted.
There are some practicality issues arising from that relating to current social distancing and travel guidelines which may be extended by the British government in the coming days. The BHA is expected to unveil a plan for the Flat season soon, with a particular focus on the pattern races and the distinct possibility of equine hubs being set up in different regions of the country.
A lack of competitive sport has given leading horse racing apps currently operating in the UK an issue to solve. Ante post betting remains available on long-term events like the Ladbrokes Trophy, King George VI Chase and 2021 Cheltenham Festival, however. Much of the discussions on these platform surround horses to follow for these National Hunt races taking place during next winter and beyond.
Virtual racing in ascendancy thanks to Grand National
In the absence of actual real-life horse racing, we’ve seen virtual taking a more central place in the thoughts of punters and bookies alike. The Virtual Grand National was broadcast on ITV Racing in place of the abandoned Aintree festival, for instance.
Almost 5,000,000 people tuned in to watch this – about half of the 2019 audience for the actual Grand National. Punters were allowed to stake up to £10 (each-way) on the virtual race with bookmakers pledging all profits they made would go to support NHS charities at this difficult time.
It is estimated that over £2,600,000 was raised for these good causes through betting on the Virtual Grand National. The race was won by Potters Corner, who also landed the Welsh equivalent in real life back on 27 December. Walk In The Mill – fourth in real life last year – came second with dual Aintree showpiece hero Tiger Roll finishing in fourth place under top weight.
The state of horse racing in the British Isles and when it came resume remains under constant review, however. Whatever the authorities and racecourses decide must comply with government guidelines at a time where public health and safety is paramount. There is every chance that when horse racing does return, it will only be behind closed doors with no audience.