IFHA: International Racing Authorities Reflect On The Positives Pandemic Brought, Challenges Ahead

It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic has proven disruptive and dangerous to the business and sport of horse racing, but some international authorities say some good things have emerged from this unprecedented time.

In the first digital presentation released Monday as part of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) annual conference, a panel of racetrack officials and racing authorities gathered to talk about the challenges and lessons from the pandemic so far. This year’s 54th international conference is being conducted virtually for the first time, with conference materials being released gradually over the next two weeks. This year’s focus will be on COVID-19 and its impacts on racing. In most years, the IFHA conference is held on the day after the Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the France Galop offices in Paris.

Readers are familiar with the challenges faced by American racetracks starting in March and April, as some had to shut down, close to fans, or delay major races. In other countries, cross-border travel restrictions caused significant headaches even when racing resumed.

Andrew Harding, executive director of racing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said that organization was particularly taxed, as racing in Hong Kong relies much more heavily on horse movement than in other countries. It’s also a lot more concentrated population of participants, with a much smaller pool of jockeys, stewards and trainers licensed to keep horses running, so Harding and his colleagues knew they had to be as strict as possible with biosecurity measures.

“If one of [the stewards] were to become infected, in normal circumstances they’d all be sitting in the same room together. In one fell swoop, we’d lose all our stewards,” he said, pointing out that would be the end of racing while officials were quarantined.

Hong Kong jockeys were divided into four clusters and had their jockeys’ quarters separated to keep riders in bubbles. Stewards were also given separate rooms to minimize the risk of disease spread. Additionally, licensees were required to provide Hong Kong racing officials with a daily log of their temperatures. Jockeys were required to provide officials with an activity schedule so they could be advised what their potential risk for exposure might be, and to provide a guide for contract tracing should a COVID-19 positive occur.

In the United States, many racing fans have become frustrated by what seems like an uneven application of government regulations to different businesses. For a period of time this spring, Santa Anita Park was closed to fans and required jockeys to live on-site to reduce exposure, while crowds of people poured into the Los Angeles County Arboretum across the street. William Derby, chief executive and clerk of course at York Racecourse, told panelists the same is true in England, where he’s aware of nearby bars and pubs beginning to bustle while fans are still not permitted at the track. In fact, York had to erect 3.5 kilometers of fencing to keep people away from the racecourse despite it being on public land. Still, Derby pointed out, local and national governments are overwhelmed, dealing with basic safety questions for hospitals and schools, and patience is key.

“Sport takes its place in the queue, despite the fact [racing] is a very important employer; 18,000 jobs in the UK rely on it,” he said.

Still, some good things have come out of the pandemic. Stephen Cook, director of content for IMG Productions, said that as soon as racing fans were barred from coming to the track, his team had to think of ways to recreate the experience for them remotely — including filming horses whenever possible in their stable yards and in workouts to create a sense of familiarity before they headed to the track.

“It’s helped us jump probably a couple of years ahead on something we’d be behind on if this hadn’t happened,” said Cook.

Of course, racing was one of very few live sports that was able to carry on or return quickly after initial shutdowns in the spring. Olivier Delloye, CEO of France Galop, said that after racing resumed in France, it took just five weeks for handle to regain its 2019 averages. From early June until now, wagering has consistently been up 10 to 20 percent over last year.

“We didn’t expect that,” Delloye said. “We were all worried that even if the betting shops would reopen, even if people were opening new digital accounts, people would think of many other things than going to bet on horse racing.”

The panelists are certainly not seeing a cloudless sky ahead, however. Delloye and Derby both worry tremendously about ownership retention, as owners have been hit particularly hard in the wallets by the spring shutdowns. For Cook, questions remain about whether racing will be able to capitalize on its time in the spotlight and turn temporary interest into long-term loyalty once the virus is controlled and other sports return. In the more near term, Harding worries about how many racing authorities can outlast the ongoing disruptions COVID-19 is causing.

‘”As hard as it’s been in the UK and France, there are some countries where they haven’t been able to operate in a manner that’s profitable,” he said. “How long that’s sustainable is troubling to me. That will have an impact globally.”

Hong Kong has no breeding program of its own, so potential future impacts of the current economic downturn on the international foal crop is another long-term concern.

All in all, Keeneland president-elect Shannon Arvin said she looks to the future with a mixture of realism and optimism, uncertain of what comes next, but hopeful racing’s new lessons will carry it through.

“We don’t know how long this will last,” she said. “Somebody asked me this morning, ‘Will we have fans back in April?’ I don’t know the answer to that.

“I think there are definitely silver linings to the pandemic, and I think we need to keep looking for them. I think the perseverance that so many in our industry have shown and that resiliency is shining through ad showing us the silver linings. Winston Churchill said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ I think about how the Keeneland sales actually started, which is during World War II, because we weren’t able to ship horses up to New York so we started our own sale. Now of course, that’s such a critical part of our business as well as a key piece of the industry and the marketplace. I’m excited to see what innovations come of this.”

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