Sean, from Barrow-in-Furness, had planned to be in Lanzarote in the first week of December. Instead, he was at Haydock on Britain’s first day with crowds at sporting events since the middle of March, and looking on the bright side. “I backed the last winner,” he said, after Royal Pagaille’s unexpected success in the novice chase, “and the weather in Lanzarote at the moment is awful.”
He summed up the mood on a day at the races which was full of sights and sounds that would have seemed unthinkable this time last year. Face masks, sanitiser, one-way systems and regular reminders on the public address about social bubbles and the rule of six. “I’d come here once or twice a year and it’s nice to get out in the fresh air,” he said. “Everyone’s used to all that stuff now.”
Racegoers will need to be used to it for several months yet if the sport is to dig itself out of the £300m hole in its revenues which has been left by the coronavirus pandemic. But while the socially-distanced queue outside Haydock before racing represented more of a trickle than a flood of spectators, there were encouraging signs too that the appetite for live racing remains.
“We last came here in February and it’s been too long,” Luke Routledge, who was present with his friend Neil, said. “I think we’ll go racing more often now. We’ve been talking about how you can take these things for granted when you’ve got them there, and we want to try to support racecourses as well to keep the industry going.”
Haydock’s bars remained closed on Wednesday and one of the more pressing issues for the track’s staff was to maintain social distancing as a crowd of enthusiasts tried to get as close to the horses as possible around the paddock. Open bars and bigger crowds will bring different problems, but for now, Dickon White, the Jockey Club executive responsible for the north-west’s racecourses, is just pleased to hear the click of (virtual) turnstiles again.
“I’m a massive racing fan, so it means a great deal to see people here,” White said. “Feedback has been exceptional and the sun has come out as well.
“I’d imagine we have 700 or 800 people here today scattered around the site, and everyone has behaved impeccably. We’re running one enclosure and racegoers are paying one admission for any facility they want. When we scale back up, we’ll be back into zoned enclosures and we’ll sell passes for each area. Having bars open is another level of challenge which we’ll just have to address.”
Down in the betting ring, the 14 bookmakers were just as delighted to see racegoers back on track. The chance to get some cash – or contactless payments – into the satchels was a huge relief. At least, it was until Bushypark went in at odds-on in the opening race.
“I took a £3,000 bet on the favourite in the opener,” said Richard Johnson, running pitches both on the rails and in the ring, “and it’s taken five races to get back what we lost.
“We’ve taken £6,000 of bets in all, and £3,000 was that in the first. We’ve done 168 bets between the pitches so it’s not great, but we’ve made our expenses back and I think any bookie here who’s done that will be happy.”
Thursday’s best bets
Just one of the four tracks racing in Britain will have a limited crowd in attendance, but at least it is Wincanton, which has been voted the best small track in the south 20 times in the last 30 years by members of the Racegoers’ Club.
The weather will ensure it is a day for the devotees, and the action on the track is well up to Wincanton’s normal standard, with mostly double-figure fields and a deep field for the Silver Buck Handicap Chase. The 11 runners for the feature are priced up at between 4-1 and 20-1, with Darlac heading the market for owners Gill and Alan Pritchard, who took the same race 12 months ago with the excellent Copperhead.
Copperhead went on to win the Mandarin at Newbury and the Reynoldstown at Ascot, but his recent disappointing run in the Ladbrokes Trophy highlighted the up-and-down form of his stable. Darlac looks short as a result – and has also had nine starts over fences without success – which leaves Broadclyst (2.15) looking like a better alternative at around 5-1 to progress from a promising third at Exeter.
Market Rasen 12.22 Volkovka 12.52 Malinello 1.22 Demopolis
1.52 Arizona Glory 2.22 Fr Humphrey 2.52 Jonjoela 3.22 Italian Spirit
Leicester 12.37 Mr Caffrey 1.07 One True King 1.37 De Barley Basket 2.07 A Distant Place 2.37 Fantastic Lady 3.07 Go As You Please (nb) 3.37 Furia D'Oudairies
Wincanton 12.45 Fresh New Dawn 1.15 Global Harmony
1.45 Tango Boy (nap) 2.15 Broadclyst 2.45 Thahab Ifraj
3.15 Ede'iffs Elton 3.45 Mondora
Chelmsford City 4.00 Kentucky Kingdom 4.30 Cafe Milano 5.00 Arij 5.30 Brunel's Boy 6.00 Lomu 6.30 Indian Pursuit
7.00 Highfield Princess
Tango Boy (1.45), in the Tony Bloom colours, also catches the eye after a solid return at Cheltenham, while Go As You Please (3.07) has obvious claims at around 7-2 at Leicester. Arizona Glory (1.52) and Arij (5.00) look best at Market Rasen and Chelmsford City, respectively.