Irish horse-racing heroes returning from Cheltenham are usually feted and cheered, but not this year, because of the coronavirus outbreak.
It isn’t sexy to be a follower of racing right now: It was controversial for Cheltenham to take place last week, given the global pandemic.
Youghal’s Davy Russell is a three-time Irish jump-racing champion jockey who also produces young horses. This year, he leapfrogged Richard Johnson as the second-most-successful jockey still active at Cheltenham, scoring on Envoi Allen, Samcro, and Chosen Mate to bring his tally to 25.
He has the same concerns as everyone about Covid-19, but is delighted that the medical experts deem it safe to race behind closed doors, but under tighter restrictions than was the case up to and including St Patrick’s Day.
“The kids can’t go up to see grandad; they wave at him in the window,” Russell says of the measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“I am lucky enough: I can take them out on the farm. I can only imagine what it is like for people living in an apartment with kids, or a single parent. It’s an incredibly trying time for everybody.
Once it’s safe, we are more than happy to keep racing. We have the use of the whole area that is available in the racecourse. It is designed to hold tens of thousands of people.
“It was very low-key, coming back, but all of that is very understandable,” he says.
Fellow Cork native Maxine O’Sullivan landed the Gold Cup for amateur riders, the Foxhunter Chase, on It Came To Pass, trained by her father Eugene in Lombardstown. That came 29 years after Eugene won the same race, with Lovely Citizen, owned and bred by his late father, Owen, and ridden by his brother, William.
“I actually have dreamt of this many times,” Maxine says. “All the time, there are dreams. Most of the time, they don’t come true, unfortunately. I didn’t think it would ever come true for me. And that’s fine: They don’t. But it did, and it’s really amazing.
“It is a general lift for everyone around. My dad, as well; he is so happy. The great staff in the yard, the locality are very supportive, and so delighted as well. It is a real lift for the community in general,” she says.
“The buzz is very much still there. It is just, I suppose, the bloody coronavirus. I don’t want to say dampened it: That is being selfish.
There is just the worry in the back of your mind about it. It is hard to enjoy last week, when you are anxious about the future.
“But I am still very much on cloud nine. I like being on my own and thinking about it. I like just being in my car and remembering it; watching the race over and over again. But it is a bit worrying, given the circumstances,” O’Sullivan says.
Celebrations were restrained, though neighbours and staff had balloons up around the yard when O’Sullivan et al landed via ferry at 8am Saturday. There was a meal later, but the big party has been postponed.
Meanwhile, with Belclare point-to-point cancelled on Sunday, O’Sullivan had a ride in Limerick and her father had two runners.
“It was different, but everyone just got on with it. The people were brilliant. (IHRB senior medical officer) Jennifer Pugh was going around making sure everyone was apart.
"They had all the hand-sanitisers. They split up the weigh room out to the owners and trainers, so everyone had so much space,” O’Sullivan says.
"They really are doing their best. It is fairly admirable how everyone is doing really well to get on with it. It was weird there, but no different to a schooling races.
We are just doing a job, at the end of the day. Our job is still the same.
O’Sullivan was aware of the criticism of Cheltenham going ahead and of Irish people travelling to attend it and then returning home.
“You are in a bit of a bubble in Cheltenham. I didn’t realise how serious it was at home. Mom didn’t come over and she kept filling me in that it wasn’t great at home. We had to do our thing. We had to focus on our race. When we got home, it was very clear,” O’Sullivan says.
“I think it’s coming from people who are looking for something to do,” says Russell of the criticism. “I don’t think it’s anything to do with understanding the industry. I think it’s looking for an argument.
People are walking around the town, walking down through supermarkets. We are doing it completely away from what our norm is; it’s the opposite of the norm on race day. We are doing whatever is needed, from a health standpoint.
All point-to-pointing was cancelled Friday, due to the greater difficulty of imposing behind-closed-doors restrictions around open fields, and that will certainly impact on the O’Sullivans, who operate primarily in that sphere.
For now, track action will continue, with the Flat season scheduled to kick off at Naas on Monday. Russell understands that racing might have to stop, in time, but emphasises that there is far more to the industry than the shop window.
“We have to reach our peak, yet, in this country. That is the only time we will know, when we have reached our peak, what measures have to be taken then.
"We are not making changes just for the sake of riding horses. This is way bigger and we understand that. We are willing to go along with all the measures that need to be taken,” Russell says.
“But you can’t just close the doors or gates of a yard and walk away. Regardless of what we are going to do, them horses are going to need care. All of that is going to have to be done anyway.
It will take a considerable amount of people to look after these animals. They have to be exercised.
“If you miss a day not walking your dog, that’s okay, but you miss a day not exercising these… they cannot miss their feed, they cannot miss a bucket of water.
“It is a little bit different to walking out of the office and working from home and closing the door behind you and turning off the lights. People have to understand that,” he says.
“And when you have that amount of horses in training, there is not enough fields to turn them out in. Then, you have colts and fillies, and fit racehorses.
"You couldn’t put them together in a field, anyway. So they need to be looked after and people have to be paid to do that. This is just not a matter of stopping racing. It goes deeper than this,” Russell says.