Ruby Walsh: Chomping at the bit to get moving again

Ruby Walsh: Chomping at the bit to get moving again
A racing fan can win the chance to own a Frankie Dettori-ridden runner for the day in a raffle supporting the Charities Together COVID-19 Appeal. (Tim Goode/PA Wire).

Different sports across many jurisdictions are currently making plans for how they are going to “exit the Covid-19 restrictions”, which seems to be the buzz phrase for how every country in lockdown is going to try to rebuild their economy and society.

As was the case of how and when restrictions were imposed in each country, they seem to each have a different plan for the exit and, from my point of view, looking at sport and, specifically, horse racing, plans and strategies seem to be very different across Europe too.

Of course, racing has continued behind closed doors in several jurisdictions, like Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia, and if we think back to the end of March, we did so on 10 occasions too.

A race-meeting behind closed doors is quite a soulless experience, with vast empty spaces, no noise, conversations being had from a distance and, trust me, there are no whispers or secrets kept. Whoever is there can hear every conversation if they wish.

But, that blueprint is there for Irish racing and if you look across the water at the suggested plan being put forward in the UK, it would take the best part of the sports section in this paper to detail it, let alone my column.  If and when the Government gives the country the nod that the first part of their plan is ready to go, racing will be hoping it is part of it. In theory, HRI and the IHRB should be able to kickstart racing seven days later.

As I see it, day one is for HRI to create and issue a race program, as in what races are on, at which track, over what distances, and what type of horses are allowed to run in each race. This program can then be issued in its normal way but, with the time restrictions involved here, they can be made available online rather than posted with a notification text or call made to each trainer to make them aware of it.

Entries will then close at midday on day three, weights and ballot numbers issued by noon on day four, scratching by noon on day five, declarations by noon on day six, and the race meeting on day seven. It is the normal process really, only with two days’ notice of what’s coming rather than six weeks.

The plan here is a simple one: Like the rules used by our government to implement the lockdown, only essentials are allowed to attend. The care of animals, which obviously included racehorses, has always been allowed during these restrictions so, with the HRI plan of having 30 straight days of Flat racing, all Flat yards have been operating at normal capacity, stock and staff-wise, through this lockdown.

Social distancing has become a normal part of the day for those staff, work riders (most of whom will be the jockeys required on race days) and trainers. So, the on-course requirement will be a groom per horse, the trainer or a staff member to help saddle, and however many jockeys can get themselves a ride. If you have two 25-runner races on a seven-race card, that number should not exceed 50.

Even though owners are absolutely the most essential part of the racing industry - they basically pay for all the horses and associated costs – they are not an essential in terms of running a race meeting, so they won’t be allowed to attend.

Obviously, that is disappointing for them, as the thrill of owning a racehorse is watching it run and hoping it can win. But, having it run and watching it on TV is better than paying for it to stand in its stable or in a field.

Officials-wise, a starter, judge and a camera technician, clerk of the scales and his or her assistant, clerk of the course, two stipendiary stewards (paid), three stewards (non-paid), two vets, and two doping officers (for horses - winners and random horses tested every meeting) are required, but can easily social distance.

Ruby Walsh: Chomping at the bit to get moving again
Mister Baileys with Jason Weaver up, centre, winning the Madagans 2000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket. (John Stillwell/PA Wire)

The handicappers can work from home but a team of stall standers, the course manager and associated ground staff, two doctors and two staffed ambulances for humans and one for horses are essential. Four valets to organise the jockeys’ tack - a luxury some might say, but if you wish to keep the time required to race to a minimum, they are needed.

You would also need six stable-yard security officers and whatever extra security each course requires to enforce social distancing and keep spectators or extras out. And, of course, a commentator - one can cover all channels wishing to show the pictures.

This part I am not sure about but, in order to inform and entertain the public, a number of presenters and reporters are required: One presenter, four reporters and two photographers, but it is what is behind the one presenter I am unsure about. Camera people, technicians, editors and producers, as well as the integrity camera team, IRIS. I can’t put a number on them, but I do know they are individuals and can’t see why any of them would come close to breaking social distance guidelines.

With racing planning to go for 30 days straight, all of the above can work in teams: Day one, three, five or two, four, six, etc. Reporters, too, could be restricted to one, providing that one was willing to share any information or comments collected from participants with his or her colleagues - and the same could go for photographers.

On-course bookmakers, clerks, Tote staff, turnstile attendees, catering and bar staff, all of whom are required in ordinary circumstances, are non-essentials in the running of the actual races, so they won’t be in attendance.

And, as was the case in mid-March, anyone who has to attend will be asked to do so for as short a period of time as possible. It boils down to a larger number than you would think, but two thirds of these people have not been in lockdown.

Most are already involved in an “essential service” and all of the above are ready and willing to go once the lights turn green - just like a whole host of other people who are chomping at the bit to get moving again.

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