By Dr Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland
The Randox Health Virtual Grand National 2020, a computer simulated race, saw the avatar of Potters Corner finish in first place, ahead of the 5-1 favourite Tiger Roll’s avatar. Tiger Roll won the Grand National in 2017 and 2018; however, his avatar only managed to finish in fourth place. The simulated race was broadcast from 5pm on ITV on Saturday, 4 April 2020. What made this year’s Virtual Grand National different was that it was not run in tandem with the real life Grand National, which was cancelled as Britain went into lockdown due to COVID-19.
The Virtual Grand National was first run in 2017. In 2018, it attracted 1.6 million viewers and was broadcast as part of an ITV Special and was run 22 hours before the transmission of the Grand National (Jockey Club, ‘Aintree Virtual Grand National Races’, https://www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/aintree/events-tickets/grand-national/racing/aintree-virtual-grand-national-races/). In the 2017 and 2018 virtual race, the data algorithms accurately forecast that Tiger Roll would win the Grand National (ibid).
The Ultra High Definition CGI virtual race features the expected 40 real-life runners. This year, the virtual race attracted 4.8 million viewers, while the Virtual Legends’ Race, won by Red Rum, attracted 4.3 million viewers (Peter Scargill, ‘2020 Virtual Grand National: 4.8 million tune in to watch on ITV’, Racing Post, 5 April 2020, https://www.racingpost.com/news/virtual-grand-national-proves-a-hit-as-48m-tuned-in-to-watch-potters-corner-win/430944/amp).
The increase in viewership from 737,000 in 2019 to 4.8 million is attributed not only to the absence of the actual Grand National, but also the benevolence of the bookmakers was deemed to be another factor. Bookmakers announced that all profits would go to over 140 National Health Service (NHS) charities in Britain and profits from bets placed in Ireland would be donated to Irish charities, including the Irish Red Cross (Sports Staff, ‘Virtual Grand National: Bookmakers to donate £2.6m to NHS charities after CGI race televised’, The Independent, 6 April 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/racing/virtual-grand-national-nhs-charities-money-raised-bookmakers-latest-a9448276.html).
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced that all racing would be cancelled from 18 March to the end of April as the British government introduced restrictions on 23 March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The current restrictions prohibit public gatherings of more than two people. While the restrictions are continually under review, it is doubtful that horseracing will resume at the end of April. The COVID19 Racing Industry Group established the Resumption of Racing Group and its most recent press release states that it is looking into the possibility of running races behind closed doors (BHA, ‘BHA Board to review resumption plans next week’, 9 April 2020, https://www.britishhorseracing.com/press_releases/bha-board-to-review-resumption-plans-next-week/). The Resumption of Racing Group is hopeful that racing can be resumed in a phased and controlled manner that complies with government policy.
The Virtual Grand National provided some form of respite for racing fans in lockdown. However, for small stables, the cancellation of racing will have drastic effects both financially and in terms of personnel. While much uncertainty surrounds the length of time that the restrictions will remain in force, if the restrictions go beyond April, it will result in the smaller stables having to lay off staff. The horseracing industry ‘is the nineth biggest employer in Britain, and peoples’ lives depend on it’ (Callum Jamieson citing trainer Phil McEntee, ‘Phil McEntee opens up on the ‘catastrophic’ consequences small trainers will face as the racing shutdown continues’, The Sun, 22 March 2020, https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/horseracing/11217518/phil-mcentee-trainer-newmarket-coronavirus/).
Racing Welfare has launched an emergency appeal to raise £500,000 in response to an increased demand for its support. Its funding efforts were thwarted by the cancellation of charitable events (Racing Post Staff, ‘Racing Welfare launches £500,000 Covid-19 emergency appeal’, Racing Post, 9 April 2020, https://www.racingpost.com/news/racing-welfare-launches-500000-covid-19-emergency-appeal/431297).
Drawing on the experience from Ireland, horseracing was taking place behind closed doors until 24 March. A number of social distancing measures were introduced by Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) under its Covid-19 Protocols (the Protocols can be downloaded from https://www.hri.ie/covid-19-protocols/). The Protocols provided that only essential services and industry participants were permitted to enter the racecourse. Only one trainer per horse was permitted, one photographer per company, one racing journalist per newspaper or media organisation; the jockeys’ sauna was closed, it mandated the regular sanitising of doorknobs, handrails, escalators, elevator buttons and other points of contact. Any person, whose presence was deemed unnecessary, would be asked to leave the racecourse. Ireland was the only major racing country in Europe that continued to hold race meets albeit with strict health and safety protocols.
On 24 March, the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar announced the introduction of strict guidelines. People were told to stay home. Citizens are only permitted to leave their house to exercise briefly within 2km of their home, to shop for food, to collect prescriptions and attend medical appointments, to bring animals to a veterinary surgeon and essential frontline workers are permitted to leave their homes for the purposes of going to work (Speech of An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD, Government Buildings, 27 March 2020, https://www.gov.ie/en/speech/f27026-speech-of-an-taoiseach-leo-varadkar-td-government-buildings-27-march/). The restrictions came into effect from midnight on 27 March 2020. All people over the age of 70 and those with underlying health conditions were told to cocoon and not leave their homes. Consequently, all sporting events were cancelled.
The 27 March restrictions were to apply until 12 April, with the proviso that they would be under continuous review. The Taoiseach, at the time, was reluctant to introduce legislation that would increase the powers of the police, as he noted that, since the foundation of the State, Ireland has endorsed policing by consent rather than by coercion. However, as the number of positive tests and deaths increased, legislation was introduced that gives the police enhanced powers to enforce the COVID-19 restrictions, namely, the Health Act 1947 (Section 3IA – Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 which was signed into law on 7 April (the full Act can be accessed at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/full-text-the-new-garda-powers-to-enforce-covid-19-restrictions-1.42242610).
The deadline of 12 April 2020 will likely be extended and be subject to continuous review. Thus, the cancellation of horseracing and other sports may continue into the autumn.
The Resumption of Racing Group will meet next week to discuss the possibility of holding racing behind closed doors. As things stand, it seems highly improbable that the social distancing measures currently in force in Britain will permit any type of horseracing. The Group may look at the COVID-19 Protocols devised by HRI; however, these Protocols could not withstand the restrictions introduced by the Irish government. As positive tests and deaths increase daily in Britain, attempts to flatten the curve will be the priority. The reinstatement of horseracing is not an immediate concern for most people, except for those that are part of the industry.
The narrative has focused on the financial impact of the cancellation of horseracing; there has been no discourse on the welfare of the horses. There have been reports of cats, dogs and tigers being diagnosed with the virus. As of now, there have been no reports of COVID-19 in equids. The racing authorities need to be mindful of the health and welfare of the horses and the human participants before any attempts are made, in line with government policy, to reintroduce racing, albeit on a phased basis.
It may well be that virtual racing is expanded to include other races and could become the new normal.
We are, indeed, living in strange times!
Dr Laura Donnellan may be contacted by e-mail at ‘Laura.Donnellan@ul.ie’