Racing fears for future after crowd trial cancelled

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Battaash smashed his own course record at Britain’s Goodwood Racecourse but a pilot scheme to welcome 4,000 spectators was cancelled on short notice due to an uptick in coronavirus cases. AFP

Gloriuos Goodwood felt more like Gloomy Goodwood this weekend despite the sunshine after a pilot scheme to welcome 4,000 spectators was cancelled at short notice due to an uptick in coronavirus cases.

The scheme had offered hope for dozens of racecourses in Britain that they could admit the public at some point this year following the financial pain of the virus shutdown.

Collectively the courses are losing £5 million ($6.5 million) a month, Racecourse Association CEO David Armstrong told AFP.

That is an improvement from the £8 million they were losing after lockdown was introduced in mid-March – the return to action on June 1 meant revenue from media rights and betting was restored.

For the Goodwood staff of around 100 – who will be put on the government’s furlough scheme again this week – the last-minute cancellation was a body blow after the physical and emotional effort they had put in to prepare the venue to meet stringent hygiene requirements.

One employee, wearing a panama hat that is traditionally sported at the five-day festival, talked of the “demoralising feeling” that swept through the course on Friday when the news broke.

A car park attendant spoke of the backbreaking 10 hours’ work rolling out the white lines in a car park only to have to then erase them.

Some spectators on Saturday turned out with picnics to sit on Trundle Hill overlooking the picturesque racecourse situated in the Sussex Downs, southwest of London.

Adam Waterworth, managing director of sport at the Goodwood Estate, said the pilot scheme was never about money but about providing feedback to the government on how the measures put in place had worked.

The course, like local hotels, bars and shops, has taken a significant hit as usually 100,000 spectators turn up.

Waterworth is concerned that any further delay could put in doubt the magical date of October.

Before the recent rise in virus cases the government had announced fans might be able to return to sports stadiums across England on October 1.

“Hopefully the work we have done will enable other racecourses to deliver,” he said. “At least I know we can do it.”

‘Battle on’

Armstrong admitted the situation was challenging and the cancellation was a “temporary major blow,” but he believes the crunch will come next year.

“I am anxious the way we are positioned,” he said.

“Will racecourses survive coming into 2021? The racecourses’ pinch point is most likely to be in 2021 as they can cobble through till then.

“It will be harder then because they have asked annual members and those who bought tickets for the festivals to roll over their tickets to next year.

“That means there is a little less pressure this year but into 2021 you cannot sell that ticket or membership twice.”

Waterworth, who says 75 per cent of Goodwood revenue comes from ticket sales and spending on hospitality, agreed.

“We have started budgeting for next year,” he said. “From my point of view next year we will be hit harder than this year.

“What assumptions do we make? Will we be at 30, 50 or 80 per cent capacity? I do not know how long racecourses can survive under such restrictions.

“At least we have the backing of Goodwood Estate but if we are feeling it hard, other colleagues must be really struggling.”

Waterworth, though, says racing is resilient and has come through previous crises such as foot and mouth and equine flu.

One pilot did go ahead at Goodwood, performing two fly-pasts in a Spitfire fighter thanking the NHS (National Health Service) staff for their efforts during the pandemic.

Waterworth reflected the spirit shown by the Royal Air Force, who despite being outnumbered defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940.

“We will battle on.”