Leicester Racecourse became Britain’s first sporting venue to face a staff revolt over Covid-19 safety after racing proceeded despite a renewed citywide lockdown in the wake of a coronavirus spike.
The region’s football and rugby teams were given the green light to continue on Tuesday, with Leicester City’s Premier League match at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday allowed to go ahead and Leicester Tigers turning up for training as normal.
Racing returned just hours after the new lockdown measures were implemented, prompting angry scene as all but four handlers on the racecourse starting stalls refused to turn up. A host of trainers, including Alan King, Graeme McPherson and Mick Appleby, also withdrew their runners, amid criticism of the British Horseracing Authority for risking the reputation of the sport.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had warned on Monday night “against all but essential travel to, from and within Leicester” after it emerged that the proportion of tests returning positive were as high as 10 per cent, significantly up on the two per cent UK average.
Official figures show 866 positive tests in the city in the fortnight to June 23, 29 per cent of all positive tests in Leicester since the pandemic started.
“Given the Government’s advice overnight and how it was clarified this morning, I was frankly astounded that the BHA considered it appropriate to race at Leicester,” said McPherson, who was due to run Homing Star.
The BHA said later that it was following the advice of local authorities to proceed, and vehemently denied any suggestion it had defied safety advice.
David Maykels, the racecourse general manager, says he was given the green light by the local health authority to continue for the nine-race Flat card, which started at 4.40pm. With no staff on the starting stalls, racing got underway with old-fashioned flip starts, involving tape across the track and a flag.
“I heard the news last night at 9pm and was expecting calls, but none came,” Maykels said. “We got an email from Dr Jerry Hill [BHA medical chief adviser] asking about local staffing levels. But since the BHA put its stringent measures in place, we feel we’re the safest place in Leicester. We thought it was important for racing and for Leicester that we went ahead.”
The local health authority, he said, “were comfortable with the decision from the start”, but “I totally understand people not wanting to come – it’s a serious decision”.
Hancock said the seven-day infection rate in Leicester was three times higher than the next highest city. Leicester accounts for around 10 per cent of new infections in the country.
In the Premier League, Brendan Rodgers’ preparations also remained unaffected, with his squad training on Tuesday as normal at the club’s base, situated just over three miles away from the city centre, ahead of the match at Everton on Wednesday night. The Premier League, Government and safety advisory group unanimously agreed Leicester’s game does not require to be played at a neutral venue on Saturday.
The club said in a statement: “All parties remain entirely satisfied that, through the continued implementation of our Covid-19 operations plan, the club can continue to safely function under existing protocols and, in doing so, there will be no greater risk posed to club personnel, visiting teams or surrounding communities. Consequently, first-team training will continue at Belvoir Drive and our forthcoming Premier League games remain unaffected.”
Leicester Tigers rugby players also attended a training session on Tuesday at their training centre at Oval Park in Oadby, which is four miles from the city centre but within the restricted area. There were more nervy scenes at the racecourse, however. By noon on Tuesday, the course was informed eight of the team’s 12 stall handlers were not prepared to work. Local trainer Appleby, whose trio of horses were among 18 horses from a total of 121 to be declared non-runners, wrote on Facebook: “I cannot believe racing is still going ahead. For the safety of all my staff, I have decided to withdraw all my runners.”
With no staff on hand to operate the stalls, the course use flip starts, using a stretching tape similar to that in Jump racing, which meant a more uneven start for runners.
“It’s disappointing that happened so late,” Maykels said. “A couple of security guards asked not to come, but the medical team were the most supportive and they’re the people who know. We’ll have to have a conversation about the next meeting.”
McPherson, meanwhile, told the Racing Post. “Whether or not racing can or cannot take place safely, it’s a case of public perception. I can’t believe that the public will perceive racing to be doing the right thing. I have every sympathy with Leicester Racecourse, who had a miserable time during the winter with lost fixtures because of the going. But I think there are some things in life that are more important than racing and this is certainly one of them.”
King added that he consulted his staff and they “didn’t feel terribly comfortable about it”. “I’m surprised we’re racing under the circumstances there,” he said.
A BHA spokesman said the new Government lockdown was in line with its safety instructions since the £4 billion industry became the first major sport to resume following lockdown on June 1. Jockeys have been riding in face masks and trainers arriving at all courses are quizzed at length and then forced to fill in background checks.