01 June 2020

Racing is back – but not as we know it

01 June 2020

Ever since racing was suspended from March 18 amid the coronavirus pandemic, the sport has been wondering when it might get back into action.

The final approval came from the Government at the weekend and on Monday the long wait was finally over, as racing resumed behind closed doors at Newcastle.

PA Media journalist Nick Robson was one of only two reporters allowed on course due to the strict protocols and social distancing in place, and here he recounts his experience of the day:

The sun shone brightly at Newcastle as horse racing returned – but not quite as we know it.

Since its enforced absence due to Covid-19, the industry, like all other major sports, had ground to a halt.

Following tireless work behind the scenes, however, racing was in pole position to return as soon as the Government lifted lockdown restrictions sufficiently.

But there are several major differences – even compared to the week after the Cheltenham Festival when racing briefly flirted with a behind closed doors experiment.

Only those with prior consent were allowed inside the racecourse grounds, as officials need to know well in advance those who will be in attendance.

Once you get through the first staging post and breathe a sigh of relief, you then arrive at the temperature screening post. Having been asked to leave my car, which I had been sat in for close to 90 minutes, a masked medic took my temperature.

The reading was not good news at 37.7C – perilously close to the threshold of 37.8C. Thankfully there was a shaded area next to the tent and literally within a minute my temperature had dropped to 36.6C and I was given the green light to proceed.

Obviously, with no paying public, the racecourse had a slightly eerie feel to it, but with 120 runners on the card there were still plenty of stable lads and lasses, as well as officials milling around.

It is once you approach the entrance you see the big changes. Security in face masks, markers on the floor to remind you to keep your distance, two-metre warnings on the wall and a one-way system in place.

The usual weighing room was not in operation due to size constraints, meaning the jockeys had to make a convoluted way into the paddock and once in there connections have to stand on white markers which are two metres apart

There are also changes at the conclusion of the race, with only the winner returning to the paddock while all other runners unsaddle in an area near the racecourse stables, enabling the jockeys to make their way back to their makeshift changing rooms.

Several jockeys who were spoken to admitted to feeling a little constrained by the face masks, but accepted the problem was exacerbated by the hot weather and felt that in a few days it would become second nature.

So racing is back. Roger Fell saddled a one-two in the opening race, with Zodiakos and James Sullivan coming out on top, and while it is hardly perfect, it is a lot better than the alternative.

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