Friday 1 May 2020

Coming Out of Lockdown – The Resumption of Racing Appears to be Getting Nearer

Has anyone experienced an April like the one we’ve just been through? I was uncertain whether to start this blog with a small number of personal reflections, or to concentrate on the gravity of the situation and the grim news that we have all been encountering – lighter news prevailed, before the sombre.

NHS rainbow sheep, Mayfair Rock’s filly foal, Luttrell Lad loving his grub, A new form of G&T, Life’s too short for bad wine
We’ll all have our own personal memories of the crisis, and for me they will be triggered in future years by the five photographs. Without any doubt (subject of course to disasters!) I’m going to come out of the lockdown in a far healthier state than when I went into it. My wife and I are having an hour’s walk around the Cotswold hills every day, and the trudge back to our house is quite steep. We’ve both enjoyed watching the newborn lambs, and our local farmer amused the village by painting “NHS” on the heaviest lamb that had been born to date, and his mum.

Earlier in the month, our mare Mayfair Rock produced her first foal, and we’re all hoping that this lovely grey filly will go on to great things. She is by Gr.1-winning Havana Grey, trained by Karl Burke, and he very generously helped us with a free nomination to this stallion, who has been well supported by breeders.

It has been very interesting to see all the various forms of communication being adopted by the racing world, not least our network of trainers, studs and pre-training yards. Several of them have really risen to the challenge of keeping owners fully informed and in touch with their horses, and I particularly want to commend Claire Hart and Martin Keighley for the almost daily flow of super photos and videos. Claire is looking after Luttrell Lad, who was due to race at Stratford, but alas the meeting had to be cancelled due to the lockdown. He’s a horse we’re particularly looking forward to seeing out and he’ll run for Philip Hobbs in bumpers at the end of the summer or early in the autumn.

Many of us have been disappointed by and / or incredulous about the performance of politicians. There has often seemed to be a considerable gap between the rhetoric of what they blather on about and the reality on the ground. If that has been a frequent public criticism in the UK, it has been nothing compared to the reactions to the “Leader of the Western World”, President Trump. A new drink has even made its appearance – although one quickly expressly prohibited by all right-thinking people. No-one wants to consider a Gin & Trump made of disinfectant. Nothing is further from my mind – indeed, every Saturday my wife and I have been enjoying a top-quality wine tasting, the latest being a superb 2003 Château Léoville-Barton from St-Julien. This estate is owned by the admirable Anthony Barton, who represents the longest-standing vineyard ownership in Anglo-Irish hands. His philosophy has always been to produce top-quality Claret and sell it for a (relatively) reasonable sum. Superb.

Now back to the grim reality. As of the end of April there had been 165,000+ confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in the UK, and 26,000+ deaths in hospitals, care homes and the wider community. Apparently 1:3 who have been ill enough to be admitted to intensive care have died. It’s hard to comprehend the sadness of this, nor the amazing dedication of the NHS and the front line of care. The country has been rightly appreciative of the bravery of all these staff, and none of us will forget the accomplishment of Captain (now Honorary Colonel) Tom Moore who has raised £31m for NHS charities by walking 100 laps of his garden.

Doubtless there will be many commissions of enquiry into the preparedness of the country for dealing with this pandemic. Already several experts, with vastly more insight than I possess, have been highly critical. As one example, Richard Horton, the Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, has published a number of articles accusing ministers and their advisers of failing to scale up capacity for testing, contact tracing and intensive care, and adopting a laissez-faire response and a misguided strategy of “herd immunity”. The first paper on the existence of Covid-19 was published in The Lancet on 19th January, but the assessment within it was passed over by Whitehall. Horton’s withering accusation is that this has become “the biggest science policy failure in generations”.

There has been no racing in the UK since Taunton and Wetherby on 17th March, but very encouragingly the whole of racing has come together to work collaboratively in the Resumption of Racing Group, and it is looking increasingly likely that Flat racing will come back behind closed doors around the middle to end of May, with the return of NH racing provisionally announced for 1st July. The breadth and detail of work within this group has been impressive, as has its close liaison with government and, particularly, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport. The government has provided considerable sums of money to support businesses and many trainers have taken advantage of grants and loans. In addition the Horseracing Levy Board and the Racing Foundation have provided £22m of emergency funding to help sustain racing and its participants through the pandemic, particularly concentrating on the most vulnerable. This has been an excellent piece of self-help.

Unfortunately one major crack in the collaborative endeavour made its appearance when the frustration of trainers Ralph Beckett and Mark Johnston spilled over, with calls for the immediate departure of BHA Chief Executive, Nick Rust. The timing and tone of this outburst could not have been worse, as it is essential for racing to present a united front to government while also being sensitive to, and reflective of, public opinion. It would be potentially damaging for racing to be seen to be putting a mere sport ahead of public health and the needs of the population. Apart from this, the level of co-operation has been magnificent, although without any doubt deep divisions and factions remain within the sport. Once racing resumes, the various stakeholders will most certainly need to concentrate on an even more demanding plan – the Recovery of Racing. Achieving co-operation and consensus on that plan will be a huge challenge for the leadership of racing, which will be the theme for the next blog.

Normally the blog for 1st May would have been reflecting on the end of the NH season at Sandown, the pleasures of the Punchestown Festival and the excitement of the Guineas meeting coming up at Newmarket. Alas, not this year, but at least there is likely to be fine racing ahead, and who knows – we might see some of it in May. Stay safe and well.

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