The return of racing can help lift the nation’s spirits
The Gold Cup, centrepiece of the Cheltenham Festival, took place on Friday the 13th of March. Superstitious? I am, and my pessimistic streak saw me wondering on arrival at 6.45am that day what luckless drama might be about to unfold on the Cotswold track.
Because, for all of its glorious highs, horseracing has regularly found itself having to confront lows, and as a passionate fan as well as a longstanding member of the media, there have been occasions when reporting on them has tested journalistic skills.
Well, at the time, the Festival’s final afternoon seemed lucky enough, containing a satisfying blend of thrills and spills: Al Boum Photo wowed the place with a landmark second success in the feature, while Goshen drew audible intakes of breath in the Triumph Hurdle, throwing away seemingly certain victory when dislodging his rider at the final obstacle.
However, it turned out there was indeed misfortune: the Festival’s timing, just a few days before lockdown. And while racing, like other walks of life, has been ordered to shut because of Covid-19, definitely unlike others its reputation has also been, almost certainly unreasonably, tarnished.
Anyway, there’s no point rehearsing all of those arguments here – that’ll be for any public inquiry into responses to the pandemic – but the sport is consequently due a change of fortune. The early resumption, albeit in private with social distancing measures in place for those present and reduced prize money – but on television, so with accompanying ‘picture income’ – should be just that.
Although its centuries-old, prominent role in British social life has earned it the ‘Sport of Kings’ sobriquet, racing in the modern era would be better described as the ‘Industry of Many’. Estimates are hotly debated, but after counting the ancillary side of things up to about 90,000 people rely on it for a living. After nearly eleven weeks of closure – since 17 March when Wetherby staged the distinctly non-prescient Family Fun Raceday – that’s a lot of mouths keen to get the show back on the road.
Trainers have been relying on the fees charged to their horses’ owners – who have themselves clearly been getting limited value for their investment – to run their businesses and to prepare runners for non-existent races at empty, revenue-less tracks, while in contrast to other elite athletes, jockeys are mainly unpaid if not working.
And Chancellor Sunak, who will have been well-briefed about these particular concerns with both the extended Middleham training centre and Catterick racecourse located within his Richmond, constituency, will be relishing the restart too. Regardless of the income tax not being generated, tens of millions of pounds in duty has also been lost during a period that would normally include the Grand National bonanza.
Away from money, meanwhile, racing needs its flat season because it is built around the historic Classic races. The first four – Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas and 1000 Guineas, and the Oaks and the Derby at Epsom – are all running a month later than scheduled and provide the thoroughbred breeding industry with the talent whose genes will ensure the future.
But there are opportunities here too: with almost no other live sport, modern-day racing can demonstrate to a wide – and probably receptive audience – what it really is: not the often caricatured preserve of old-fashioned ‘toffs’ and unfathomable detail, but a sport filled with down-to-earth excitement, engaging stories and intriguing characters.
Carried out with sensitivity and humility in recognition of the continuing Covid-19 misery, Monday 1 June can be racing’s lucky day. Fingers crossed.
Cornelius Lysaght is the BBC’s former racing correspondent