Dr Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland
Horseracing in Britain ceased on 18 March 2020 as all 59 racecourses closed and all meetings were cancelled as part of the UK government’s lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic. This cessation of racing came five days after the end of the Cheltenham Festival, an event which attracted 260,000 attendees. The decision to go ahead with the Festival was criticised by those who contend that it resulted in the spread of the virus (David Conn, ‘“We were packed like sardines”: evidence grows of mass-event dangers early in pandemic’, 3 June 2020, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/03/we-were-packed-like-sardines-evidence-grows-of-mass-event-dangers-early-in-pandemic). Not only were those in attendance vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, the town itself became a ‘coronavirus hotspot in the south-west after the festival’ (ibid.).
In response to the cancellation of horseracing, the COVID-19 Racing Industry Group established the Resumption of Racing Group, a group consisting of representatives from the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the Horsemen’s Group, the Racecourse Association (RCA) and the Horseracing Betting Levy Board (HBLB). Plans have been underway since March for the resumption of horseracing in a controlled manner that complies with government policy.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), Public Health England (PHE), the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and UK Sport, along with sports’ governing bodies, established a five-stage resumption strategy for elite sport with Stage Five preparing for the return of unrestricted elite sport.
Stage One concerned the return to training (RTT) for athletes and staff subject to social distancing rules (DCMS, ‘Guidance: Elite sport return to training guidance: Stage One’, Updated 1 June 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-on-phased-return-of-sport-and-recreation/elite-sport-return-to-training-guidance-step-one–2). Stage Two built on Stage One by providing ‘an additional set of minimum’ RTT guidelines; in particular, it provided for the RTT in small clusters while still observing the two metre rule (DCMS, ‘Elite sport return to training guidance: Stage Two’, Updated 1 June 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-on-phased-return-of-sport-and-recreation/elite-sport-return-to-training-guidance-stage-two).
Stage Three, the return to domestic competition, commenced on 1 June and with horseracing resuming albeit in a new format (DCMS, ‘Elite sport – return to domestic competition guidance’, Updated 1 June 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-on-phased-return-of-sport-and-recreation/elite-sport-return-to-domestic-competition-guidance).
This stage attracted the views of members of Olympic and Paralympic sports and other professional sports, along with the drafters of Stages One and Two. Stage Three is referred to as the return to Domestic Competition – No Spectators (RTDC) for elite teams/athletes. The guidance provided under Stages One and Two remains in place.
Horseracing resumed at Newcastle Racecourse on 1 June 2020, however, in following the guidelines, did so without spectators and with a limited number of key personnel.
In advance of the return to racing, on 23 May 2020 the BHA published its ‘Guidelines and operating procedures for racing behind closed doors for all attendees in context of COVID-19’ (http://media.britishhorseracing.com/bha/covid19/BCD_Protocols.pdf). The ‘strict protocols’ came into effect on 1 June 2020 and will remain in force until further notice, as they are subject to review in line with government guidelines due to the fluid nature of Covid-19. It is a lengthy document that mandates all those ‘likely to attend’ a race meeting must read and/or understand the protocols (ibid. p.5). The protocols are based on the guidance of the UK government with cognisance given to variations from the Governments of Wales and Scotland (ibid). While the protocols are primarily aimed at attendees, employers of attendees are under a duty to inform their employees of the rules and provide appropriate support (ibid.).
Under Protocol 6 on Attendance Restrictions, a list of key personnel is provided which includes the following:
- BHA officials and staff
- Essential racecourse staff and contractors
- Medical/ambulance personnel
- Valets working at the race meeting (as required by the Racecourse Association who has its own operational protocols in its supplementary Code of Conduct, https://racecourseassociation.co.uk/supplementary-conditions-covid-19-code-of-conduct/)
- Racecourse Veterinary Surgeons
- RaceTech staff including one race commentator
- Technical staff
- One Trainer (or their representative) per yard represented
- One senior groom per yard represented
- Stable staff of horses running in the race meeting (maximum of one groom per runner)
- Commercial horsebox drivers/transporters, where applicable
- Jockeys riding in the race meeting.
A number of those listed, for example, BHA staff, are subject to their required attendance at the racecourse on that particular day (Guidelines and operating procedures for racing behind closed doors for all attendees in context of COVID-19, p.6).
Representatives from the media (defined as User Groups under the DCMS Stage Three Guidelines) are permitted to attend, subject to the following restrictions:
- Two written media journalists (One Press Association, one Racing Post – accredited journalists will be provided with more information by the RCA)
- Two photographers (one racecourse photographer, one racing photographer), to be determined by each racecourse (ibid).
All attendees are subject to a three-stage screening procedur: the first is an online education module on COVID-19; the second is a questionnaire which once completed is valid for seven days; and the third part concerns on-course screening (Guidelines and operating procedures for racing behind closed doors for all attendees in context of COVID-19, pp.9-10). Attendees will be required to answer questions on their arrival and will have their temperature taken twice with the lowest recorded. If the attendee’s temperature is recorded as 37.8°C on both occasions, they will not be permitted to enter the racecourse (ibid. p.10). All attendees will be required to bring photo identification with them as proof of identity (ibid.).
The BHA’s Chief Medical Adviser, Dr Jerry Hill, commented on the resumption of racing and its compliance with public health protocols as follows:
“Our approach to screening and surveillance has been developed following discussions with Public Health England as part of the Chief Medical Officers in Sport Group. It is based on the low level of background risks at an outdoor event in a non-contact sport with attendees from mainly rural areas. It is responsible, makes sensible use of medical resources but is flexible so we can adapt in accordance with changing government policy and as our knowledge of Covid-19 increases over time” (quoted by the RCA, ‘British Horseracing Focused on Returning Safely’, 30 May 2020, https://racecourseassociation.co.uk/british-horseracing-focused-on-returning-safely/).
The return of horseracing comes at a critical time amidst fears that Royal Ascot this year would be cancelled (Laura Donnellan, ‘COVID-19 and Horseracing: Royal Ascot 2020’, 3 May 2020, Sports Law and Taxation, https://www.sportsandtaxation.com/2020/05/covid-19-and-horseracing-royal-ascot-2020/).
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 was not an option. The 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket on 6 June and Royal Ascot on 16 June are seen as ‘vital to the British breeding industry, which itself directly generates around £400 million per annum in sales of racehorses’ (RCA, ‘British Horseracing Focused on Returning Safely’). Winning horses form the subject of these sales.
If there were no races and, consequently, no winners, the industry that employs around 20,000 people, would continue to suffer considerable financial losses. As the second largest spectator sport in Britain, it generates approximately £3.6 billion per year. Ten weeks without racing will have reduced its revenue, yet expenditure will have continued from wages to the keeping of the horses.
It remains to be seen when Stage Four concerning the staging of events with limited spectators and Stage Five on the full use of facilities and the return of ‘close contact sport’ will be introduced. Whether the return of unrestricted sport happens this year remains unclear. By adopting an incremental approach, Stage Four will only happen if Stage Three is successful.
The next two months are crucial to horseracing as the 2.000 Guineas and Royal Ascot are scheduled to take place in June and the Epsom Derby in July.
Dr Laura Donnellan may be contacted by e-mail at ‘Laura.Donnellan@ul.ie’