Coronavirus: The View From HQ

James Fanshawe and William Haggas on Newmarket Heath | Emma Berry


NEWMARKET, UK—It's hard not to feel like Christmas has just been cancelled. The Flat turf season doesn't revolve around Newmarket, of course. There are more than 14,000 horses in training in Britain and only about 2,500 of those are based in the East Anglian town, but that does make it the busiest training centre and, as the place where it all began, Newmarket lays claims to being the sport's unofficial HQ.

Having emerged from the wettest and windiest of winters with the start of the turf now just days rather than months away, this is usually the time of year when spring isn't just in the air but in the step of every trainer in town. But, with one month to go before Newmarket should have burst back into action for the Craven meeting, with its informative Classic trials held in tandem with the Tattersalls Craven Breeze-up Sale just up the road, all hopes of a return to action on the Rowley Mile, and on any racecourse in the country for the next six weeks, have now been dashed.

Trainers are, by nature, singular creatures. But in this situation, whether it's the champion trainer John Gosden with a string well into three figures or one of the town's many 'boutique' trainers, there is very much a sense of all for one and one for all.

And let's not forget, this isn't an equine flu outbreak, like that which brought British racing to a temporary halt in early 2019. This is a virus with, as yet, no vaccine. One which has already brought great swathes of the world to a standstill, grounding flights, turning usually lively cities into ghost towns.

In many respects, the training fraternity has to be thankful that the behind-the-scenes preparation can continue with a workforce that is largely healthy and conducting outdoor work in which social distancing is not too much of a problem. Because the show must go on. Once the tapes fly for an albeit belated start to the Flat season, horses and jockeys must be fit to bounce straight back into action, whether it's the Guineas meeting, the Derby, Royal Ascot or, God forbid, beyond.

From sun up at around 6am on Wednesday, the morning after Britain joined France, Germany, Italy and Spain in putting a stop to all race meetings for the time being, horses start to filter from the many stables in town onto the Heath. On Warren Hill, Nick Patton, managing director of Jockey Club Estates which owns the 2,500-acre training grounds in Newmarket, is already deep in conversation with James Tate, whose string is making its way out for the first canter of the day.

“For us it's business as usual, although of course we are taking precautions and asking the team working on the Heath to keep apart from each other,” says Patton. “Many of them are on their own in tractors anyway but we are taking every precaution. If the worst comes to the worst we will switch to the protocols we have in place for extreme weather and we will have to close parts of the Heath but at the moment everything is running as normal.”

Trainers come and go from the hill, some in four-wheel drives, others on four-legged friends. Michael Bell is always mounted, usually on a robust hack which doubles as a hunter for use across the hedges of the Cottesmore country. This morning it's the solid grey Miller, who pauses obligingly for the trainer to share his thoughts on the situation.

“It's a bit surreal really because we've got all these horses ready to run and now we've got to mark time,” Bell says. “So it's very frustrating, but in the bigger picture we're a small cog in the works so we've just got to bide our time and hope that we get back to racing as soon as possible.”

Ed Vaughan is another out watching his string and as he casts his eye over last season's G2 Darley Prix de Pomone winner Dame Malliot (GB) (Champs Elysees {GB}) having an easy canter on Long Hill, he is philosophical about the situation.

He says, “Like everyone, I hope we're back racing soon but one of the few positives is that I was watching a news clip about Venice and suddenly everything looks cleaner. The air has improved with few planes flying and maybe one good thing to come out of it is that the world is given a bit of a detox.”

On the business of racing, however, Vaughan expresses concern in the short term for those working in the breeze-up sector with likely disruption to the forthcoming sales, and for trainers like himself who sell horses on to race abroad.

Like many hoteliers and pub landlords, jockeys have suddenly found themselves with little to do. Plenty of them are keeping both fit and busy by riding out in Newmarket. James Doyle is in William Haggas's string, while Jamie Spencer is aboard one of David Simcock's horses.

