LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) – English horseracing’s resumption after being at a standstill for over two months due to the coronavirus pandemic was like “the first day at a new school” Mark Spincer Managing Director of the Racing Division of Arena Racing Company (ARC) told AFP.
Racing is also the first mainstream sport to resume with football set to follow on June 17.
It was certainly a new look at Newcastle racecourse — one of 16 racetracks ARC operates — with jockeys, trainers, stable lads and lasses sporting masks and having had to pass temperature tests before being permitted onto the premises.
Trainers and jockeys stood on designated white markers in the paddock pre-race to observe social distancing regulations and there were no spectators to either cheer the winners or heckle beaten favourites.
The 22/1 outsider Zodiakos earned himself a little piece of sporting trivia in being the first winner of the new look racing scene.
Jockeys who were not riding had the rare luxury of sunning themselves sitting in the stand where spectators would normally have stood.
“The atmosphere was strange having a small amount of people here,” Spincer told AFP by phone.
“Also strange was there was quite a lot of excitement from those involved from the horse box drivers to the stable lads and lasses.
“It was like the first day at a new school.”
Leading jockey Andrea Atzeni celebrated the return with a winner and missed a double in the last losing out by a neck.
The 29-year-old Italian said the mask took some getting used to.
“The mask covers your mouth and nose and it was a very warm day,” he told AFP by phone.
“Having not ridden competitively for two months you need a bit more oxygen than usual.
“You felt it more when you were easing up after the finish and having pushed a horse for the final two furlongs you wanted a real blow of oxygen.
“It is not difficult to breathe but it limits it.
“However, to be honest when the gates opened you were not thinking of the mask as the adrenalin was coursing through you.”
Atzeni — who along with his fellow jockeys got changed in a public bar which had been adapted so they could have their own space — said he had not noticed the lack of spectators as Monday meetings rarely attracted a large crowd.
“We will realise the difference (no spectators) on Friday with the Coronation Cup at Newmarket and the Guineas races on Saturday and Sunday,” said Atzeni, who will bid to win the Coronation Cup for a second successive year with Defoe.
Spincer said the weekend had been one of nervous anticipation.
“A mixture of being nervous and excited and then relief when we got the green flag to start racing,” he said.
“Then hugely emotional being ready over the past 24 hours and to reopen as the first racing meeting since March 17.
“It was incredibly important to get the sport started for the 20000 people whose jobs rely on it
“Racing is back and we are privileged to be trusted to be the only track to have racing on the first day.”
Spincer said ARC still had a lot of their staff on the British government’s furlough scheme — which allows employees to receive 80 percent of their pay up to £2,500 ($3,100) a month — largely hospitality staff from waiters to waitresses and cleaners.
“More will come back when the rules are changed and relaxed,” he said.
“But we are delighted we are starting on that journey of restoring British sporting life.”
For bookmakers the return to action at last had the phones ringing — bookmaker shops remain closed — after a very fallow period.
“UK racing was back with a bang,” William Woodhams, CEO of Fitzdares told AFP.
“After today, we will be pulling staff off furlough for the big weekend action.
“It’s a great honour for Racing to be the first elite sport back in the UK. All in all, a great start and June is basically the Olympics and World Championships rolled into one.”