Grand National could be last big sporting event to fall victim to Coronavirus

The English Grand National at Aintree could be the latest victim of attempts to control the spread of the Coronavirus
Pádraig Ó Meiscill

WITH the decks almost cleared of sport across Europe as part of efforts to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, the Grand National is one of the few remaining major events left standing – and it could be the next to fall.

The three-day Aintree Festival is scheduled to run from Thursday, April 2 to Saturday, April 4 and while the British Horseracing Authority last night announced plans to hold all race meetings behind closed doors until the end of March, a lengthier ban is to be expected. 

Indeed, as the head of Horse Racing Ireland pointed out yesterday, the confirmation that just one relevant jockey or trainer has contracted Covid-19 could lead to a complete cancellation of fixtures, as in most other sports.

A statement issued by the BHA last night read: “Racing industry leaders are preparing to hold race meetings without spectators and to ensure that the competitors and participants attending only do so under strict conditions.

“The sport’s tripartite leadership, including racecourses, participants and the governing body, the British Horseracing Authority, will tomorrow discuss an approach recommended by the industry’s COVID 19 group. It is likely to mean that racing moves behind closed doors later in the week, initially until the end of March. Racing’s fixture list will also be considered.

“With race meetings due to happen every day, the intention is to agree a programme that is sustainable in the light of possible staff absences, including in critical roles, which protects industry staff and supports the wider effort to free up critical public services.”

Racing across Ireland is already taking place behind closed doors, with tomorrow’s St Patrick’s Day programme at Down Royal to go ahead minus the festive crowds. Strict conditions apply at meetings, with one trainer, one owner, groom and jockey permitted per horse, with restrictions in place until at least March 29.

Brian Kavanagh, the chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, said yesterday: “Obviously, we don’t know what is around the corner with this outbreak and we’re conscious that it was the infection of coaches and players which effectively closed the football down.

“The initial government instruction was until March 29, so for the next two weeks at least we will be under these circumstances [behind closed doors]. Who knows what happens thereafter?”

Other sports, meanwhile, are coming to terms with the fact that the period of inactivity is very likely to be measured in months rather than weeks, and planning accordingly. In an interview in today’s edition of The Irish News, Antrim football manager Lenny Harbinson, while accepting that the season could be wiped out completely, says he has introduced a remote training programme for his players.

The Saffrons were due to play Wicklow in the Allianz Football League in Aughrim yesterday as they pursue promotion from Division Four, but the national shutdown put paid to the game and, potentially, the entire season.

“What we’ve done with our players – because you just can’t abandon things – we’ve given them individual training plans and we’ll have a conference call with them next week because a week further on, we might have a better idea where Ireland and the UK are in relation to the coronavirus,” Harbinson said.

“It’s my intentions to plan a week ahead and we’ll see how the players have got on and we’ll then outline the following week. We’ll basically plan week-by-week because we can’t leave everything high and dry.”

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