Australian horse racing and harness racing to continue despite coronavirus scare

Calla Wahlquist
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Vince Caligiuri/EPA</span>
Photograph: Vince Caligiuri/EPA

Horse racing and harness racing will resume after a coronavirus scare, with the industry saying they will continue operating unless explicitly prohibited by health advice.

Racing, including greyhound racing, is one of the last organised sports still operating in Australia after shutdown rules – including the banning of mass gatherings, interstate border restrictions and recommendations against non-essential travel were put in place this week.

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The NRL indefinitely suspended its season on Monday, the A-League on Tuesday and the AFL last Sunday due to coronavirus shutdowns. The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to 2021.

Related: NRL plunged into 'financial crisis' as season is suspended in response to Covid-19

On Friday, Harness Racing Victoria announced it would resume racing on Saturday after a steward with Harness Racing New South Wales, who officiated a race meeting attended by a number of drivers and trainers from Victoria, returned a negative test result for Covid-19.

Flat racing in Victoria resumed on Friday after Melbourne jockey Mark Zahra, who caught a flight 15 days ago with a person later diagnosed with Covid-19, also tested negative. Two NSW jockeys who had contact with Zahra also tested negative.

Zahra himself is scheduled to ride again in Bendigo on Sunday.

The Racing Victoria chief executive, Giles Thompson, said Zahra’s negative test “paves the way for racing to resume in Victoria tomorrow and for this we are extremely grateful”.

“We are acutely aware of the incredible hardship that many Australians are facing at this time through the loss of their jobs, which is why we are continuing to work so hard to protect the livelihoods of all those within Victorian racing who depend on it,” he said.

The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, is expected to announce stage three lockdowns on Friday and has repeatedly said that people who can stay home must stay home. Andrews previously indicated shutdowns could be expanded to include everything that is not an essential service. Yet the Victorian government has declined to comment on whether racing should shut down.

Thompson said horse racing supports 25,000 direct and indirect jobs in Victoria alone. According to the Australian Skills and Industry Committee, about 11,400 people are employed directly in horse and dog racing in Australia.

Unlike other sports, racing has animal care requirements which cannot be shut down.

“In announcing the resumption of racing, I want to assure the Victorian community that racing will continue to operate under strict biosecurity protocols and where required act decisively, as we did when suspending racing yesterday, should there be any risk to the health of our industry stakeholders and the wider community,” Thompson said.

From midnight on Friday, people involved in the racing industry who cross state borders will have to stay away from a racetrack for 14 days afterwards. Horses will be allowed to cross state borders only with licensed transport companies, and providing no one involved in transport enters a racecourse.

Harness racing will resume on Saturday, and the Harness Racing Victoria chief executive, Dayle Brown, said he was “comfortable with the processes employed by [Harness Racing NSW] to investigate this situation”.

Greyhound racing in Australia will continue until organisers receive health advice telling them to shut down, a spokesman for Greyhound Racing Victoria told Guardian Australia.

The spokesman said there were 1,200 meets a year, with the calendar set 12-month in advance, and participants would stick to that.

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“We continue to race with our distancing policy in place unless advised otherwise,” he said.

All three industries have been racing without trackside crowds, reduced the number of people on course to “essential” personnel, and put social distancing rules in place intended to stop person-to-person contact.

Members of the horse racing industry have raised animal welfare concerns if meets are suspended, saying that horses need to be fed and exercised, even if the meets are not running.

The RSPCA has called on the federal government to declare work that involves caring for animals, including in the racing industries, as essential, to exclude it from any potential lockdowns. It has not called for racing to be allowed to continue.

“This includes if and when these facilities are no longer open to the public,” RSCPA chief executive Richard Mussell said. “There could be disastrous consequences for human health and welfare as well as animal health and welfare, if people are unable to care for, and are forced to abandon, the animals that depend on them for survival.”

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