The return of competitive sport to Ireland comes next Monday as the first horse racing meeting since restrictions began gets underway.
Horse Racing Ireland has released details of how the sport will operate under new protocols, including races being held behind closed doors along with strict medical advice and hygiene procedures for those involved to abide by.
It is expected that both National Hunt and Flat races will be part of the schedule with most of the feature races of the summer retained across the various venues, including the Galway Festival.
Clare jockey Derek O’Connor feels everyone involved is looking forward to having competitive action back once more, but is warning that every measure must be taken to ensure the safety of all concerned.
“People are optimistic I think. We need racing to get back going in order to have that good atmosphere in the racing world. Once it happens, I think things will pick up fairly rapidly again. We have a busy sales season so we need it to come back and create that buzz again. We also need it to go off hassle free because the last thing we want are any incidents relating to Covid-19 in the racing world. If that happens and we build momentum toward the part of the year with the Classics in the Curragh and the likes of Killarney and Galway, that will help the industry and keep owners in the industry. That will keep the sales companies going too because it is a busy and important time of year for that” he observed.
There was much criticism and controversy earlier this year as the Cheltenham Festival went ahead unhindered as the Covid-19 outbreak had just been confirmed. O’Connor says it came at a time when people did not fully understand what lay in store with the virus.
“When Cheltenham went ahead, we probably did not realise the scale of the epidemic and it was only in the weeks after that we realised just how bad things were. I don’t think there was any major story out of Cheltenham and we don’t really know how many people did or did not come home with the virus from it. It went ahead and there is nothing we can do about it now. At the same time there was all the talk about the rugby game and the Italian community coming into Dublin so there are lots of different aspects and we can all point fingers but I think it is a waste of time at this stage. We need to just deal with the situation we are in and try to move on which I think is the most important way to go” said the Tubber man.
It will be a vastly changed landscape for the sport with restrictions on the number of staff allowed on courses while the grandstands will remain empty for the foreseeable future. With the likes of the Galway Festival still going ahead behind closed doors, O’Connor feels there will be a major economic loss to the area as a result. He also identified the need for the industry behind the sport to be kickstarted once more.
“Galway is probably the biggest festival of the year in terms of numbers in that it probably attracts a bigger crowd than the likes of Punchestown or Lepoardstown. There is a big social aspect to it also so the hotels are losing out, Galway City and the local towns are going to lose out so from that point of view it is disappointing that it will be behind closed doors. That being said, it is very important for racing as a whole that it goes ahead. People will still get to enjoy it albeit they will be watching from home. Owners will get their horses to run and get their colours carried and we will get to appreciate the good horses in the big races like the Galway Plate and Hurdle. It is just a pity that the local businesses and community will not get to benefit from it. People love going to Galway for the atmosphere so that will be missing but as I say, it is really important that it is going ahead and that it goes ahead successfully. It is needed for the entire industry. It is not a huge direct industry because you would have 12,000-15,000 people employed directly, but there are over 30,000 people indirectly employed through it. You have the likes haymen, strawmen, suppliers, feedstores, harriers and so many more people who gain from it indirectly. It is important that it stays going and the majority of it is based in rural Ireland. You have your local point to points like here in Quakerstown and that brings huge enjoyment to the local area. It is important that it is maintained and kept going” he noted.