Hopes that UK horseracing might make an early return appeared to be dashed on Wednesday after a meeting of the board of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) extended the shutdown until at least the middle of next month.
The news came as a blow to both the racing and betting industries after hopes were raised last week by reports suggesting the BHA’s Resumption of Racing Group was talking to various bodies about ending its shutdown.
Plans for racing’s return appeared to be well-advanced, focusing on ten hubs close to training areas dotted around the UK, and that would provide closed-door meetings. One meeting would go ahead per day.
The plans appeared to include the potential for the Prestige Royal Ascot meeting to go ahead in mid-June. Ascot racecourse declined to comment on the plans.
York racecourse canceled its historic Dante meeting in late May in the wake of the BHA’s announcement.
Rust Never Sleeps
In its statement, the BHA’s chief executive Nick Rust said:
We stopped racing in March to protect the health and safety of the public and to limit demands on the National Health Service.
We are in touch with government as part of our development of a responsible, coordinated plan for the return of sport when it’s appropriate to do so. We’ll continue to develop a range of options drawing on the expertise of our participants and racecourses…
Paul Leyland, an analyst with gambling consultancy Regulus Partners, said the desire on the part of racing to resume operations was understandable. However, he added that the dates mentioned in mid-May only represented an aspiration.
“The BHA is hoping for mid-May but probably only in the sense that we are all hoping for an end to lockdown under the right conditions and many sectors will be trying to demonstrate that they can or should be part of the first phase of opening,” he said. “When racing opens is dependent upon what the nature of the exit strategy is and whether a critical mass of racing’s stakeholders can meet the criteria.”
France on Similar Footing
French racing is also considering taking steps to put racing on behind closed doors next month. In a statement released on Tuesday, the governing bodies for French racing, France Galop and LeTrot, said that they were in discussions with the French authorities regarding a return for racing “as quickly as possible.”
In a letter, the two bodies pointed out that French racing had operated behind closed doors in the weeks before the total lockdown had come into force. It added that training had been taking place at various yards in Paris and elsewhere under the rules of social distancing while the lockdown has been in place.
One issue for the French racing economy is that while racing might be allowed in due course, many PMU land-based betting outlets would not be operational, meaning reduced revenues for the industry. But Hervé Schlosser, founder, and chief executive of French-facing betting platform provider Sportnco, said this would be “very positive” for the online sector.
“This could lead to a shift from some of the retail players towards online in a French market where 90% of the horse race betting still takes place offline,” he added. “Interactive (non-PMU) operators have pooled liquidities with ZETurf, which has the second-largest liquidity behind PMU and will compete for these online players.”
Going to the Dogs
Ahead of any closed-door horseracing, the UK will likely see the return of greyhound racing. Last week the Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) said the sport’s intention was to be the first to return once conditions allowed.
Similarly to the BHA, the GBGB has a working group looking at the situation as it develops. Managing director Mark Bird said that racing would go ahead only once they could be sure of implementing sufficient social distancing controls.
“The reality will be that racing behind closed doors will most likely only provide a betting product to online customers in the short term as LBO’s will likely remain closed, but the imperative here is to start racing again, as that will at least allow incomes to start flowing again to both tracks and trainers.”
The BHA statement confirmed there would be no crowds allowed at race meetings until at least June. That comes after the industry came in for heavy criticism for going ahead with the Cheltenham Festival, one of the centerpieces of the jumps racing season in the UK, in mid-March two weeks before the lockdown was announced.
UK punters have been starved of sport in the past month with no football, racing, or any other major sporting events.
Schlosser said the behind-closed-doors nature of sport from this point onwards was something that the sporting public would get used to. “Many (events) will be behind closed doors, which is not ideal, but is something I think we will have to get used to in the long term,” he added.