PARIS, France (AFP) – There were no celebratory hugs and trainers and jockeys wore masks as French racing resumed under the shadow of coronavirus at the fabled Longchamp racecourse on Monday.
While France’s Ligue 1 football and Top 14 rugby leagues have been cancelled until September, racing benefitted from being quixotically labelled an agricultural pursuit.
It restarted only after reported last minute lobbying persuaded President Emmanuel Macron to give it the go-ahead.
However, strict rules were laid down including being held behind closed doors, a far cry from the near 50,000 crowd that greeted Waldgeist, the winner of Europe’s most prestigious race the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, last October.
Longchamp put on a 10-race card with several Group races whilst there were also meetings at Toulouse, Compiegne and a trotting fixture as well.
Their example will have been watched closely by British racing authorities who on Monday inked in a possible return on June 1. Another racing powerhouse, Ireland, has tentatively mooted June 29.
Leading French trainer Nicolas Clement said sacrifices had been made but his initial reaction was positive.
“It was encouraging, the French Jockey club (France Galop) have pushed the boat out by getting it up and running,” he told AFP by phone from his stables in Chantilly.
“It is for less prize money but you take what they give you considering the circumstances with people dying and other sports suspended or cancelled we are very fortunate.”
Clement, who burst onto the scene with Saumarez winning the Arc in 1990, said the scene in the paddock would take some getting used to.
“It is very drastic with masks on the jockeys, the grooms and trainers,” he said.
“It is an odd scene like walking into a hospital but it is just the way it is.
“No celebration when you win no hugging the jockey, the owner is not even there it is just one horse and one person aside from the trainer.
“We will make it work.”
Even the people allowed in are encouraged not to dally too long with a government official Clement says checking the list to make a note of how long they have been on the complex.
Clement is supportive of the agreed drop in prize money across the board — beginning with a 40 percent decrease at Group One level – saying hopefully it will be back to normal next year.
“There is huge solidarity in very special circumstances,” he said.
“It is a troubled year we will be running racing at a loss because of a fall in the betting revenue.
“Not all PMU (state operated betting) shops are open only those which sell tobacco so hopefully the government will relax those rules too and they will open.
“Online betting generally accounts for 10-15 per cent of overall bets and one would hope more people will begin to bet online.
“The problem is the older generation barely know how to use a computer.”
Crowds could return towards the end of August but as Clement dryly remarked about the decline in popularity of the sport “we barely get over 5,000 on a regular basis”.
He is more concerned by owners not being able to attend.
“July 5 is when we run both the Derby and the Oaks on the same day and I am worried for the owners as going racing is part of the joy,” he said.
Clement’s hopes for more online betting will have been boosted by British operator Fitzdares.
The firm’s CEO William Woodhams told AFP it had been a much-needed breath of fresh air for them.
“It is less than 10 per cent of our normal racing but probably 30 percent of international racing,” he said.
“However, yesterday it was 95 per cent — which included Japan/USA/Australia racing.
“It helped having a horse that ran in the Arc and to see some recognised trainers’ names.
“But we even had £5,000 ($6,200) bets on the jumps in Compiegne.”
“I wish bars were open, so a Frenchman could see French racing on the TV and maybe a Cockney toasting the racing with a pastis!”