Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer, Kevin Blake is hoping the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to longer-term positives for the sport of horse racing.

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BEHIND-CLOSED-DOORS RACING CAN BE THE CATALYST FOR VAST POSITIVE CHANGE IN THE SPORT

 All being well, the return to horse racing in Britain and Ireland is just around the corner. Though, it won’t be racing as we know it. Not by a long shot.  

The highly-extensive protocols surrounding social distancing and hygiene that have been put in place for racing behind closed doors will ensure that the raceday experience will be unrecognisable. However, that is the price that our industry must pay to get the show back on the road and only the one-eyed would argue that it isn’t worth paying.  

With a view to taking a constructive approach to what are going to be difficult circumstances for all involved, I would dare suggest that this crisis could well be the catalyst for the greatest period of positive change in the history of horse racing.  

History and tradition can be and are generally wonderful assets for our sport. However, they can also act as shackles holding back common-sense progress and innovation as the rest of the untethered sporting world sprints past us. A fundamental issue that horse racing has faced in the modern era is the ingrained resistance to change and the glacial speed with which it tends to progress at.  

The Covid-19 crisis has forced the racing industry into making dramatic and immediate changes. In normal circumstances, the mere suggestion of many of the changes that are set to be implemented to the rules, processes and racing programmes would most likely have been met with a wave of negativity from the corridors of power and/or the participants, but the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in has dictated that they are not up for debate.  

Thus, this crisis will present a once-in-a-generation opportunity for all manner of changes and different ways of doing things to be trialled on a live stage and potentially remain in place after this crisis has passed.  

The first one that has to be discussed is the matter of the minimum weights that jockeys have to carry in races. As a result of saunas not being permitted to be used on racecourses under the new social distancing protocols, changes have been made to compensate the jockeys. It has been confirmed that in Ireland the minimum and maximum weight that horses will have to carry will rise by 2lb from the resumption of racing. I can also reveal that the PJA have confirmed that a form of 3lb allowance will be given to jockeys in British racing.  

These measures put focus on the issue of the minimum riding weights in racing that has been hanging over the sport for decades and isn’t going to go away. The case for raising the minimum riding weights was made in much more detail in this space three years ago, but the gist of it doesn’t take much explaining.  

Human beings in our part of the world are getting bigger. Recent studies in Britain have suggested the average weight of their population is rising by 1lb every three years. The number of jockeys capable of riding at the minimum weight is reducing all the time. The above link details the multiple studies that have demonstrated the shocking toll that wasting has on jockeys both physically and mentally.  

It is absolutely inevitable that the minimum weights in horse racing around the world are going to rise again, so why are we needlessly prolonging and amplifying the physical and mental suffering of jockeys by delaying change? It goes without saying that increasing the minimum weights by a few pounds will only move the problem rather than make it go away, but there is no question that it will be an immediate relief to a significant number of jockeys and make the minimum weights accessible to more riders.  

The minimum weights on the Flat in Britain have remained at 8-0 since 2013 and at 8-4 in Ireland since 2006. Due to international racing protocols, the minimum weights in Ireland cannot be raised any further until the British and French racing authorities match their increases. Now is the time for major racing jurisdictions in Europe and indeed all around the racing world to seize this unique opportunity to collaborate and raise the minimum riding weights in the best interests of the long-term health and viability of our jockeys.  

Another proposal that has been made in this space and others for many years now is the implementation of a centralised panel of professional stewards to police the running and riding of horses in races. This has long appealed as being the best way to overcome the inevitable inconsistencies that come with using rotating panels of mostly amateur stewards to perform this crucial role in British and Irish racing. Remote stewarding is far more suited to social distancing protocols and now the ideal time to trial it.  

Behind-closed-doors racing will also present challenges to racecourses and the racing authorities to make racing a more immersive and informative experience to those watching from home. One innovation that has been showcased in Japan since their racing has gone behind closed doors is a camera that live streams footage from the parade ring and can be fully controlled by the viewer. Try it yourself, start the below video and use your cursor to click on the video screen and move the camera in whatever direction you wish.  

It is a fabulous piece of technology that opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities for the coverage of horse racing that were discussed in more detail in the second half of this article. That the camera doesn’t need to be manned also makes it an ideal fit for the social distancing protocols that we will race under.  

Finally, it is a shame that it took a global pandemic for those in charge of Irish racing to finally implement 48-hour declarations, but that is what has happened. Making this move has been a no-brainer for over a decade, as the compact nature of the Irish programme book makes it ideally suited to 48-hour declarations. One of the main benefits of having 48-hour declarations is that it makes it much easier to promote the sport as they create a bigger window between the confirmation of the final fields and the race itself.  

Even more significantly, it makes our racing far more attractive as a betting product to bettors in vastly different time zones such as Hong Kong and Japan.  

International co-mingling of betting pools is set to be taken to the next level in Irish racing now that the UK Tote will be taking the reins from catastrophically-lame duck that is Tote Ireland from January 1st 2021. Having 48-hour declarations in place well in advance of that changeover will be an important box to tick if Irish racing is to compete for turnover with British racing which has had them in place for Flat racing since 2006.  

Reverting back to 24-hour declarations in Ireland after this crisis has passed would represent an even more mind-boggling blunder than the continued refusal to implement them for the last decade.  

The above are just a few examples of some positive changes that might come about as a result of the drastic measures our sport has had to take to get back on the road. There could potentially be many more, but it will be absolutely crucial that all involved in the governance and regulation of our sport approach behind-closed-doors racing with an open mind and a willingness to change.  

This is a difficult situation for all involved, but we will never get a better opportunity as a sport to experiment and innovate in so many different areas as we will in the coming months. If we all embrace that opportunity, we will emerge from this crisis as a better and stronger sport.

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