Cheltenham should have been behind closed doors, says horse racing chief

The chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland has said that it would have better if the Cheltenham Festival had gone ahead behind closed doors.
Cheltenham should have been behind closed doors, says horse racing chief
Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland has said that it would have better if the Cheltenham Festival had gone ahead behind closed doors.

But Brian Kavanagh believes that horse racing can lead the way in how sport can make a return while adhering to social distancing and other restrictions required because of Covid-19.

In an interview with Sport for Business, Kavanagh said that it was unfortunate that the Cheltenham Festival was the last major sporting event before the crisis erupted last month.

“That was the very week that the whole global situation ramped up. I went there for two days and came home on Wednesday night to a whole different world to the one I left on Monday.

“I think it was on the Tuesday that the pictures, the images, from Italy started to come through in great detail and at by the end of that week we were racing behind closed doors in Ireland.

“I think with hindsight, people would recognise that Cheltenham would have been much better if it had gone behind closed doors but it was not a decision we had any control over, it was entirely a decision for the British authorities and the British government.

“In fairness, it is the same time that there was a full set of Premier League matches that Saturday, a Champions League match in Liverpool on the Wednesday night with Atletico Madrid and all the stories about school skiing trips and it was still ten days before the pubs were closed here in Ireland.

“Social distancing, as we know it now, was not really that well know at that time. The irony of Cheltenham, is that while it was going ahead and people were at the races, the pubs back in Ireland were packed with people watching Cheltenham. But it couldn’t have come at a worse week, it was unfortunate because it was the last major sporting event to take place.

“Should it have taken place? With hindsight, probably no, but everyone is wise after the event. I have some sympathy for the Cheltenham authorities there as well. The idea of saying just in the middle of their festival ‘we are aborting’ after two days and going behind closed doors when your government is telling you not to, or the government is saying we are happy for you not to, and you have so many people in situ it’s not easy.”

Kavanagh added that Irish racing is ready to resume behind closed doors when it is deemed safe and he believed horse racing can lead the way in a return of sports.

“We are racing-ready. With the technicalities of advertising a race meeting and taking entries for a race meeting and preparing the track, you would probably need a week or ten days’ notice before you would start again.

“Unlike other sports, in a racecourse when you strip out the public-facing aspects, they are ideal suited to social distance. You can run racing and respect the requirements of social distancing.

“You need to enforce it rigidly but our industry is well suited to bio-security issues because of the health of horses aspect to it.

“So even though some of the countries were at the heart of the crisis, racing continued on interrupted in Hong Kong, in Japan, Australia and Singapore behind closed doors without the public. We had ten race meetings before the lockdown and I know talking to our colleagues in Germany they are going to resume racing behind closed doors on Monday next and France will resume the following Monday, May 11.

“It can be an example of how a sector can adapt to survive but we will be completely guided by the health authorities and the Department of Health and we’ve said that to the government,” he added.

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