Sport of Kings set to resume in England

Newcastle to host first race meeting on June 1 if resumption gets go-ahead

Horse racing's planned resumption on June 1 in England is a godsend for the Sport of Kings as it is "only so long you can tread water before you sink", said Qatar Racing's manager, David Redvers.

If approved, Newcastle will host the first meeting behind closed doors since racing was suspended on March 18 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That will serve as an appetiser before it really kicks into gear with the first classics - the 1000 and 2000 Guineas for three year-olds -to be run at Newmarket on the first weekend of June.

British flat racing's showpiece meeting - Royal Ascot - will hopefully follow on June 16.

However, it will do so without racegoers, including its most notable attendee Queen Elizabeth II who, although presently residing in adjacent Windsor Castle, will miss it for the first time since 1952.

Racecourses have been taking a heavy hit, with the Racecourse Association estimating they are losing over £8 million (S$13.8 million) a month.

Redvers, though, is just thankful Qatar Racing's silks and those of their rivals will once again be seen in competitive action.

"It has been hugely concerning for everyone as it is only so long you can tread water before you sink," he said by phone. "It is looking a much better chance things will take off and on June 1, we come out all guns blazing."

England will follow France, which resumed racing last Monday, with jockeys required to wear masks.

French trainer Nicolas Clement said attending the meeting at Longchamp was like "walking into a hospital".

Ireland has brought forward its return by three weeks to June 8, after Prime Minister Leo Varadkar acknowledged on Friday "this is a big economic sector".

Strict regulations will be enforced in England with trainers, jockeys and grooms obliged to wear masks and owners not permitted to attend.

However, Redvers said all those rules and sacrifices are worth it, so long as the show is back on the road.

"It is a long way from being a complete disaster and one must be thankful for small mercies," he said. "Behind closed doors at least gives us horse racing.

"Without horse racing, then there would be no hope and the industry would crumble very quickly, so it could be worse."

Qatar Racing's Sheikh Fahad Al-Thani will be one of those owners who misses out. His horse, Kameko, is one of the favourites for the 2000 Guineas.

Kameko's trainer, Andrew Balding, is yet to win the race - which is sponsored like many of the top races in England by the Sheikh's family business Qatar Investment and Project Development Holding Company (QIPCO).

However, he admits, for him and his fellow trainers, it is a journey into the unknown due to the coronavirus.

"What we have been able to do with the horses should not be much reason for excuses," he said. "Some horses need a run and others don't, and there are all sorts of other factors such as adrenalin and a long break which can influence the way a horse races."

Although some have raised concerns, Balding believes going to the racecourses carries very little risk.

"There will certainly be more bio-security steps in place than going to a supermarket," he said. "The last thing Newmarket or Ascot will wish to do is put people in jeopardy."

Sheikh Fahad and his family's devotion to English racing has definitely helped for the economically challenging days that the sport is facing.

Racing authorities announced on Thursday a drastic reduction in prize money for Group races, although sponsorship money will soften some of the blow.

Redvers hopes that, at the very least, Sheikh Fahad and his brothers will be able to attend the QIPCO-sponsored Champions Day in October which will be its 10th anniversary.

He does glimpse a ray of hope for the industry.

"Like anything, any downturn gives everybody plenty of opportunity to see where we are and how we can improve our situation," he said.

"Hopefully, we can rise from the ashes as a fitter, leaner, hungrier model." - AFP