Eoghan O'Neill remains cautious about French racing return

Eoghan O'Neill remains cautious about French racing return
Jockeys wearing protective face masks get ready before the start of Prix d'Escoville race as horse racing resumes behind closed doors at Longchamp in Paris as France softens its strict lockdown rules during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France yesterday. Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Eoghan O’Neill, an Irish trainer based in Normandy, said that ‘everything went according to plan’ when racing resumed behind closed doors in France on Monday but fears that greater challenges lay ahead.

Other sports in France remain suspended but racing - which had been on hold for the past eight weeks due to COVID-19 - was given the all-clear after discussions with government officials. Strict social distancing measures were in place for the 10 race card at Longchamp with jockeys having to wear masks while only limited personnel were allowed on track.

O’Neill, who had two runners in action, said last night: “Everything went according to plan and it was very well structured and very well organised. It’s great to get back going so fingers crossed we can keep going the same way. I wasn’t there but my people told me everything was well organised. They even socially distanced the stables. Normally at Longchamp, people are stabled one beside the other, but they even looked into that and got it right.” 

However the Kildare native admits he is 'cautious of going racing right now' as France continues to get to grips with the pandemic. O’Neill’s stable is situated in Normandy, approximately 100 miles from Paris. The area is designated as a ‘green zone’ given the lower number of coronavirus cases while Longchamp is in a ‘red zone’ due to the high level of infection. 

He explained: “In terms of running the yard on a day-to-day basis, nothing has changed at all, you wouldn’t know that there is a lockdown. I have a wonderful team of staff who have kept themselves healthy, observed all the protocols and been able to come to work every day. In fairness to France Galop, they worked hard to get going again and got a programme organised. They proposed it to the powers that be, and they’ve allowed it to go ahead under strict guidelines. But I don’t think the virus is really under control in France and I, as an individual, would be cautious of going racing now.

We’ve got strict guidelines. There’s only one person allowed to accompany a horse, and one jockey, so the social distancing protocols are still going to be adhered to. But there are still people moving around from various parts of France coming racing with horses.  While those numbers are small, it still contradicts having red and green zones. As much as we all want to social distance, there will be a level of contact, it’s inevitable.

"This virus isn’t going to go away very quickly, and we all have to take responsibility where we go, how we move around, and to look after one another. What I originally thought they were proposing was to regionalise racing by allowing it to go ahead in green zones. But Paris is a red zone and they’re allowing racing to take place there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy it’s back, but we all have to proceed with a lot of caution. None of us would like to get the virus and taking yourself into the danger zone does kind of worry you a bit.” 

Have a pre-training yard in Ireland, O’Neill is no stranger to the situation faced by his Irish counterparts. Last week the Government has confirmed that June 29 is the likely date for racing to return behind closed doors in this country. 

And O'Neill believes patience is the best policy.

“It’s very frustrating and very hard for trainers (at home) but I think you have to commend the Irish Government for how they have reacted and how responsible they have been - and still are. I know it is difficult but none of us want a second spike in the virus. I would say the HRI has done a great job and are just waiting to be given the green light.

“The French easing of the lockdown model is not foolproof, but Irish racing, when it does come back, almost will be, and I think the precautions they’re taking and everything they are doing is probably the right way to go. HRI are in charge and even if they can limit field sizes, that will limit the number of people on track. I know that would be frustrating for some people that don’t get into races but at least it would get racing going again.”

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