Brian O'Connor

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Cheltenham & Coronavirus

The crowd around the parade ring at Cheltenham last year
© Photo Healy Racing

The World Health Organisation has urged governments worldwide to wake up to the expanding threat of coronavirus. European governments are restricting the sizes of public events. Churches are suspending people shaking hands for the sign of peace. In the midst of all this racing's little parish is counting down the eight days to Cheltenham. Given the rate of spread of this thing a week looks like being a very long time for a spike not to occur in Britain. If that happens the odds on the National Hunt festival being unaffected will only get longer.

The understandable official line from Cheltenham and the British Horseracing Authority is that it's business as usual until it isn't. After all any cancellation decision is mostly out of their hands. More than likely such a state call would be in the context of much broader public health considerations. Pressed on contingency plans their understated stance is that they're not going to play hypothetical games.

Steps in France to race behind closed doors for at least three fixtures this week - and the French government's decision to temporarily ban gatherings of more than 5,000 people due to the spread of coronavirus - has filled the speculation vacuum anyway. The French move is similar to moves in both Japan and Hong Kong where racing has continued despite both jurisdictions being at the forefront of the battle against the virus.

With concern about coronavirus increasing in this country too, and the steps taken in France noted by authorities here, Horse Racing Ireland has acknowledged that racing behind closed doors could be an option although it's far from central to their agenda at the moment. Ireland's chief medical officer has already stated that cancellations of mass gatherings are not a significant part of steps to manage the spread of the virus here.

However should a situation arise where racing behind closed doors climbs the agenda, there shouldn't be too big an issue about the practical implementation of such a policy. Financially the priority for most fixtures in Ireland is TV money which is unaffected if the only people on the ground are racing professionals. Spectators are something of an optional extra in bottom line terms apart from more prestigious meetings such as the upcoming festivals at Punchestown and Fairyhouse.

There is more on that here - Coronavirus: Racing behind closed doors not ruled out by HRI

However the immediate priority for racing is Cheltenham, effectively the biggest meeting of the year for both countries. The big question is how might it be affected, if it is at all. Because maybe it will enjoy good fortune in terms of a wider successful containment of the problem. Stranger things have happened. But if luck goes against them and infections increase significantly so much hinges on any British government response.

Even an administration feeling its Brexit oats might baulk at going against a wider international grain and letting the festival proceed unchecked.

The French, as well as the Swiss and Italians, have led the way in terms of cancelling some significant events, and limiting the size of mass public gatherings, but also being prepared to let some sporting events take place behind closed doors. The cautious administrative instinct in such a scenario could be to follow the herd in terms of precautionary measures. There's arse-covering safety in numbers.

From a purely racing point of view it might smack of over-reaction to cancel Cheltenham if a country like Japan, which is on the doorstep of the problem, can navigate a way to keep the sport going. Having to reschedule Cheltenham would seem to be a logistical headache. It's hard to see dates that wouldn't invariably impact on Aintree and Punchestown. The latter festival is a very different event compared to when Cheltenham got postponed to April in 1978.

But despite Japan, Hong Kong, and to an extent, France, opting to race behind closed doors, is restricting boots on the ground to racing professionals a practicable option for a meeting as big as Cheltenham. The four days are a cash cow for the track's owners, Jockey Club Racecourses. Like no other race meeting its spectator appeal impacts on the bottom line.

It would be no surprise if the prospect of the financial hit involved was too much and taking a chance on postponement represented a more attractive option.

We are assured contingency plans are in place but no one's saying anything official yet. So there's little else to do for the moment it seems than cross everything, adopt a 'wait and see' position, and look back for some form hints in even vaguely similar circumstances.

The obvious one is the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Cheltenham never happened and racing was suspended for almost seven weeks with widespread travel restrictions in place. Last year the equine flu outbreak saw racing grind to a halt for a week. These were animal health issues. Now we're talking about combating a potential mass viral outbreak among humans so holding out hope racing will still be able to continue in some form could be wishful thinking.

The plug was eventually pulled on the 2001 Cheltenham festival a week beforehand. Given the scale of the event, and the numbers of people travelling to it, a decision of some sort is preferable sooner rather than later. A spike in the rate of infection could mean such a decision becomes relatively straightforward. Inevitably there will be plenty within racing who believe widespread disruption is an overreaction but they're not carrying the can. The industry is in no position to go on a solo with this.

The politics of all this could be decisive. It was ultimately a political call to cancel the Ireland-Italy Six Nations rugby match a dozen days in advance. That was almost at the same time Juventus fans travelled from Turin over the border to Lyon for a Champions League clash. They mingled freely in the French city and in the aftermath there don't appear to have been any significant repercussions. How the politics of this particular dilemma play out will be fascinating.

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