The Jockey Club has announced that the 2020 Grand National Festival has been cancelled, with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) also suspending all horse racing from tomorrow (Wednesday) onwards.
The BHA had initially imposed a closed-doors policy for meetings from today amid the coronavirus situation in the UK.
The horse racing bodies have acted after the UK government yesterday issued new public health guidance regarding avoiding social contact and stopping non-essential travel. As of this morning, more than 1,500 people have tested positive for the virus in the UK, with the death toll reaching 55, but the actual number of cases is estimated to be between 35,000 and 50,000.
The racing industry came in for criticism last week, as Cheltenham Festival, the highlight of the jump racing calendar, proceeded as normal, with a near-capacity crowd of 69,000 attending the showpiece Gold Cup on Friday. The Grand National, regarded as the world’s most famous steeplechase, was due to take place at Aintree racecourse on April 2-4.
Jockey Club Racecourses, which runs Aintree and several of the UK’s leading racecourses, had been assessing the feasibility of running the Grand National behind closed doors with minimal staff on site, but said the latest government information on the measures needed to contain the virus had led it to believe this was no longer a viable consideration.
Sandy Dudgeon, senior steward of the Jockey Club, said: “Public health must come first. We were working on a plan to stage the Grand National behind closed doors given its importance to the racing industry and beyond, but following the new government measures confirmed this evening to help to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, this is not a viable option.
“I know this is hugely disappointing news for the many people who work in our sport and the many millions who were looking forward to this year’s event, but very sadly these are exceptional times and this is the responsible thing to do.”
Earlier on Monday, racing industry leaders had confirmed a plan to continue racing behind closed doors from today. Any fixtures that take place in England, Wales and Scotland, initially until the end of March, were to take place without spectators and with restrictions on the number of attendees.
However, the BHA said today: “Two race meetings are scheduled to take place behind closed doors at Wetherby and Taunton today, but as of tomorrow race meetings will cease up to the end of April. The decision will be kept under constant review.
“The formal decision was taken by Board of the British Horseracing Authority this morning based on the statements made by the government yesterday and after consultation with senior industry leaders. Medical Advisers to the RCA and the BHA, who have been advising an industry group on the response to the crisis, have also been consulted.
“The BHA took the decision to protect essential emergency services and the health and welfare of staff working in the racing industry. Racecourses and racing have obligations to ensure the safety of participants and provide medical cover which clearly cannot be fulfilled in these circumstances.”
Nick Rust, the chief executive of the BHA, said: “This is a national emergency the like of which most of us have never seen before. We’re a sport that is proud of its connection to rural communities and to the local businesses that support our industry. But our first duty is to the health of the public, our customers and to racing industry participants and staff so we have decided to suspend racing following the government’s latest advice…
“…there will be difficult months ahead for many of us. We need to focus now on ensuring that we can continue to look after our horses as the virus affects the thousands of participants and staff who dedicate their lives to caring for animals. We need to do what we can to support businesses inside and outside racing and the many people whose livelihoods depend upon this £4bn (€4.3bn/$4.8bn) industry.”
Elsewhere, LeTROT and France Galop, parent companies responsible for organising horse racing in France, yesterday decided to suspend all meetings until April 15, starting today. Jean-Pierre Barjon president of LeTROT, and France Galop counterpart Édouard de Rothschild, said: “We are fully aware of the economic consequences of cancelling the races. This is why we have decided to organise a large flow of information from companies in the sector to parent companies.
“For this, we will propose to professional associations to collect all the useful elements, profession by profession, and to transmit them to us during the coming weeks. This will be the first step to safeguard our activity.
“The moment we are living in is exceptional and of unprecedented gravity. We know that we can count on everyone’s commitment to contain the pandemic as quickly as possible; you can also count on our commitment and determination: no one will be abandoned.”