It felt almost like a normal midweek day at the races here on Monday as Warwick opened its new season in front of around 500 racegoers, perhaps a third of the usual attendance for its first meeting of the autumn. Whether the slow progress towards a widespread return of paying spectators will continue at Newmarket on Thursday remains to be seen, however, with the prime minister expected to announce fresh restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus on Tuesday.
Newmarket plans to admit 1,000 paying spectators – a combination of annual members and hospitality guests – on the three days of its Cambridgeshire meeting. Its plans to keep the crowd safe and socially distanced were approved by local health officials last week, but any new rules announced will need to be studied to ensure compliance.
Amy Starkey, Newmarket’s managing director, pointed out last week that the course is “a vast, predominantly outdoor environment that could safely space out several thousand people”, never mind the 1,000 allowed through the door.
However, it is less than two weeks since Doncaster’s plans to admit 6,000 spectators on the last three days of its St Leger meeting were abandoned at 24-hours’ notice when local health officials insisted that it should be put back behind closed doors, a move that was estimated to have cost the course £250,000.
Warwick’s first meeting since March was blessed with bright sunshine and temperatures in the mid-20s, as paying spectators enjoyed a day at the races in Britain for the second time since mid-March. “We’re really pleased with how it’s gone,” Andre Klein, Warwick’s general manager said. “I’d say 97% of the things we put in place have gone well.
“A lot of the faces here are really familiar to us so it’s a bit like the first day back at school. All these [pilot] days are down to the behaviour of individuals and it’s been impeccable here today. Everyone is socially distancing, inside everyone has got their face masks on, no one is standing up drinking inside. All the elements in the massively long spectators’ code of conduct we put together, it’s coming into reality.”
Down by the running rail, annual member James Rouse was enjoying the sunshine and basking in the glow of backing Especially So, the 66-1 winner of the opening race. “They’ve done really well here,” he said. “I’ve been to the loo and the bar and it’s all set out with a one-way system, so there’s no bunching up and everyone’s social distancing.
“It’s so nice to be back on a racecourse and the weather is like the May meeting. It’s good to do this on a trial basis and see how it goes. Everyone wants to get back to normal as soon as possible.”
There was less to celebrate for the four bookmakers standing in the betting ring, however, even after a “skinner” in the opening race. “After five races, we’ve done 117 bets totalling £1,361, of which we’re managing to keep £32,” said Richard Johnson, standing on his pitch of his father, Keith.
“The only race with any damage at all was when we lost £300 with someone having £30 each-way on the winner, but you can’t go hedging a £30 bet. If you don’t do it, we don’t move on and we’ve got to show that we’re all fine to be doing this.
“But it seems very slow process and I’m pinning my hopes on football now, on the basis that if the Premier League manage to get crowds back, they can’t turn round to us and say no.”
Johnson has the option of standing at Newmarket during the Cambridgeshire meeting but has yet to decide whether to take it up. “From a business point of view, it won’t be viable,” he said, “but for me and the staff, if we don’t go out and do some work in the next two weeks, we could have another three months of nothing again. It’s definitely heading more and more that way.
“We’re lucky that we’ve got good pitches, so when there’s racing on we’ll get an odd day’s work. But there’s a lot of my colleagues, I don’t think they’ll get work the whole of next year.
“I don’t see 5,000 at a track like this, or 30,000 at a big track, I just can’t see it. And it has to be worrying that some real big-name owners are leaving the game too.”