Trainer Mark Johnston condemns “grave mistake” to call off racing so quickly

Trainer Mark Johnston.Trainer Mark Johnston.
Trainer Mark Johnston. | PA Wire
MARK Johnston believes the British Horseracing Authority has made a “grave mistake” in suspending racing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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The Middleham trainer spoke out nearly a week after Wetherby staged the last meeting in Britain before the sport was shutdown until the end of April.

The decision, he says, will have long-term repercussions for the Classics – Newmarket’s Guineas meeting takes place in early May – and breeding.

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Elarqam, the mount of Jim Crowley, was due to fly the flag for Mark Johnsrton's stable this year.Elarqam, the mount of Jim Crowley, was due to fly the flag for Mark Johnsrton's stable this year.
Elarqam, the mount of Jim Crowley, was due to fly the flag for Mark Johnsrton's stable this year.

Yet, in the meantime, racing is continuing – for the time being – in Ireland behind closed doors with very strict rules in place.

And Johnston, who has saddled more winners in Britain than any other trainer, believes that the BHA acted in haste.

“I wasn’t supportive of the decision. Who knows what’s going to come?” said Johnston who last week described the financial consequences of racing’s suspension as “unthinkable”.

“There are many people worse off than us – look at the catering industry and so on, that have been closed down completely.

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Racing is divided over the sport's coronavirus suspension.Racing is divided over the sport's coronavirus suspension.
Racing is divided over the sport's coronavirus suspension.

“That could happen to us at any time and we’ll just have to comply with whatever Government tells us. I think it was a grave mistake to pre-empt that.

“All the talk and all the work now is on getting us back racing again, probably behind closed doors. Any practice run or trial we could have had of racing behind closed doors, even if it had been for a few days, would have helped us get back racing again.

“To just stop overnight when we didn’t have to, and to see Irish racing and South African racing on our televisions instead, seems a terrible thing to have done.

“I really don’t think the decision should have been made so quickly.”

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BHA chief executive Nick Rust, who lives in North Yorkshire, has said that it was impossible to justify the continuation of racing during a global health pandemic when the sport requires paramedics, doctors and first-aiders to be at present,

“We realise the implication of a long break. Whilst we can provide financial support and so on there are obviously implications on a generation of two-year-olds and three-year-olds,” he accepted.

“Government will be looking for a return to economic activity as quickly and safely as possible. We are looking at a number of possibilities about whether we could race safely. Given the restrictions that are in place we’re going to have to think very creatively.

But Johnston, a qualified vet, believes that any extension to the suspension of racing in Britain could lead to owners moving horses abroad.

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He said: “If you start thinking about the implications for the breeding industry and the sales and so on, if racing was off for a prolonged period, people are going to have to think about alternatives.

“Some owners will have no choice.

“We’ve had just one horse who has gone home and another one is moving to Ireland, where racing at the moment continues. Those numbers could change dramatically as things evolve.”

He added: “It’s not a headache in terms of the day-to-day running of the yard. We’ve actually got a surplus of staff.

“We had a sudden influx of people wanting to come for the summer. On Tuesday and Wednesday morning we had 12 applications for temporary work from people whose jumps yards had closed down and they were left without work.

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“We’ve got jockeys coming in – Paul Mulrennan, PJ McDonald, Joe Fanning – who would have been coming in anyway – and Andrew Mullen. We’ve got a whole list of jockeys, as they are obviously one of the most immediate sufferers - their income has been cut to zero overnight.”

Two stable stars Johnston is looking forward to getting back on the racecourse are Elarqam and Raffle Prize.

Elarqam won three times last year as well as finishing third in the Juddmonte International at York. “It’s got to be the dream to go a couple of places better this year,” said Johnston.

Meanwhile Raffle Prize was being aimed at the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket in early May, having won three of her six juvenile starts and finished second in successive Group Ones on her final two appearances. Johnston said: “She’s absolutely fine. If the Guineas was to go ahead as scheduled in the first week in May, that will be her target.”

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If racing is delayed further, Johnston would be in favour of rescheduling the Classics for later in the year, rather than cancelling them.

“The Classics will obviously be very different, by pushing them back – one of the important things about the Guineas and the Derby is that they do come early in the year, so they’re a test of precocity as well as ability,” he added.

“At the same time, these are exceptional times, and I think I’d rather see them rescheduled than not run.”

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