Racing was the first of Britain’s “elite” sports to resume after lockdown and there is still hope in Yorkshire that it will also be the first to welcome back at least a limited number of paying spectators. Two of the season’s biggest racing festivals in the north are scheduled for August and September, and rumours are circulating that at least a partial crowd could return for the Leger meeting at Doncaster in September and perhaps even in time for the Ebor Festival at York, which is due to open on 19 August.
Time is running out for the Ebor, though, with William Derby, York’s chief executive, suggesting on Tuesday that the track will need confirmation by the first week in August if it is to open its doors.
“I would have thought that we would need to know a couple of weeks out and be telling our customers who have pre-booked, so we’re looking at early August,” he said.
“We have annual badge holders, box holders and longstanding supporters that are very keen to come and see what looks like some fabulous racing shaping up. Last night’s news about Love [the Oaks winner] possibly taking on Enable [the dual Arc winner] in the Darley Yorkshire Oaks looks tremendous, and Kameko [the 2,000 Guineas winner] is possibly in the Juddmonte International alongside a number of others. It looks like it’s going to be the usual stellar cast of thoroughbreds, so naturally for our keenest supporters, there’s an eagerness to be in attendance if they can.
“We could turn around the work on the site and it wouldn’t take a huge amount of time operationally on the ground, but obviously people who have booked hotels or are holding tickets and badges, we need to be fair to them to give them time to adjust their plans if we have to continue to race behind closed doors.”
Racing is the country’s second-biggest spectator sport after football and York is one of the best-attended tracks in the country, with 320,000 tickets sold for its 18 race days last year. Ticket prices for the Ebor meeting currently being advertised on York’s website range from a limited number at £15 in the Clocktower enclosure in the middle of the track to £165 in the Melrose Club Lounge, with a County Stand badge available for £60, £8 off the usual price, as an “early-bird special”.
When it announced much-reduced prize funds for the Ebor meeting last week, York suggested that around 80% of its annual revenue comes from its attendance, via the ticket prices and also the race day revenue from food, drinks, betting and so on. While a limited crowd at the Ebor meeting would not plug the hole entirely, even the 5,000-strong attendance that is now permitted at racecourses in France could represent at least £200,000 in gate receipts alone.
“It was great to see crowds back on a racecourse [in France last weekend],” Derby said. “As most people in racing know, racecourses are not stadium settings so much as parkland settings, and that allowed for a good level of social distancing, albeit under reduced capacities and different protocols.
“Like many courses, we are looking at how social distancing could work on the racecourse. We think we could apply the rules and protocols to a racecourse setting and we’d be keen for that to be the case, and I know that other sports will be in a similar position.
“There are talks ongoing between elite sport and government and racing is part of that, and we are feeding into that group through the Racecourse Association. I think the Department of Culture, Media and Sport do understand the difference between a racecourse setting and an all-seater setting, and as I understand it, that’s been a positive discussion in the relationship going on.”