When a racecourse official came off COVID-19 furlough last week, his boss sat him down to talk him through the imminent return of the sport.
‘Forget everything you know and associate with race meetings, what happens will be completely different,’ he was told.
The conversation has probably been echoed in conversations between trainers, jockeys, grooms and staff whose essential contribution to making a meeting work mean they will be allowed back through a racecourse’s gate from Monday at Newcastle.
Racing is back, but under such strict protocols that the spectacle will be very unfamiliar
Racing is back. Joyously bang the drum for the return of professional sport and settle down in the armchair for some quality entertainment.
Quality will be spread thick across the first five weeks of the season and Monday’s fixture at Newcastle contains horses like Frankly Darling and Valerian Steel which could conceivably be Classic contenders.
The first group one race is on Friday and the Qipco 2,000 Guineas on Saturday. But what we all will watch is racing stripped bare, meetings at their functional minimum.
The racing will take place amid with a bare-bones backdrop, with no fans in attendance
If Frankie Dettori is prompted to do flying dismount when he returns at Kempton on Tuesday, he will do so to the sound of silence.
Health questionnaires, temperature testing, one-way systems around the track, face masks, no showers or saunas for jockeys, no presentations, no on-course bookmakers, no crowds and no owners. That is racing for the immediate future.
Two dress rehearsals were staged at Lingfield last week, the second involving three race starts with six horses which put a focus on the starting procedure with stalls having to be disinfected after each race.
Pinch points where key tasks can’t be done without maintaining Social Distancing were tested and the BHA is confident that their risk-mitigating measures stand up to scrutiny.
Health and safety is set to come first as racing gets back underway at Newcastle racecourse
BHA chief executive Nick Rust said: ‘Our focus has been on returning safely and protecting the health of all those taking part in behind-closed-doors racing and also reassuring the communities where racing takes place in that the risks of transmitting the virus have been minimised.
‘The layers of protection we have put in place means this will be one of the most controlled environments in which people are returning to work on Monday.’
The hand of BHA Chief Medical Officer Dr Jerry Hill is behind most of the new protocols.
He has worked with his counterparts in other sports. His plans include launching a surveillance programme to monitor anonymously occurrences of COVID-19 in racing.
There won’t even be presentations for the jockey, with no owners to celebrate with either
The racing-specific database will allow the sport to work with Public Health England if hotspots occur.
Economic reality will continue to bite. Racecourses have had little or no income and will be operating at break even as long as crowds are barred.
The cost of the shut-down to the sport has been an estimated £55m and the first 10 weeks of the return will be entirely supported by the Levy Board and funds from its reserves.
First prize in Friday’s Group One Coronation Cup, transferred to Newmarket from Epsom, will be £62,000. Last year’s winner Defoe, who is due to start again, scooped £252,000.
David Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Racecourse Association, said: ‘The return to racing is important but what is even more important is the work to a full resumption of racing. We don’t know when that will be and when crowds will be back.’
If Frankie Dettori dismounts with a flying dismount at Kempton there’ll be no cheering fans
The allowed re-opening of betting shops on June 15 offers a vital source of re-started income for the sport.
But, with the uncertainty of re-opening costs and how the High Street will be able to operate, betting industry insiders are predicting only a third of the industry shops may initially open.
Racing has numerous enormous hurdles to overcome until it can begin to resemble the sport we all knew and loved.
Today is just the start and that, at least, should be celebrated.