Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston lays out parameters for horse racing’s return

SPORTS Minister Nigel Huddleston has set out the safeguards which horse racing needs to put in place before it can resume.

No racing has taken place in Britain since Wetherby's behind closed doors meeting on March 18.
No racing has taken place in Britain since Wetherby's behind closed doors meeting on March 18.

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The politician is due to have a video meeting with British Horseracing Authority chair Annamarie Phelps, chief executive Nick Rust and others to discuss the sport’s plans.

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The BHA had initially hoped that fixtures could take place behind closed doors from this Friday onwards. However it now has no definitive date for racing’s resumption, though May remains the primary objective.

Action from Wetherby's meeting on March 18 - the last in Britain before the Covid-19 lockdown.

But Mr Huddleston, who is also meeting executives from other sports this week, has now told Parliament the public health parameters that will have to be met. They include the testing of participants – and provision of medical cover – so the NHS is not put under any extra pressure.

“All major sports need to look after their staff, competitors, stakeholders and fans, and that includes having an eye to when competition might resume,” he told MPs.

“At this stage, it is not possible to give a timescale for when current restrictions will be relaxed. Potential conditions in which sport might return include behind closed doors, with neutral venues and with limited staff and broadcast crew. “Other considerations would include first responder capacity and the availability of regular testing. We are in regular contact with the sector on what might be possible in future, but this will be entirely dependent on public health guidelines.”

Mr Huddleston, who succeeded Selby & Ainsty MP Nigel Adams in the February reshuffle, was responding to a question from Tory MP Laura Farris whose Newbury constituency includes the Lambourn training centre.

A car park attendant at Wetherby's meeting on March 18.

She wanted to know what steps the Minister was taking to “support the racing industry” and to seek his backing for “creative solutions” like limiting races to just 12 runners to reduce the risks of falls and injuries.

The Minister assured her that the Government is “committed to supporting our world-leading horse-racing industry”. He added: “The Government have put in place an unprecedented support package of business rates relief and support with employment costs, which is helping racing, like other businesses.

“The Horserace Betting Levy Board is making £20m of cash flow available to racecourses, alongside the £8m that the Racing Foundation is providing to support participants. The Government are working closely with the industry and the Levy Board to understand and address the ongoing challenges.”

No racing has taken place in Britain since National Hunt fixtures at Wetherby – and Taunton – on March 18. Already the first four Classics of the 2020 Flat season have been put on hold while York’s season-opening Dante Festival next month is another coronavirus casualty.

It is doubtful that racing will be able to stage Royal Ascot in June while The Yorkshire Post revealed last week that York executives are exploring the practicalities of barring spectators from the prestigious Ebor Festival in August.

Under plans being drawn up for racing’s resumption, all-weather venues at Newcastle and Lingfield could stage meetings over successive days with participants staying ‘in quarantine’ in hotels on the course to minimise any risk of the spread of Covid-19.

But racing also needs to be mindful of political and public opinion – the Government has been surprised by the tone of those executives, and trainers, who have advocated a quick resumption without appearing to take full consideration of the unfolding national tragedy as the death toll in UK hospitals alone tops 20,000.

The sport has also been hit by infighting with Middleham’s Mark Johnston among trainers calling – for varying reasons – for Mr Rust to step down as head of the BHA.

And, earlier this month, dual Grand National-winning trainer Jenny Pitman told The Yorkshire Post that racing needed to leave the Government and the country in no doubt about the work being done by courses to support the national response to Covid-19 so NHS heroes knew that racing was on their side.

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