wo-and-a-half months after the last race in Great Britain before lockdown, racing is on course to resume at Newcastle next Monday, when jockeys will become the first professionals in a major British sport to go public since mid-March.
Everything about the experience will be strange and unsettling, from temperature checks on arrival to physical distancing in the weighing room and stalls handlers wearing face masks. So how will riders respond to the physical and mental demands of going back to work on 1 June?
The latest document from the British Horseracing Authority setting out the procedures to be followed if racing returns next week includes dozens of new rules and requirements to keep the sport running without allowing any spread of Covid-19. Trainers have been asked not to enter “difficult” or “fractious” horses, which should make a rider’s job a little easier, but every part of the race-day experience bar the leg-up into the saddle will take place under physical distancing measures.
Michael Caulfield spent 15 years as chief executive of the Professional Jockeys Association before launching a second career as one of Britain’s leading sports psychologists working with players and coaches in football, cricket and rugby, and even he is not entirely sure how riders will react.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” he says. “But as they are jockeys, they will want to go and get back to work, because they are self-employed sole traders. Will they return in the best physical nick of their lives? I doubt it, but no other athlete will either, and the one thing with jockeys will always be that they want to get their weight right, as the weights [carried in races] are not going to go up by two stone overnight.
“But one thing that people in racing do really well is to learn to understand and accept risk. If you work in racing, on the coalface side of it, it’s a job with an element of risk and danger, which is one of the reasons that you do it in the first place. It keeps you on your toes, that’s the whole point of it. So I could be wrong, and three jockeys might come out tomorrow and say they don’t want to go to Newcastle or Ascot, but in the main, they’ll want to be back at work.”
Since racing is not a contact sport and the horses are the principal athletes, the BHA is confident it will be possible to return to action while adhering strictly to physical distancing guidelines. The Hong Kong, Australia and Japan tracks, and a handful in the United States, have continued to race behind closed doors throughout the pandemic with distancing in place, though the British rider Tom Marquand was fined A$2,000 (around £1,050) last month for hugging his horse’s groom after a big-race win.
Riders will also be urged “to avoid taking unnecessary or avoidable risks”, while their equipment will be disinfected on arrival as part of a racecourse-wide effort to eliminate the risk of any spread of coronavirus.
“The point about racing is that jockeys do the risk and racing does viruses and biosecurity,” Caulfield says. “In racing yards, the tack rooms and feed rooms are spotless. You don’t share tack any more, you don’t share brushes, you don’t share anything.
“Racing is used to biosecurity because viruses have been affecting racehorses for decades, it’s something we do and we do it well. So jockeys will understand how it works, it won’t be a shock to them and they will adapt.”
Caulfield will host an online conference for 360 leaders in sport this week and believes sport will be an essential part of the national process of recovery after coronavirus, for professionals and amateurs alike. “Getting people back out there in a safe environment is the best thing we can do for people’s mental health,” he says.
“I believe in health and activity and the joy and power or sport. We should be doing everything we can to get it back, and that includes racing, not so that people can make money and get Sky contracts back, but so that people can go on park runs and be healthy.
“Sport keeps you active and it keeps you outdoors and it keeps you connecting with people.”