Last week it was May 1 or 4. This week it’s May 7 or 19. Those are the rumours around the dates for the return of horse racing in Ireland. And in the UK, bookmakers report plenty of support for a May return there too, it now being odds-on to return at some point next month.
The goalposts may keep changing, but what remains constant is people’s desire for a return. In some form. Any form. Which is slightly ironic, as there was opposition to racing behind closed doors before it happened briefly last month. Most of those who opposed it would willingly take such measures now just so the industry could get back into swing.
But much has changed, and more will do so, as we adapt to the impact of Covid-19. Those who were initially sceptical about racing behind closed doors may have felt their concerns were vindicated as people struggled to work within the new rules imposed. But such problems were predictable in a sport of such emotional highs and lows.
But as the show moved from Dundalk to Navan, then Limerick and Down Royal, then back to Dundalk, on to Thurles and then Downpatrick, Naas and, finally, to Clonmel, lessons were learned which should put us in a good situation for a soft reintroduction. For now, there is no expectation of anything more than that and, while it will be most welcome when it arrives, it poses many more questions.
How long before people have the confidence to reconvene in areas with mass gatherings? And is there a fear that if the period of the soft reintroductions extends beyond weeks, into months, that people will get used to racing from home and be drawn by its convenience and cost effectiveness and thus get out of the habit of travelling?
The big festivals will bounce back, but small meetings, already under severe pressure, could wilt.
Perhaps one of the more bizarre racing stories to come out during the lockdown was that of Queen Elizabeth II approving plans to save this year’s Royal Ascot meeting — one of her favourite events of the year, apparently. It’s on a par with Cheltenham in terms of footfall, with around 300,000 visitors over the five days. But this year’s meeting, due to be staged between Tuesday, June 16 and Saturday, June 20, will almost certainly be behind closed doors.
With the apparent determination coming from the highest ranks of British society that this meeting will take place, whatever the guise, it raises more questions than answers.
Will it go ahead as scheduled? Will they be able to fill the cards on all five days, and will overseas challengers be permitted? For Irish trainers, that last question is most pertinent as such meetings must be targeted long in advance.
By this stage of the season, we should have borne witness to many juvenile races and begun to be able to make a little shape of the Royal Ascot races. As it stands, Jim Bolger’s Poetic Flare is our sole juvenile winner on turf.
How many more will there be by the time the Royal meeting comes around? The Coventry, which is one of the numerous highlights of the meeting and often a pointer to the following season’s Classics, is in danger of being little more than a glorified maiden. And that counts for the other races for two-year-olds: The Norfolk, Queen Mary, Albany, Windsor Castle, and Chesham.
Can or will HRI and the BHA make provision by having specific meetings tailored to juveniles as soon as racing re-emerges? Fulfilling the programme, most notably the black-type races, will be higher on the agenda. In any case, would it be fair to stables whose livelihood depends upon their success at a lower level?
Our preoccupation might be the speculation as to when racing might return, but for the HRI and BHA there is so much more to be considered. A date set in stone would be a considerable aid to them, and a great tonic for us.