Leicester meeting in balance as BHA plans for further Covid-19 disruption

Greg Wood
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/PA</span>
Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/PA

Having staged one race meeting amid a local lockdown on Tuesday, the chance that Leicester will do so again will hang in the balance until Friday, after the British Horseracing Authority said it will “have further discussions with the relevant authorities” before deciding whether the card can take place.

Tuesday’s meeting at Leicester, with a first race at 4.40pm, did not get the all-clear to proceed until late on Tuesday morning, when many runners were already on their way to the track. Several trainers withdrew their intended starters – a dozen non-runners were reported to be due to “travel problems” or “other” – while the meeting also took place without starting stalls after just four of the expected 11 stalls handlers reported for duty.

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Related: Talking Horses: non-runners and no stalls but Leicester races on

Matthew Hancock, the UK’s health secretary, announced a reimposition of some lockdown measures in Leicester and the surrounding area in a statement to the House of Commons on Monday evening. The move followed a rise in the number of Covid-19 infections reported in the city, which has seen about 10% of all reported infections in England over the past week.

Ragged starts and the slew of non-runners led to a sense that Tuesday’s meeting was limping towards the finishing line, and having had little time in which to decide whether to go ahead after Hancock’s announcement, the BHA will seek further advice from stakeholders as well as local health officials before making a call on next Tuesday’s card.

“Yesterday’s race meeting was held with the approval of the local authority and Public Health England,” a BHA spokesperson said on Wednesday, “under the strict protocols agreed in advance with the resumption of sport behind closed doors. The lockdown effectively reinstated restrictions as they were on 14 June, in the view of local officials, when racing was permitted in accordance with UK government guidelines.”

While the decision to go ahead may not have breached the letter of the reimposed restrictions, however, some trainers – and a majority of the stalls handlers – clearly felt that it did not accord with the spirit or intention of the move. Graeme McPherson, who scratched his intended runner Homing Star from the 8.15pm race, said that he had been “frankly astounded that the BHA considered it appropriate to race”, adding that he could not “believe that the public will perceive racing to be doing the right thing”.

As a result, and in view of the distinct possibility that further local lockdowns will be imposed in other areas in the weeks ahead, the BHA will “speak to representative bodies within the industry” in the hope of establishing a procedure should further lockdowns arise at short notice.

Areas of the country which have been reported as having rising rates of Covid-19 infection include York, which is due to stage its first meeting of the year next Thursday, as well as Doncaster and Redcar, which have both held meetings since the resumption of racing on 1 June. However, Sharon Stoltz, the City of York council’s director of public health, said on Wednesday that the city “currently has relatively low numbers of cases of Covid-19 and a local lockdown is certainly not necessary”, adding, “there is no evidence to suggest that cases are increasing in York”.

Entries are being taken as normal for next Tuesday’s card at Leicester, and a decision will be taken “by lunchtime on Friday” on whether it can go ahead. “Given that the local lockdown measures may still be evolving, it’s important that dialogue continues ahead of any future events in Leicester,” the BHA spokesperson said. “Our industry colleagues will be briefed on this dialogue and will consider any potential impacts on racing. Our focus continues to be on making sure racing behind closed doors takes place as safely as possible.”

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