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Tough call but Irish racing may have to cancel

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CRITICISM: Huge crowds attended the Cheltenham Festival last week. PA via Reuters

CRITICISM: Huge crowds attended the Cheltenham Festival last week. PA via Reuters

PA Images via Reuters Connect

CRITICISM: Huge crowds attended the Cheltenham Festival last week. PA via Reuters

Racing's reputation was dragged through the mud last week with every Tom, Dick and Harry having their say about why the Cheltenham Festival should not have taken place as normal, and rightfully so.

Over 250,000 flooded through the turnstiles at the Cotswolds with social distancing quickly forgotten once alcohol levels reached a certain point and it almost seemed like a blind eye was turned to the serious health fears over the coronavirus.

The decision to plough ahead - "business as usual" as it was described by Cheltenham chiefs - left many astounded and while the spectacle would have been greatly minimised, racing behind closed doors was the obvious solution.

How all four days went ahead with Prestbury Park heaving in punters is a mystery but in fairness to Irish racetracks and Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), they took the bull by the horns and commenced racing behind closed doors last Friday.

Impacted

It's not an ideal situation with the livelihoods of on-course bookmakers, Tote staff, caterers and many more greatly impacted but with five meetings already completed in this manner, Irish racing is trying to cope as best as possible in the current climate.

Yesterday's news that the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) decided to cull racing until May at the earliest sent shockwaves around the industry with Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O'Leary quick to criticise the decision.

"This is not a sport, it's an industry. This will be the end of many in this industry. It shows how far removed the BHA is from the reality of the sport. This could kill it," O'Leary said.

There are fears that a similar decision will be made on these shores today, when HRI chiefs meet via conference call at 1.0 this afternoon to discuss the next steps and review the five meetings behind closed doors and whether such a system is feasible going forward.

Many high-profile figures within racing have already lobbied for the status quo to continue with leading trainer Gordon Elliott and jockey Davy Russell just two to throw their weight behind things continuing as is.

"A huge effort by all involved at Down Royal to keep going today. All precautionary measures were strictly adhered to and this will continue as our tracks have lots of space re people's safety etc. WE MUST TRY TO KEEP OUR INDUSTRY GOING," Elliott tweeted.

Russell rowed in behind those sentiments: "Let's hope that we can continue racing. A huge effort is being made to keep everyone safe, our facilities allow us to use a lot of space," Russell also wrote on Twitter.

The sight of empty stands, racing journalists in private suites going about their day job and jockeys sitting in their cars between races - as was the case with Robbie Power after riding the opening winner at Down Royal yesterday - shows the efforts being made to keep the show on the road.

The consequences of racing being cancelled for the foreseeable future could have detrimental effects on the industry. Huge numbers of staff will be let go and many trainers will be forced to call time on their careers, so people will wait on HRI's decision with bated breath.

There is also the argument that racing should take its medicine, like all other industries affected, before attempting to bounce back when the dust has cleared, much like when many were decimated by the recession.

Legendary racing pundit and trainer Ted Walsh was philosophical when speaking about Aintree's Grand National meeting being aborted, with the 69-year-old able to see the bigger picture and the dangers of continuation to human kind.

"What will be, will be. Racing is racing, and trying to keep the human race safe is far more important. It's disappointing, but there are a lot more important things in this world than the English National," Walsh said.

"Racing will survive. When it comes down to it, the welfare of mankind is a hell of a lot more important than racing."

His final words are the most important line to be uttered on the matter and whether racing can carry on without increasing the risk to those involved is debatable. In a matter of life and death, nothing should be up for debate.