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Testing times for horse racing but hope remains that the industry will come out the other side of the coronavirus pandemic

“We need to try to keep as many people in work as possible.”

That was the message from the National Association of Racing Staff’s chief executive George McGrath as horse racing – like every other sport – comes to terms with being in the coronavirus pandemic’s vice-like grip.

Following government advice, the British Horseracing Authority took the decision last week to suspend all racing in Britain until at least the end of April – although the overwhelming feeling is that the break could last much longer.

Horses on heath (32217701)
Horses on heath (32217701)

Within 24 hours of that announcement, McGrath had fielded ‘dozens of calls’ from racing staff who had been informed by ‘panicked’ trainers that their services were no longer required.

It sent a shockwave through the industry, but McGrath is hopeful that the government’s furlough scheme, which will see employees who would otherwise be made redundant receive 80 per cent of their wages for at least three months, can prevent further job losses.

“The main message is to stay safe and healthy, that is the important message,” he said.

Trainer Michael Bell (32217705)
Trainer Michael Bell (32217705)

“I am relieved that the Government stepped in, and that should help to halt numerous redundancies and the difference between racing surviving and it becoming a very critical situation.

“From early last week I had received dozens of calls from concerned stable staff. Some smaller trainers hit the panic button, and that panicked feeling still exists.

“I understand that, but as an industry horse racing has never worked in such a degree of harmony.

“We are looking into the abyss and yet everyone is working towards the same thing now. All personal goals have to be put to one side.

“We need to try to keep as many people in work as possible.”

With the medical and scientific experts predicting that the UK is still two or three weeks away from the coronavirus’ peak, only essential work is now allowed.

Caring for horses falls into that bracket, and McGrath is confident that there are no adverse risks to workers’ health.

“One of the benefits of working with horses is that most of the time it is pretty easy to remain two metres apart,” he added.

“All of the measures are on our website and the yards have been made fully aware of the health protocols that need to be put into place.

“We have to keep looking after the horses, you cannot just lock them away.

“They are like F1 cars – living, breaking and working F1 cars. They are brilliant equine machines and it is vital we keep them exercising so that once the restrictions are lifted racing can return.

“We have to be ready to go – we cannot wait for them to get fit.”

George Boughey had been looking forward to starting his full turf season as a trainer until the pandemic took hold.

The 27 year old is based at Saffron House Stables, in Hamilton Road, and while he anticipates some tough times ahead, he is confident of keeping his tight-knit yard together.

“I am very lucky that I have very good staff and very supportive owners,” said Boughey, who has a strike rate of 35 per cent on the all-weather circuit this year.

“We are treating things as though racing will go ahead in May because we will fall short if we are not ready.

“I only employ seven people and we are having regular meetings. The guys want to work, they do what they would do otherwise and I am the same.

“It is a very tricky time but we are still here, everyone is mucking in. We still have four lots and everyone is doing a great job despite a very serious situation.”

Diomed Stables’ Stuart Williams is also keen to ensure his staff remain in situ, although he does feel that racing should be taking a back seat in the current climate.

“Of course we still have to exercise the horses, but it is times like this that you realise how trivial things like racing are,” he said.

“It is obviously important to all of us in the industry, but in the whole scheme of things, what is happening right now should be the main focus of everyone.

“This is literally a life or death situation for some people and we in racing need to make sure we are helping people as best we can.

“We run a pretty tight ship and thankfully we have been able to carry on as normal.

“It all depends on how long this lasts because owners will not keep their horses with us indefinitely.

“Hopefully, the schemes the Government have introduced will protect people if that is needed.

“Things are changing all of the time, so right now we are living day to day.”

Yet, for a self-employed jockey like Daniel Muscutt, things are not quite so clear at the moment.

With no racing in Britain until at least the start of May, Muscutt and his compatriots are set to lose a chunk of their expected income.

“It is difficult for us all because we are self-employed,” said the Chippenham-based jockey.

“On a personal level I am in the process of completing on a house, so this has thrown a spanner in the works at what should be an exciting time.

“I know the Injured Jockeys Fund and Professional Jockey Association are working hard to come up with a support mechanism and I am lucky to have the support of a trainer like James Fanshawe, who I can ride out for.

“All the while there are big worries – we all have bills to pay. The sooner we get back to racing the better, although health comes first.

“I am working hard to manage my weight while we are on standby.”