10th - 13th March

MP McGinn backs BHA decision to suspend racing

Authority had ‘no option’ but to halt fixtures.

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MP Conor McGinn insists British racing made the only possible decision to suspend fixtures during the escalating coronavirus outbreak.

Mr McGinn, MP for St Helens North and co-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Racing Group, spelled out that the British Horseracing Authority announcement to pause the calendar last week was both ethical and inevitable.

There will be no racing in Britain until at least the start of May – and Mr McGinn is fully supportive of the current blank fixture list at a time when confirmed cases of the pandemic, and deaths, continue to spiral nationally and globally.

Asked on Racing TV’s Luck On Sunday programme if the BHA was right to call time temporarily on British meetings, he said: “I think it’s made the only decision that was possible in the circumstances.

“The country is in a public health emergency, a national crisis, and there are huge economic implications.”

The Cheltenham Festival went ahead without major disruption the previous week, but much has changed in the wider world – and therefore racing too – since then.

Mr McGinn added: “There was a very discernible shift in public opinion, after the Friday of the Cheltenham Festival over the weekend.

“People were very clear that there was an expectation, when other sports had shut down, that racing should do that as well.

“There was no option, both because of Government advice and public opinion – but also because of the ethics of keeping the medical profession to run a sport at a time when the NHS is facing unprecedented pressures on its services.”

Mr McGinn empathises as a racing enthusiast with those who are missing the sport – but he has no doubt about the right course of action.

He said: “I love racing – I feel totally bereft at the (current) absence of racing in my life every day.

“But this is about the country, and it is obscene to think we somehow can absent ourselves from our national duty.

“As racing people (we must) put our shoulder to the wheel and support the efforts that are being made and the calls for social distancing.”

BHA chief executive Nick Rust is of the same mind, but has made it clear too that he and his colleagues are already planning for a method by which a resumption of racing will be possible at some point.

He indicated that “creative thinking” may well be required to achieve that, with some radical alternative scheduling perhaps in the mix to try to minimise movement of both people and horses.

The new Flat season should have been starting at Doncaster next weekend – but instead, depending on the spread of coronavirus, this summer’s Classics may be in jeopardy or at least in danger of significant delay.

Rust said: “There are obviously implications for a generation of two- and three-year-olds, what happens to the Pattern.

“We have to look at all possibilities for a return. 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. We’re effectively being told to stay at home, so any solution will have to involve something very creative, probably in a very localised area.

“We’re examining the feasibility of that. We mustn’t drain public services, and (it must be) where individuals are happy to take part on that basis.”

But Rust stressed he is not fuelling any conjecture about how a streamlined fixture list could work, for example with the racing centring on one strategic locality.

He added: “I don’t want to set any hares running other than to say that I want to assure people that we’re not sitting here waiting for 12 or 14 weeks to go by and (then) thinking, ‘Oh, we’d better start thinking about how we’re going to return’.

“When we suspended racing, we said we’d keep the decision under review, and we’d look at how and when we could bring racing back as soon as we could – and we are keeping that in mind.

“I’m not suggesting that will happen in the next week.

“We’re all trying to do the right thing by this industry.”

Rust has no qualms about the BHA’s decision to press ahead with the Cheltenham Festival – where crowds were only slightly down on the huge annual pilgrimage which habitually watches the pinnacle of the National Hunt season.

The 2020 Grand National was cancelled just three days later, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold – and predictions of future totals grew exponentially.

Asked if he harboured any regrets about sanctioning the running of this year’s Festival, Rust said: “No, not at all – because as we’ve consistently said all the way through, and were asked by Government, we followed Government advice and tried to stick with it.

“As we approached Cheltenham, we sought clarity from Government. The advice was to continue – there was going to be no stopping mass gatherings. We were still very much in the first phase, the ‘contain’ phase, and there was no reason not to continue with Cheltenham.

“Obviously the mood changed and the advice changed that week.

“We had new information on the Thursday – the Government started to signal up what was likely to come, and things had changed very rapidly.”

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