A Day at the Wexford Races: No-one can call this business as usual

A Day at the Wexford Races: No-one can call this business as usual
The empty stands at Wexford Racecourse. Picture: Inpho/Laszlo Geczo

It is a dirty day, apposite conditions for these dystopian times.

On the trip to Wexford, to see just how a behind-closed-doors fixture operates, it has emerged that British racing has announced its suspension.

How long, you wonder, before it grinds to a halt in Ireland?

It wasn’t meant to be like this. The St Patrick’s Day fixture is one of the very few marquee dates for Wexford.

To have no paying customers and no hospitality income is potentially crippling. Media rights money justifies opening the gates on so-called industry meetings. But it is the rare profitable fixture attracting thousands that keeps the show on the road.

Repercussions for racing are like any other industry. Cataclysmic.

Two parking attendants at the entrance gate are wearing masks.

Finding a space is not a problem.

There are no punters. Just the skeleton staff required to run a race meeting. Food and drink are off the menu.

After that it is one owner, trainer, jockey and groom per horse and you leave if you have no more involvement. A handful of photographers and writers complete the cast.

So you don’t need Sergio Leone to add the tumbleweed or The Specials singing ‘Ghost Town’ over the tannoy to get the message.

Racing has gotten a kicking in the last week because people don’t understand its rural foundation.

It is an easy target due to the relationship with betting and its reliance on extremely rich patrons.

For sure the industry needs the interest of multi-millionaires and billionaires to survive and thrive but it is no different to many other industries in that regard.

Renowned producer John Nallen of Minella fame calls racehorses “toys for big boys” but there is nothing glitzy and glamorous about breeding them, rearing them, educating them or training them.

It is a rustic process, begun by men and women with two or three mares in the field behind the house, and carried on by trainers and racetracks who employ locals to varying degrees.

Think then of the vets, dentists, feed companies and more making a living thanks to racing.

Further knock-on beneficiaries on race-days are hotels, restaurants and bars.

The hospitality sector has taken a hit in Wexford too.

There are no shades, no top hats, no best-dressed-lady prizes at Wexford. And those deploying the old tweed trope for a handy laugh last week when filleting the Irish who adhered to official advice and travelled to Cheltenham last week, would be desperately disappointed.

There are just constant reminders about social distancing and hand-washing procedures, seven races and people getting on with things.

A Day at the Wexford Races: No-one can call this business as usual
Peter and Paul Keane manning the main gate on the way into Wexford Racecourse. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Getaway Gorgeous, the 4-7 favourite in the opener, gets the better of a three-way battle in total silence, a handful of connections looking on, devoid of any apparent emotion.

One trainer’s representative from the Munster region calls the current situation “frightening”, referring to the threat to his way of life but more than that, to life itself.

That is the clear conflict now.

1. How will we pay the mortgage?

2. I won’t care about that if coronavirus claims one of my parents as a victim.

On a day like this, you feel safer in the open expanse of Wexford racecourse, than walking down the straight or into the supermarket, which is far more populated.

But of course it is the interaction with other facets of society that spreads COVID-19. It might come from here or be brought here.

What is certain is that at some stage, people involved in racing, jockeys, owners, trainers or staff, will be infected.

Being alive to deal with the economic consequences will be better than what is the fate that has befallen too many already.

Paul Nolan is a local trainer who had two placed runners in Cheltenham last week. He is well represented here and makes off with the feature Artic Tack Stud Veterans’ Chase thanks to Fine Theatre, enterprisingly ridden by Seán O’Keeffe.

A Day at the Wexford Races: No-one can call this business as usual
A sign of the times at Wexford Racecourse yesterday as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Inpho/Laszlo Geczo

Nolan is symptomatic of racing’s resilience, having travelled the route from regular Grade One and Cheltenham winner to saddling just five winners in a season.

He knows perspective and would love a way to be found that racing could continue. But there is no doubt where everybody’s priority lies.

“Human beings come first” said Nolan in the parade ring. “Of course, if guidelines are kept, if it’s possible to keep it going for our sake (it would be great) but you have to look at the global picture, at the country’s picture. Everyone is going to suffer. That’s the way it’s going to be.

“If there was some happy medium… but I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen this evening. I suppose it’s not looking good.

“We are an island and would it be easier contained than other places? The whole thing is to get rid of it as quick as possible, whatever the procedures are for that.

“It’s about being sensible. People were criticised about going to Cheltenham. I made sure with the staff, ‘Don’t go here’, ‘Try and do this’, ‘Try and keep the lid on it.’

“Then you had the Temple Bar job the other night, ‘touching me, touch you’? If we just use our common sense.

“We’ve another 20,000 to bring home from Spain. Lads can say about us going to Cheltenham but that’s people’s livelihoods.

“Spain is lying out like a seal in a beach and going to the restaurants and pubs after it.

“So I don’t think we can point fingers. We all just have to step up now and do the right thing and try to minimise it for people that are suffering most from things being called off.

“You see today. The canteen isn’t even open. Normally this would be mad packed. This is one of their biggest days, a 25 grand chase, it’s an awful knock-on effect.

“But all businesses, pubs, restaurants, it’s going to be across the board. If we could all stick to the guidelines, stay away from old people, get rid of it as quick as possible.”

The wind whipped up, the skies darkened, the rain lashed down. Orwell would have approved.

No-one can call this business as usual.

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