Dr Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland
On 17 March 2020, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced the cancellation of all racing until at least the end of April 2020 in the wake of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On 23 March, the British government introduced restrictions including the prohibition of public gatherings of more than two people. These restrictions are likely to continue for some time as the COIVD-19 Tracker on 2 May 2020 shows that more 177,000 people have tested positive for the virus and 28,131 people have lost their lives. Britain has the second highest death rate in Europe, with Italy recording the highest number of deaths so far.
While the above statistics are not just figures but represent human beings who have fallen ill or have died due to the disease, it is a sobering reminder of the effects of the virus and had the restrictions not been imposed when they were, many more people could have lost their lives.
The discussion, therefore, of the resumption of horseracing seems somewhat inconsiderate in the circumstances. However, horseracing in Britain is not just a sport, it is an industry with an annual expenditure of £3.45 billion and a tax contribution of £300 million (BHA, ‘Brexit and European Racing-Briefing Note’, https://www.britishhorseracing.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Brexit-briefing-September-2019.pdf). The industry employs over 17, 400 Full Time Equivalents (FTE), which includes approximately 450 jockeys, 550 trainers and 6500 stable staff (ibid). The BHA reduced its monthly budget from £3 million to £2 million and 200 of its 260 work force ceased working and salaries were reduced across the board (Greg Wood, ‘BHA putting plans in place for 1 May resumption of racing if permitted’, 29 Mar. 2020, The Guardian, https://amp.theguardian.com/sport/2020/mar/29/bha-putting-plans-in-place-for-1-may-resumption-of-racing-if-permitted).
The industry has felt the economic effects of the cessation of racing, especially those who run small stables and the jockeys who are freelancers and thus unable to earn a livelihood as the cancellation of racing continues.
The COVID19 Racing Industry Group established the Resumption of Racing Group and, in a press release in early April, it was optimistic of racing resuming on 1 May 2020 and that it was 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 maintained that racing could be resumed in a phased and controlled manner that complied with government policy.
The Resumption of Racing Group published a press release on 1 May 2020 (BHA, ‘Update from the Resumption of Racing Group’, https://www.britishhorseracing.com/press_releases/resumption-update-provisional-flat-pattern-and-listed-race-programme/). The press release states that it is costing the industry at least £6 million a month, with the loss of course betting attributing to the bulk of the loss of the revenue (ibid). Hurdle racing has been postponed to 1 July at the earliest. In adopting a number of scenarios or phases, the Group sought expressions of interest from racecourses in relation to staging fixtures in a controlled and measured way that would comply with public health guidelines (ibid). In following the approach of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), the Group has recommended the resumption of racing, which would take place behind closed doors under strict conditions (including a limit of permitted personnel, a limit of 12 runners in each race, restricting places to more experienced jockeys) that would involve stringent medical, risk and biosecurity protocols, the latter providing for the safety of horses in transportation in and out of the site (ibid).
The Resumption of Racing Group noted that high on its list for the resumption of racing was Royal Ascot, which ‘is one of the most valuable and significant features of the year for racing, breeding and betting industries’ (ibid). It plans to hold Royal Ascot behind closed doors from 16 to 20 June ‘if the restrictions in place at the time allow it to proceed’ (ibid). The organisers of Royal Ascot convened a meeting on 7 April and issued a statement. It stated that Royal Ascot may go ahead, subject to government and public health policy and the approval of the BHA; however, it would not be open to the public (Royal Ascot, ‘Statement on behalf of Ascot Racecourse about Royal Ascot 2020’, 7 Apr. 2020, https://www.ascot.co.uk/statement-on-behalf-of-ascot-about-royal-ascot-2020).
If Royal Ascot does not go ahead behind closed doors in June, the feasibility of rescheduling it to late July has been discussed. However, as a number of races are designed to take place at a particular developmental stage of the two year old and three year old thoroughbreds, postponing Ascot may not be an option (Chris Cook, ‘Royal Ascot ready to run races behind closed doors if it goes ahead in June’, 7 Apr. 2020, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/apr/07/guineas-and-derby-postponed-royal-ascot-horse-racing-coronavirus-emergency). It will either take place under strict conditions in June or not take place at all in 2020.
While Royal Ascot is insured, however, there are uninsured costs, for example, the reduction in prize money even if goes ahead behind closed doors (ibid). Ascot spokesperson, Nick Smith has acknowledged that it is a ‘challenging year’ and ‘there will clearly be a material impact on prize money’; however, he concluded that ‘it’s better, I’m sure, to run the pattern races for the good of the breed and the breeding industry for TV and betting than not run the races at all’ (as quoted by Cook, ibid).
Germany and Norway are expected to resume closed racing in the next week, and Ireland is slated to follow suit the week after; however, the unpredictability of the course of COVID-19 and the fear that a second wave of the virus could emerge if restrictions are relaxed too soon, there is a possibility that Royal Ascot may not go ahead at all this year.
Until the UK government outlines a road map of easing restrictions on a phase by phase basis, there is a lack of certainty. Ireland tried behind closed doors racing until the end of March; however, it proved to be impossible to continue as more stringent restrictions were introduced (see Laura Donnellan, ‘COVID-19: Its Impact on Horseracing in Britain and Ireland’, 9 Apr. Sports Law and Taxation, https://www.sportsandtaxation.com/2020/04/covid-19-its-impact-on-horseracing-in-britain-and-ireland/). The resumption of horseracing, whether closed or open, may well not happen for many months.
Balancing public health issues and sporting interests, especially financial ones, is the name of the game and a tough call for the public authorities as well as sports event organisers!
Dr Laura Donnellan may be contacted by e-mail at ‘Laura.Donnellam@ul.ie’