Donn's Articles » No more racing

No more racing 

So that’s it then, lights out, gates closed, no more Irish racing for a while.  Same as every other sport then.  Same as most other industries.

Racing stood alone for a while, but it was never sustainable beyond the very short term.  The behind-closed-doors thing was a temporary measure, and was always going to be a temporary measure.  Day by day, Brian Kavanagh said continually.  We’ll take it day by day.

They did.  Dundalk first, then Navan and Limerick and Down Royal and Wexford before more stringent measures were imposed.  Then Dundalk again and Thurles and Downpatrick and Naas and Clonmel.  That was it, a limited run behind closed doors. 

It was all very surreal, and it stood alone in a surreal world, an oasis or an anomaly, depending on your perspective. 

It provided horses with a few more opportunities to race, with all the positives for trainers and staff and jockeys that went with that, and it provided people with a fillip of live sport, that they could watch even if they couldn’t attend. 

But the sports world changed again in the last week.  The IOC finally succumbed to the inevitable and admitted defeat in their ambitions to stage the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year.  Official confirmation is still awaited at the time of writing, but it looks like the Katie Taylor/Amanda Serrano fight is going to be postponed.  The GAA conceded that it was unlikely that the championship games set for 9th and 10th May would go ahead.  Even Wimbledon is in danger, and Wimbledon is set to start on 29th June. 

We know that racing is an industry as much as it is a sport.  Some 28,000 people employed, the vast majority in rural Ireland.  You can’t just lock up a stable yard like you can lock up a warehouse and say see you when things return to normal.  Racehorses have to be fed, racehorses have to be exercised, racehorses have to be cared for. 

But the rest of Ireland continued to change too.  Economically, just about every sector has been hit, the markets are in turmoil and the flow of the country has been funnelled to a trickle.  With unemployment set to rise from 4.8% to 18% in a matter of months, the economy is going to be brought to its knees.  Some 350,000 people out of work. 

It is an economic crisis but, fundamentally, it is a health crisis, and it is a health crisis of huge proportions.  You hear the figures and it’s difficult to get your head around them.  Over 60,000 confirmed cases in Italy.  Over 80,000 now in the United States.  655 dead in one day in Spain.  In Ireland, 10 more people died on Thursday, which brought the total to 19.  Over 1,700 confirmed cases now, and rising with every passing day. 

Racing is not important when compared with health.  People’s health.  You do what you can to protect people’s health, sometimes protecting them from themselves, and everything else comes after that.  Some of the human stories are heart-breaking. 

To that end, we are lucky that we have competent and bright people at the country’s helm.  They engender confidence, in that they appear to be making the correct decisions based on the information that they have at a given time, notwithstanding the fact that the whole world is currently in a state of continual flux.  You know that the correct decision with the information that is available today may not be the correct decision with the information that will be available tomorrow. 

The case was made for racing on: the wide expanses of the racecourse, strict social distancing measures implemented, medical services provided by the Order of Malta.  And, looking in from afar, it was apparent that every effort was being made to stick to the rules of social distancing. 

It was not sustainable though.  It was never sustainable.  You knew that, even without the 20-20 vision that is hindsight.  And it was inconsistent with the general thrust and the general mood of the country.  With every sinew of the country’s energy channeled into fighting this thing, and if the health of the country’s people is your primary concern, is it as safe to race as it is to not race?

You got a sense of some perspective when Nicky Hartery revealed on Wednesday that plans were in place to use Cork racecourse as a Covid-19 testing centre.  It smacked of wartime contingencies.  But it’s not wartime.  Most of us don’t have to endure the hardships that they endured in wartime.  And it’s not years, it’s months.  There is light.

Horse racing is indeed The Great Triviality for many: it is sport, it is entertainment, it is a betting medium.  But it is a livelihood for many more, and not just for trainers and jockeys, not just for raceday people, for shop-window people, but for breeders and pinhookers and farriers and the many more that dig into the very bedrock of the industry. 

The industry is obviously facing into a period of unprecedented uncertainty now, the people who make up the industry.  There is consolation, though, in the sense that the racing industry and racing people are not alone in that.  The whole country is in the same position.  The hope is that we get through this and come out at the end, wiser and more circumspect and perhaps even more united than we were before it all began.

©  Irish Field, 28th March 2020