Horse racing is scheduled to return in Britain on Monday for the first time since Covid-19 brought the action to a grinding halt on March 17.
Fittingly on St Patrick’s Day, it was a Corkman — Innishannon’s Aidan Coleman — who had the final say, booting home Glencassley to justify favouritism for Charlie Longsdon in a Wetherby bumper.
If it were a low-key conclusion in terms of venue, the same could be said for the resumption on Newcastle’s all-weather surface, but after two and a half months of uncertainty, there will be nothing subdued about the comeback, even without any public in attendance.
That said, the uncertainty still existed up to Friday at least, as the British government had yet to formally give the green light for re-opening the gates.
Presuming the British Horseracing Authority have received private assurances from Downing Street, it was no surprise that trainers were trigger happy with the entry button and a gargantuan 369 places were filled in eight races.
Even with two of those divided, extending the card to 10 contests, a limit of 12 runners per contest means a lot of trainers are looking for the next opportunity, while most jockeys must go a little longer without work.
John Quinn is in elite company as a Royal Ascot and Cheltenham Festival-winning conditioner, with Group and Grade 1s on his CV.
It is 35 years since the conditional jockey from Athnid, just outside Thurles, moved to Malton in North Yorkshire to join the yard of another Irishman, the legendary Jimmy Fitzgerald.
He is still there, in the village of Settringdon, and the boss of Bellwood Cottage Stables is itching to get going. In the likes of Keep Busy, Liberty Beach, Safe Voyage, and El Astronaute, he has plenty to go to war with.
“Things are improving,” says Quinn, who has Killarney-born champion jockey Oisín Murphy on board Luck On Sunday in the second division of the Betway Maiden Stakes.
“People are a lot more optimistic. It’s a bit like being locked up in jail and you don’t know how long the sentence is. For the first month we were in limbo, but for the last month we were hopeful.
“We kept doing a little bit of work with the horses once a week and we have quite a few ready as a result.
“We employ 23 people here. I kept them on because I thought we need to be in a decent place when things resume. Like everywhere we do need a resumption. We need a good run at it between now and Christmas Day!
“I think the first month will be very different, but people are so desperate to get back to semi-normality in every business that we will nearly do anything to get going. We will adhere to what we are requested. It is going to be different, but we are going to send horses when we get a chance everywhere and anywhere and go from there.”
Racing is the final stage of the broader thoroughbred industry and having prizemoney filter through the system is critical so that there is a demand to feed breeders and pinhookers at the sales. Dealing is also a key element of the business model for most trainers.
“We need to be turning up at sales and be buying a few horses and selling a few horses. When there is nothing going on, the wheels of industry stops.
“There isn’t a lot of money to be made from the training fees. You need to be training winners and buying and selling a few horses. You need to be proactive at the breeze-up sales which we have been forever and looking for the next good one.
“Everybody has been in complete dry dock.
“That has been an awful thing for everybody, the breeders, the pinhookers, everybody. It has been catastrophic.
“The sales are a massive part of our industry.”
The resumption of activities across the water is pivotal to the health of the industry in Ireland too. Ballyhane Stud’s Joe Foley is a leading stallion master, breeder, and pinhooker, as well as racing manager to English-based owner Steve Parkin of Clipper Logistics. That job includes purchasing yearlings for Parkin, which his wife Jane pre-trains at the Leighlinbridge farm along with Parkin’s homebreds.
That range of involvement gives Foley a clear insight into the importance of cross-channel racing here.
“The bloodstock units of Ireland and England are completely intertwined starting off with mares coming and going from both countries. English mares being covered in Ireland, Irish mares being covered in Britain,” Foley notes.
“Then moving forward, you have Irish yearlings being sold in Britain and British yearlings being sold in Ireland. But primarily, from an Irish point of view the market is more British than Ireland.
“Irish breeders export a significant amount of valued yearlings into the British market. That is why the strength of the British market is all important to the Irish bloodstock industry. If you are an Irish vendor of bloodstock, your biggest market by a significant proportion is the British guy buying a racehorse to race in Britain.
“There has definitely been a lot of pain. In the short-term the breeze-up operators have missed their slot with quite a few of their horses. They are trying to sell them at cost price or at a loss essentially. That will spin back into the yearling markets this Autumn. There have already been losses incurred by this. The whole bloodstock side of it depends on racing taking place. It is vital that racing restarts and keeps going.”
PJ McDonald is the second most successful rider at Newcastle over the last five years on 62 winners and will have five attempts to improve on his record at the northeastern venue.
A native of Taghmon in Wexford, McDonald won the Scottish Grand National on Hot Weld in 2007, but is now among the elite flat jockeys on the planet, four Group 1 triumphs on the Laurens firing him to a new level in recent campaigns. Duke Of Hazzard looks to have the potential to maintain his pilot’s presence in the top tier.
Last season was McDonald’s best in terms of numbers, as he recorded 132 winners in Britain, but the 37-year-old was happy to accentuate the positives of being confined to quarters when coronavirus hit, relishing time at home and postponing his diet.
“I rode out for the first two weeks in Mark Johnston’s when racing stopped” McDonald explains.
“But my eldest daughter has got bad asthma so I took no chances.
“I shut up shop for six or seven weeks. I have got a gym in my garage, everything I need to keep myself fairly right. But to be fair it went quite quick for me. We are always busy with Lavinia (6) — we call her Livvy — and Amelia (4). And it was nice to be at home with them for a bit.
“I said from the start I thought if we got back for June we would be doing very well. I completely let myself down for a good month. I was panicking at one stage. I had put on a good part of a stone!
“I am only three or four pound off my normal racing weight, what I would be walking around, so I am nearly back now.” Being president of the Professional Jockeys’ Association gave McDonald an insight into the long hours put in behind the scenes to get racing back and describes the expected return as “a team effort”.
These have been challenging times for the riders however and will continue to be due to the restrictions on meetings and runners.
“It was worrying times for everybody. You are going back and you don’t know if the people you were riding for before all of this happened are going to be in the same position to have horses. From the senior riders I know quite well and speak to constantly, they all handled it quite well, but most of them are family men and they were cautious.
“I don’t think it was any different for us than it was for any man working and trying to look after his family. You just had to tighten your belt, ride out the storm and, please God, come out the other side healthy. Give it a kick then to try and get going again.
“With so many entries at Newcastle and only 12 running in each race, there is a lot of lads missing out.
“We will get back to two or three meetings a day and that will help. And I think if we can get through Royal Ascot we can open up things and maybe get going properly again. We can’t complain because we are going to have more opportunities next week than we’ve had this week. We have got to be happy with what we have got. Everybody has got to compromise. It is not going to be ideal for jockeys, trainers, owners, the public.
“But at the end of the day we are getting back and we have got to suck it up. We have got to do the best we can to repair this year and make what we can of it and get the sport into a good position to go ahead and attack next year and look forward. I think that is the main thing.”