Five trainers have withdrawn their horses from Leicester race-meeting on Tuesday evening, owing to concerns related to the local lockdown, and some have criticised the decision to let the fixture go ahead. The British Horseracing Authority announced at 11.19am that, despite the measures being taken to combat a spike in coronavirus cases, racing would go ahead at the Oadby venue, just outside the city.
Graeme McPherson, who works as a QC as well as a racehorse trainer and has presented cases for the BHA, said: “I thought it was a real kick in the teeth to the people of Leicester, to say you cant open your businesses, you cant go out of your houses because the government say you shouldnt travel except for essential reasons, and for the BHA then to say that, well, the local authority says we can go ahead with racing so we will.”
McPherson took out his only entrant at Leicester, Homing Star in the 8.15pm race. “It seems to me that racing ought to be setting an example. Regardless of whether or not racing could go ahead, racing ought to be saying we wont go ahead if every other business in Leicester cannot reopen.
“Without wishing to sound over-dramatic, I was going to go to Leicester myself with someone else tonight and I thought, I cant actually in all conscience send a member of staff there. The guys that will be on the gate there, some will be BHA but some will be local. I thought, geez, I dont understand why Im going to the one city in Britain that the government has told to lock down.”
His view was shared by Alan King, who has withdrawn Kismat from the 8.15pm and Party Potential from the 8.45pm race. “I honestly thought it would be called off,” said King. “Theyve obviously decided to go ahead but I did not feel comfortable about the situation at all. I spoke to my staff and they werent really overly keen to go and both my owners gave me full backing.
“Weve got to look at the big picture here. I genuinely hope its not a PR disaster. With what the citys going through, we should not be driving through it with horse boxes. Its only my opinion but I feel very strong about it and hence the reason why I havent sent them.”
Mick Appleby, whose Oakham stable is 20 miles from Leicester racecourse, withdrew his three entrants. “Obviously, theyve got a big outbreak in the area now, so why should racing be going ahead?” he asked. “Its common sense that youd call the meeting off.
“Were well away from the affected area but the racecourse is sort of in the centre of it. Oadby, where the racecourse is, thats one of the worst affected areas. I just cant see the point of taking the risk.
“Hopefully nobody does contract anything but if somebody did test positive after attending the meeting, itd mean that everybody who attended would have to go into lockdown. If I sent one of my staff to the races and they did come down with it after coming back to the yard, it risks everybody at the yard as well.”
John Best also took out his only runner on the card after staff expressed concerns. “I think its got to be an individual decision,” said the Kent-based trainer, “but I felt that my staff were not comfortable going there, partly because my travelling head girls mother is a vulnerable person. We discussed it with the owners and the owners said, if theyre not happy to go, we wouldnt want them to feel uncomfortable going.
“The risk of course is absolutely minimal but if anyone does get something and its publicised, the public perception as well as everything else is not going to be good for racing.”
Chelsea Banham tweeted that she had decided not to send two runners from her Newmarket base, for the sake of the safety of her staff.
Earlier, the British Horseracing Authority tweeted: “Following confirmation from local health authorities that the race meeting should go ahead, the fixture at Leicester will take place today. The fixture will be held behind closed doors and with the existing strict health screening and social distancing measures in place.”
The decision came as a surprise to some, given the governmental attention now being paid to the local area. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said the city had “10% of all positive cases in the country over the past week”, with the result that non-essential shops there will be closed on Tuesday and schools will close for most pupils from Thursday.
Hancock announced the local lockdown measures in the House of Commons on Monday evening, and specifically mentioned Oadby, the area just outside Leicester where the racecourse is sited, as one of the areas that would be included. He told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: “Its so important that we get a grip on this spike that has happened in Leicester.” He advised that people should not travel “in, out or within Leicester” unless it was essential.
The news means Tuesdays fixture is a rare example in recent times of a Leicester raceday going ahead after being in doubt. The tracks finances have taken a battering over the past year, mostly because of weather-related abandonments. At one stage this winter, the track had lost six race-meetings out of nine.
Horse racing has been taking place at tracks around Britain for the past four weeks, with attendance limited to essential personnel and measures in place to guard against transmission of Covid-19. Masks are worn by jockeys, stalls handlers and others who may at times have to work within two metres of others.