‘You don’t know where we are going to end up, or when we’re going to be back racing’

‘You don’t know where we are going to end up, or when we’re going to be back racing’
As of now Listowel hope to go-ahead with their enhanced three-day June Bank Holiday fixture while following the working protocols which have been put in place

How many days, weeks, or even months will the country have to be without a new case of coronavirus before the Government will feel safe in permitting mass gatherings to recommence?

After a period of activity behind closed doors, greyhound racing and horse racing have both come to a halt. 

As a result, most casual staff within the industry have lost their jobs, many trainers are striving to do their best for those they employ on a full-time basis but are facing the reality of owners, also suffering in this pandemic, taking away their animals or demanding that they be put out to grass for the duration of the suspension of the sport.

It all makes for a potentially very difficult restart, when that time comes. Oft forgotten in the moment is that the venues must be ready whenever the call comes. 

Last Thursday, Cork racecourse should have been hosting a day’s racing. Instead, it is now being used as a test centre for the virus. 

When the time comes, will it or any of the other tracks be able to attract a crowd, or will people have grown accustomed to staying at home?

“Fellas are in the habit of going racing, but when they get out of it, they don’t have the grá for it as much as they did,” said leading racing photographer Pat Healy, wearing his second hat — that of the incoming chairman of the Listowel Race Committee.

“When you’re in the habit of doing something, it’s very easy, but it’s also very easy to get out of it.”

And that is a primary concern for all racetracks right now. 

Healy has long been heavily involved with his home track, and this year marked a positive step forward for the venue with the announcement that its June Bank Holiday meeting would, for the first time, host three days of racing.

“We were a long way down the road in terms of working towards this meeting,” added Healy. 

“We had been doing a lot of work to ensure it would be very well attended, and a large part of that was working in conjunction with Writers’ Week, which is always a great festival in Listowel.

“Unfortunately, the organisers have pulled the plug on Writers’ Week, which I’m sure was difficult for them. But I’m sure we’ll regroup and come up with something else.

“As far as we’re concerned, we have to continue as though our meeting is going to go-ahead in May but must do so while following the working protocols which have been put in place.

“Normally our enclosure manager, John Sheehan, and our track manager, Dan Connell, and some of his staff would be kicking on from now but we’ve had to put them on hold because of the protocols. 

"We’re almost in April now, so it’s only about eight weeks to the meeting. Under normal circumstances we’d have to start thinking about stepping up if we’re going to be ready to race at the end of May.

“We’ve been banging on HRI’s door for three years to get an extra fixture at this meeting, and getting it brought us up to 10 days in the year.

“And if our AGM goes ahead next month, I’m incoming chairman so it was going to be a big thing for me personally. 

"We’re still planning, but it’s a crazy situation because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know where we are going to end up, or when we’re going to be back racing.”

Half an hour down the road, in Ballymacelligott, racing is also the concern for Liam Dowling, but it’s the greyhound industry which is his livelihood. 

As a leading trainer and breeder, he is equally concerned by the uncertainty.

Greyhound racing has been having a tough time of late and, amid the haze of the early days of the virus and with no pomp nor ceremony, Longford track closed its doors for the final time.

It, along with Lifford, Youghal, and Enniscorthy, was on the shortlist of those tracks which were to be shut regardless of the pandemic. 

With Lifford also now by the wayside, half of that goal has been achieved and there are understandable concerns that this lockdown will speed up the process.

But amidst the gloom there has been a chink of light. 

During the brief spell of racing behind closed doors, the meeting at Tralee was shown live on RPGTV and some other previously unexplored platforms and the response was positive.

Being ready to fully service that product and to show the sport in its best light is the next concern.

“We in the doldrums a bit, but first and foremost we must take our hats off to all those people who are trying to keep us all safe — they’re the people at the coalface and, in comparison, we’re behind the scenes,” said Dowling.

“We’d have four or five people working for us full time and we have to come up with the goodies for those guys every week, let alone feeding the dogs and paying for meal and nuts.

“You can’t let people go for the simple reason that there’s feeding of dogs and upkeep of paddocks, and many other jobs that you just can’t walk away from. 

"When you’re dealing with livestock, there are always bits and pieces to be done.

“It’s a difficult time but, on the back of having had a good year on the track, we can probably grin and bear it for a couple of weeks and see what happens.

“Our other market would be selling dogs to the UK and throughout Ireland, but you wouldn’t dare pick up a phone right now.

“You could have had a promising young dog worth a certain amount a few weeks ago but he’s worth a lot less now. They’re talking about four weeks, but I suppose you could double it. 

"It’s a long time with greyhounds, and I suppose you’d worry about the big stakes — the Derby, the Oaks, the big puppy stakes, the unraced stakes and many, many more — still being run when we do come back.”

Dowling is hopeful that, even if the date for a return to racing remains uncertain, the tracks can be opened much sooner.

“I know where they’re coming from, having to close the tracks, but I’d ask them to look at that again in three, or four weeks’ time,” he said.

“They might think about opening the tracks for trials, so that people could get their dogs fit rather than a sudden impact comes when they say, ‘we’re back next week’ and then it taking another few weeks to get dogs ready.

“That can be done while maintaining social distancing.”

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