Thursday, April 16, 2020


I was planning to write chapters of this blog frequently during lockdown, but I haven't done that.  That's good because it means that I've been busy.  It could, of course, mean that I've just been busy wasting time, but happily that isn't the case.  And I've been outside a lot, which I'm very lucky to be able to do.  So many people must be suffering from cabin fever at present, particularly now that the weather is so good and the hours of daylight so long.  We're just very lucky to have space, and reason to be allowed to use it.

I haven't been saying much about the general situation because there's plenty being said even without any contribution from me, but I'm starting to get annoyed by hearing complaints that our leaders - both the country's and the sport's - haven't come up with an 'exit strategy'.  I'm not a fan of the current government by any means, but this really is taking a cheap shot at them.  Of course they haven't yet published an exit strategy because there isn't one.  Or, rather, there is no correct answer to what the exit strategy should be.  Lockdown will suppress the transmission of COVID-19; easing lockdown will ease that suppression, meaning that the quantity of infections and deaths will start going up again.

We don't want to live like this forever (or until such time as a vaccine is available) but we don't want the death-rate to go through the roof either.  But we can't have both scenarios.  It's a case of finding a balance.  And there is no right answer as to what that balance should be.  I'm a big fan of Sir Keir Starmer, who is just what the Labour Party and the country needs (although I should add that I think that Lisa Nandy would also have made an excellent leader of the party) and I was impressed when he won the ballot that he immediately said that this time of national crisis was no time for party-political point-scoring, so he wouldn't be doing any of that.

So it was particularly disappointing a day or two ago when he began to castigate the government for not having yet announced its 'exit strategy'.  If I'd been 'the government', I'd have called his bluff and told him that it's a hard strategy to formulate and that I'd appreciate his input on the subject; that I would like to know what his plan would be and that I would like to call on his expertise in drawing up the details.  I imagine that that would have quietened him down considerably.

It's a similar thing with the BHA.  I was very impressed with its statement this week.  It is clearly working to make sure that when the time is appropriate for racing to resume, there is a plan in place to enable racing to resume promptly.  That's all it can do.  However, that clearly doesn't satisfy everyone, as I've seen plenty of complaints from people on social media saying that the BHA should be publishing a timescale to enable owners and trainers to plan ahead.  How on earth can it?  Nobody at present knows when the correct time to resume racing will come, so how can the BHA possibly give us a date?

Resuming racing before lockdown has been eased significantly should not be an option.  This is the time for asking what we can do for our country, rather than vice versa, and it is clear what we can do for our country at present: we can do everything we can do within reason to prevent the spread of the virus.  Horses have to be cared for and exercised, but they don't have to be raced.  It would be a welfare issue to abandon them and it would be a welfare issue just to leave them in their boxes, but not racing them most certainly is not a welfare issue.  I've even seen and heard people saying that, potentially, it is, which is a sure sign of how much we collectively are in danger of losing the plot.

I'm hoping that there will be a significant easing of lockdown in June.  It would be nice to think that it could happen in May, but I don't think that that is likely to be realistic while the daily death toll, which has not yet shown any sign of starting to decline, remains as high as it is at present.  We need it to have dropped massively before any sports should be resuming.  I think it's a fair assumption that the remaining Premier League fixtures will be played behind closed doors when it is appropriate to do so, and that would be a useful guide for us.

Once that starts happening (which would be good, as I don't think that it would be in racing's interest to be the first sport to resume - as the rest of the country was operating as normal at the time, it would have been an empty gesture to cancel the Cheltenham Festival, and it's silly condemning anyone for the fact that it took place, but the fact remains that racing undeservedly is on the back foot as regards public opinion because of that meeting having taken place, and we would be unwise to compound the reputational damage which the sport has sustained) then I think that racing can follow without fear of being viewed as opting out of the collective national effort to suppress the disease.

It would be lovely to think that we could resume in May, but not lovely to think of us resuming in May if the wider situation were still similar to how it is today.  The important thing not to lose sight of is, as always, the bigger picture.  In this case the bigger picture is that we are part of the wider community.  And the bigger picture is also that the biggest problem stemming from this for racing will be that the economic recession which COVID-19 is triggering will mean that there will be many fewer racehorse owners at the end of this than there were at the beginning. And that remains the case whether racing is off for six weeks or sixteen.

Racing is part of the leisure sector.  And racing, in common with the rest of the leisure sector, flourishes when the country is flourishing, and struggles when the country is struggling.  What we need to do is to play our part in helping the country in its hour of need.  I'm happy that the BHA is doing what it can to steer our ship wisely in these difficult waters.  And what better way of ending the BHA bulletin than these words from Nick Rust: "We'll continue to develop a range of options drawing on the expertise of our participants and racecourses.  But for now, we are all focused on supporting the national effort, maintaining social distancing restrictions and taking care of our people and our horses."  That's proper leadership, and as a sport we are lucky to have it.


Unknown said...

Thanks John as usual a thoughtful and measured post. Maybe you can talk Keith Dalgleish into being a tad more social media friendly, he's a first class trainer. Did you see the article on the back story of Shamardal. All the best with your stable once we get going again.

Unknown said...

Great stuff John
I agreed with every word
A voice of reason, thanks

David J Winter. said...

I was beginning to think “ is it me “ Finally you outlined on every facet, my thoughts of the Labour leadership, Sir Kier, in particular, the expectation of an early retraction of the shutdown by the man on the Clapham omnibus and racing’s preparedness to start back. Thank you John for your usual erudite and concisely put views. A cohort of outlook.

neil kearns said...

Nice chapter John there are no easy answers but as one who lives out of UK in Spain I have to say the lockdown is nowhere near as strict in the UK as here and if the populace are screaming let me out already there (as the media suggests) then were they operating as here I think there would be a revolution , kids have not been out of their homes here for six weeks and as the average Spanish city apartment has 60 square metres of space one can only salute the parents .
Anyway onto racing , it would seem that any return to racing has to negate the chances of injury to the maximum so as not to put any further pressure on the NHS , in my head that means initially no jumps racing and on the flat no starting stalls (standing starts )as a significant number of injuries to both riders and attendants (and for that matter horses) happen in or around the stalls . Fully accept this may mean some sprints may be messy and some inexperienced horses may wonder what is going on later in their careers but over a mile plus it should be far less of an issue and if this change meant racing's re-introduction could be brought forward , I would think this would be a real positive .
I also wonder if field sizes should not be limited to say twelve max as that sort of number allows for appropriate social distancing at all stages of the race process , if you go down that route there would need to be a mechanism to ensure all get a fair chance to race and that would certainly not just be on official ratings .