Sport How passion and self-interest kept the spring racing carnivals on track
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How passion and self-interest kept the spring racing carnivals on track

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Former prime minister Paul Keating famously popularised the maxim ‘Always back self-interest – at least you know it’s trying’.

So it’s no surprise the racing industry has been one of the nominal winners of the coronavirus crisis.

As other sporting events were shuttered, thoroughbred racing soldiered on, thanks to its long-standing experience with quarantine procedures and governments having a vested interest in keeping the industry on its feet.

With the Melbourne and Sydney spring carnivals expected to start on schedule in coming weeks, there’s growing excitement the protocols that have worked since mid-March will ensure the big races will proceed, albeit without the monster crowds.

It wasn’t always so certain.

In the early days of the pandemic, racing officials were forced to scramble to justify their operations, reinforcing to authorities that COVID-19 could not be contracted by horses and highlighting the pressing financial and animal welfare issues at stake.

One industry source told The New Daily that one case in particular put by the Australian Racing Board to the federal government was incredibly persuasive – ‘Do you really want 30,000 people employed in the industry drawing JobKeeper?’

Throw in logistics of trying to feed and care for thousands of idle horses, and the loss of gambling revenue to state governments, and the case to maintain racing was a sure bet on passion and self-interest.

With the argument to government won, racing clubs had to react quickly to make it all work.

Strict protocols were implemented, with crowds banned, regular temperature testing introduced and jockeys put into isolation.

Those racing on any given day only compete against other jockeys in their group, allowing a pool of other riders available should there be a positive test.

Over the journey Racing New South Wales, which opened up to crowds in June without incident, has been wary of Victoria’s growing hotspots.

In July it banned Victorian horses, prompting some jockeys to reconsider their spring plans.

Last week’s news of a lockdown at stables in Cranbourne also highlighted how finely balanced racing’s high wire act is before the spring carnival.

Those tests were all negative.

Despite the scare, Victoria has lost only two days of racing since the outbreak, both while tests were conducted on suspected cases.

At the start of this week, Racing Victoria had conducted 218 thoroughbred race meetings and completed 1800 thoroughbred races involving 15,000 starters.

It’s a far cry from New Zealand, where the hard lockdowns saw the government pay trainers not to compete and to maintain their animals.

The resulting loss of turnover for the industry has been devastating.

There’s also been an upside for Australian racing in international exposure, with racing events televised into the United States seeing a huge increase in viewers.

Racing Victoria maintains the pandemic’s effects on the industry have been huge, with many participants making sacrifices since mid-March to keep the show on the road.

However, it says a clear focus on the health and safety of staff and animals has allowed jobs to be saved and horses well maintained.

“Our biosecurity protocols have limited participation, locking out fans, members and owners from race meetings, and have added a layer of complexity for our participants to ensure we minimise all risks,” a RV spokesman told The New Daily.

“The great thing is that every stakeholder group has copped it on the chin and said we’re happy to make these sacrifices to keep the sport alive and protect as many jobs as possible.

We don’t take the right to continue racing during these unprecedented times lightly and are extremely grateful for the opportunity to maintain jobs and continue supporting the 110,000 people who are employed or participating in Victorian thoroughbred racing.’’

And unlike some other sports where compliance issues have been a frequent occurrence, racing has seen few breaches of coronavirus protocols.

“Our rate of industry compliance throughout the pandemic has been around 99 per cent, which is tremendous and a real credit to all those within the industry who faced this challenge in such a professional manner,” the spokesman said.

“The feedback I consistently receive is that no one wants to undo all the great work achieved by the industry to get us to this point.

“With the Spring Racing Carnival on our doorstep, it remains more critical than ever that everyone in Victorian racing continues to adhere to our industry’s biosecurity protocols, as well as all government directives and advice.”

There’s much riding on racing’s luck holding out, with the Victorian Racing club still making plans to hold the Melbourne Cup at Flemington – possibly even with crowds that are socially distanced around the track.

Craig Williams rides Vow And Declare to victory at the 2019 Melbourne Cup. Photo: AAP

“Since COVID-19 first emerged, the Victoria Racing Club has been planning for a number of different scenarios, including the possibility of having reduced or no crowds for the Melbourne Cup Carnival,” a VRC spokesperson told The New Daily on Tuesday.

“We are also exceptionally lucky to have expansive grounds at Flemington with over 127 hectares, and we are exploring how we can best use this space to ensure we can abide by whatever social distancing requirements remain in place come Cup Carnival time.

“Not being able to accommodate our regular crowds will have an impact on club revenue; however, we are focused on delivering the best possible experience for our members, partners and racing fans, wherever they may be watching this year.

“We have accelerated our plans to grow our off-course engagement, and we are excited to trial new and innovative ways to bring the People’s Cup into every Australian home.”

As the racing clubs plan for the spring races without the big crowds, expect the online betting accounts to get a hammering.

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