Racing will take its first significant step out of the latest lockdown restrictions next Monday when two owners per runner will be allowed to attend race meetings in both England and Scotland, albeit with no significant hospitality facilities in place. The move will allow a small number of owners to attend the Grand National meeting in early April while a further loosening of the restrictions will follow on 12 April, when government rules should relax to allows tracks to re-introduce outdoor hospitality.
Owners have been barred from seeing their horses, either in their stables or when competing on the racecourse, since early January, and the British Horseracing Authority said on Monday that it is “enormously grateful … for their patience, understanding and unwavering support” during the current lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
It will have been a particular blow for many owners to have been forced to miss last week’s Cheltenham Festival, and the fact that owners could not attend was suggested as one possible factor behind unusually small field sizes for several races at the meeting. Aintree, though, could be the beneficiary as jumps owners look forward to a day at the races after months off the track, while the big three-day spring fixtures on the Flat at Chester and York in early May will also expect to welcome several hundred owners at least.
Owners will need to pre-register before attending a meeting and satisfy all existing anti-Covid regulations, while “light refreshments” only will be available until 12 April. There will, however, “be no limit on how long owners can remain on course”.
Once owners are back on course, tracks will start counting the days until they can start to welcome significant numbers of spectators back to a day at the races. Racing has been staged almost entirely behind closed doors since resuming after a two-and-a-half month suspension in June 2020, with the only exception being two “trial” dates at Doncaster and Warwick and a brief return of up to 2,000 spectators in December before the latest lockdown.
The government has previously said that up to 10,000 spectators could be allowed back into stadiums from 17 May, depending on overall capacity, while 21 June – a week after Royal Ascot – remains the current anticipated date for “almost all” current restrictions to be lifted.
Tiger Roll, who ran away with the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham but has already been withdrawn from the Grand National in a dispute over his handicap mark, has been handed a rating of 163 for the Irish equivalent on Easter Monday.
The 11-year-old, who is now trained by Denise Foster after Gordon Elliott’s licence was suspended for six months by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, still has the Fairyhouse contest as an option, along with the Betfair Bowl at Aintree and the Punchestown Gold Cup at the Punchestown Festival in late April.
He was scratched from an attempt to record a record-equalling third win in the Grand National after Michael O’Leary, his owner, suggested that his rating of 166 for the race by BHA handicapper Martin Greenwood was “unfair”. O’Leary also claimed that Tiger Roll should have been rated “in the 150s”, so it will require a little back-tracking to let him take his chance at Fairyhouse off just a 3lb lower mark.
“We don’t take the form over the cross-country fences quite as literally as they do in Britain,” Andrew Shaw, Ireland’s senior chase handicapper, said on Monday, “but at the same time he has won the Aintree Grand National twice. He was in at Aintree off 166, he’s 3lb lower here which is pretty much the same as last year, though I know neither race was run.
“He’s 11 now, time catches up with us all. He won his [second] Grand National off 159, so he’s only 4lb higher here. It’s a fair drop from the 171 which he was after his second National. It was difficult for Martin to drop the horse because he hasn’t run against Grade One horses, so we don’t know how good he is.
“He certainly looked as good last week as he had before in that race. What will make it difficult for Tiger Roll is that we have progressive novices in it, you don’t get those at Aintree.”