Joseph O'Brien: A lot of the protocols would have been happening in racing yards anyway

Joseph O'Brien: A lot of the protocols would have been happening in racing yards anyway
Anna Barlow on Early Doors during a Joseph O'Brien yard visit at Owning Hill in Kilkenny. Horse racing is due to return to Ireland behind closed doors on June 8, after racing was suspended in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Joseph O’Brien has backed the stringent protocols in place for a return to horse racing in Ireland.

Naas plays host to today’s marquee occasion, the first major sporting action on these shores since Ireland went into lockdown to fight the threat of Covid-19.

There were 10 meetings held successfully behind closed doors, concluding with the Clonmel fixture on March 24, but a 77-page document of protocols illustrates an even stricter approach now.

While much of the focus has been on social distancing, the bio-security measures such as temperature checks and regular disinfection are critical in preventing exposure.

While at a heightened level and relating to humans specifically in the current environment, many of the measures in place, as racing practises extreme vigilance, would be familiar to anyone working in a racing stable, as O’Brien explains.

“Everyone will do whatever it takes but racing yards in general would be fairly used to a lot of the stuff in so far as it’s very important in a racing yard that there aren’t infections passed around,” says O’Brien, who will bring nine horses from his Carriganóg base in Owning to Naas.

“A lot of the protocols put in place would have been happening in racing yards anyway. Obviously, everything was ramped up to an incredible degree but that’s what we had to do to keep going.

“It’s a virus. We’ve seen it time and time again when something goes through a yard, it could finish it for the year, so in that regard, everyone would be fairly aware anyway, though obviously not to the extent we have to be in recent times.” 

Fellow trainer Jessica Harrington will send seven on the short trip from Moone but won’t be in attendance herself, as no-one over 70 is allowed attend.

Harrington, who is 73, acknowledges the need for racing to be beyond reproach but does maintain that a blanket ban on septuagenarians is a touch heavy-handed.

“My own opinion is we should be able to make up our own minds. If you are over 70 and you have underlying health conditions, you shouldn’t go. But if you are healthy, what is the difference between you and a 69-year-old?

“It is one of the things that the government wanted so that’s fine. It’s not the end of the world. If it’s gets racing back, it is better off to have racing like this than no racing. I think everybody agrees with that.” 

The fact that the race meetings are the final stage of a far deeper industry that is particularly vital to rural economies was pivotal to its return before other sports, along with the fact that it can be run safely.

James Byrne is manager of Barbara Strudwick’s Ballygallon Stud in Inistioge, which has enjoyed considerable success as a breeder of top-class horses.

Ballygallon consign most of their stock at yearling sales, and the form of their own mares on the track is vital to attracting a good price, allied with the success of any other offspring, and that of the sire as a producer of winners.

They will race some horses themselves, either well-bred fillies or colts that don’t make what they perceive their value to be at the sales. The aim with mares is to achieve black type (stakes form) and bringing them back into the broodmare band while the colts are always available for sale, with the Hong Kong and American markets particularly lucrative.

Exultant is the shining example of this, having landed three Group 1s in Hong Kong already this year to bring his overall tally to five. He is a leading contender for Horse of the Year honours.

Running in his breeder’s colours and then named Irishcorrespondent, the son of Teofilo finished third in the Irish 2000 Guineas in 2018, before an offer came in that was too good to refuse. Exultant’s winning run continues to increase the value of his dam Contrary, and thus of her progeny.

“There is no doubt it is great for the stud farm what he has achieved,” says Byrne.

“At the back of your mind you would always say, ‘God, if we had held on to him ourselves look at the fun we would have had.’ But when offers come in from Hong Kong, they are substantial. It is very hard to turn down money in horses because the next day you go out it can be disaster.

“Contrary has a Sea the Stars filly foal at foot. We have a beautiful Churchill filly yearling. And she is back in foal then to Blue Point.

“The Churchill filly is potentially a good earner but it is probably a filly we will try and keep for the farm to bring on. She is very racy. If she can be half as good as her brother she will be a very good filly.” 

Preparing horses for the track without knowing what targets might be available has been challenging for conditioners but O’Brien reports a large portion of his string to be ready. He predicts that the action will be of even higher quality than normal with so many good horses needing to run and less foreign targets available at present.

Thus, there is potential for the sport to sell itself at a time when live action is at a premium.

“The majority of the two-year-olds haven’t been hugely affected,” O’Brien says. “Most of them wouldn’t run by now anyway.

“All the older horses have nearly all missed one race if not two. We kept all of our horses in work so we’d be ready to go once we got the go ahead.

“The racing is going to be fantastic. The maidens and all the conditions and stakes races are going to be incredibly competitive. It’ll make for great watching. It’ll be hard to pick winners.

“There’ll be big fields, which will give plenty of opportunities for jockeys.

“It’ll be great sport. It’s a good opportunity for racing in that regard, with fantastic racing on show, and we’re just really looking forward to it now.”

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