British Horse Racing to Return Behind Closed Doors as Spectator Ban Resumes

  • Increasing COVID-19 cases led UK government to reintroduce restrictions on gatherings
  • Rules come into effect September 14, with spectators no longer allowed at horse races
  • Day one of St Leger Festival marked first time spectators could attend races since lockdown
  • Local authorities have banned attendees for rest of festival because of rising coronavirus cases
  • Racecourse Association, British Horseracing Authority dissatisfied with “hammer-blow” decision 
jockeys riding horses on a race track
Spectators are once again banned from horse racing events in Britain following the government’s reintroduction of COVID-19 restrictions. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

A step back

British horse racing will return to having no spectators as a rise in COVID-19 cases leads to the reapplication of a number of restrictions. 

measures come into force on September 14

The UK government announced on Wednesday that it will reintroduce rules that only allow groups of six people or fewer to assemble outdoors or indoors. The measures come into force on September 14 and will be in place for the “foreseeable future”. While there are some exceptions, horse races are not exempt. 

The announcement came on the same day as the first of a number of planned pilot racing events that aimed to introduce spectators to the sport in a safe manner. Spectators who were present on the first day of racing will be unable to attend the three remaining days owing to current pandemic concerns.

A brief return for spectators

More than 2,500 people turned up at Doncaster Racecourse on Wednesday for the first part of the four-day St Leger Festival. This was the very first time that race fans in Britain were able to attend a race meeting since the nationwide pandemic lockdown came into effect in March. 

The remainder of the festival will now be held behind closed doors, with only essential personnel allowed in. The Doncaster Council and the local Director of Public Health took the decision in view of concerns over rising levels of local infections.  

UK racing got back to action behind closed doors in June, and it was hoped that the Doncaster events this week would help other tracks resume activity with spectators in attendance. A plan created by industry stakeholders was being followed with the goal of a gradual return to normalcy for the sector.

The Arena Racing Company (ARC) owns numerous racecourses across Britain, including the Doncaster Racecourse. Managing director Mark Spincer said of this latest setback: “This isn’t just a blow for racing, it’s sport. It’s going to make it slower and harder for everyone to get back.”

This isn’t just a blow for racing, it’s sport.”

Spincer estimates that having no spectators during the rest of the St Leger Festival will cost ARC about £250,000 ($325,675).

Representative bodies respond

The Racecourse Association (RCA) and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) tweeted out a joint statement expressing their dissatisfaction with the latest development:

With half the income for racecourses coming from spectators, another significant delay to their return would be a “hammer-blow for racecourses and the racing industry,” the representative bodies warned.

Concluding the statement, RCA chief executive David Armstrong said: “We will continue to work together as an industry, with national governments and with local authorities and the communities they represent to secure a safe return to public events.”

Revenue drying up

Britain’s horse racing sector has been struggling because of the extended suspension period for all racing, as well as the lack of on-site revenue. This is why the Horseracing Betting Levy Board is calling on horse racing betting operators to potentially increase their contributions. 

Operators who are licensed in the UK are required to give about 10% of their revenue from horse racing betting to the industry. The figure for the 2019/2020 period ending March 31 totaled around £97m ($126m). The current forecast for the year 2020/2021 is “at least £70m ($91m)”.