Referring to one of Godolphin's mainstays, who also forged a Classic-winning partnership with his former stable star Sea Of Class (Ire), Haggas says, “We've had James Doyle in this morning and I think it's going to be tough for someone like Charlie [Appleby] who has the 6/4 favourite for the 2000 Guineas [Pinatubo] and not knowing whether it's going to be run on May the whatever; it could be run in August, it may not be run at all.”

While Bell opts for a sturdier chariot, Haggas and his neighbour James Fanshawe both have former racehorses as hacks, Cape Classic (Ire) for the former, and 18-year-old Buster Hyvonen (Ire) for Fanshawe, who has joined the debate and chimes in with, “I used to have [G1 Prix du Cadran winner] Invermark as my hack and he was so naughty, he'd bury me every day.”

After pausing to watch Fanshawe's treble Group 1 winner The Tin Man (GB) (Equiano {Fr}) breeze past, it's back to the serious conversation, and Haggas is concerned by the already significant disruption to the American Classics with the Kentucky Derby having been postponed until September, fearful of a similarly long delay for Britain's big races.

He says, “It's difficult because there's so much uncertainty but we've got to carry on. Of course it's going to suit the horses who were a bit behind and they will be trained as normal because they wouldn't be ready until May anyway, but with the ones who were ready to go we will just have to slow down a bit and not work them for a fortnight and see what happens.”

Haggas continues, “These are very unusual circumstances and nobody really knows how it is going to evolve. The fact that the Kentucky Derby has been put back to September, I mean we are all trying to read between the lines to see the signs and that's not a good sign because it completely disjoints [the American] programme. But they clearly think that racing may not be going to happen until July or August until the earliest. I don't know what's going to happen to the Derby, to Royal Ascot—who knows?”

Pragmatism abounds, however, and David Simcock has decided not to travel to Dubai to oversee Desert Encounter (Ire) (Halling) and Spanish Mission (Noble Mission {GB}) on World Cup night. Instead, his focus is on keeping his Newmarket stable ticking over until racing can resume.

“It's a big change for us,” he admits. “We would normally still have an all-weather team running and we've had to pull up stumps with them. Not a lot is going to change in the yard. We'll take precautions and measures with a lot of sanitising material but the horses will train as normal, they will use the Heath as normal. We will probably cut down a little bit on their exercise but hopefully we can carry on and we'll be ready to start the Flat season in a month, six weeks, two months, whenever. But this is just something that we have to deal with and there's a lot worse going on in the world.”

While trainers can continue with their daily routines up to a point, the immediate future is on hold for Newmarket Racecourse, which should have been welcoming its first racegoers through the gates for 2020 on Apr. 14 for the start of the three-day Craven meeting.

Amy Starkey is the regional director for the east region of the Jockey Club Racecourses portfolio, meaning she is in charge of jumps tracks Huntingdon and Market Rasen as well as Nottingham and Newmarket, which is home to two racecourses and to Starkey herself.

“We are doing everything we can to be ready when we do return to racing and in the meantime we are trying to work with the racing industry and our community,” she says. “For me personally, I absolutely love the place. Newmarket is not only my home but it also feels like it is the home of Flat racing and we are a family. We all have to pull together at challenging times to get through things and that's kind of how it feels to me at the moment.”

She adds, “It's an ever-evolving picture and it is very challenging. As and when we are in a position to stage racing again we will be absolutely at the forefront to serve our industry but in all of this, public health must come first and we can't race without medical provision.”

It is the 'when' which has most racing people understandably anxious in the current situation, as the end of April is by no means a definitive deadline for the current shutdown. As BHA chief executive Nick Rust said when announcing the decision to stop racing, it is one which will be “under constant review”. The general consensus from Newmarket on Wednesday morning was that racing could be off for significantly longer, bringing not just race-planning headaches but also the very real fear that the significant economic damage that the country will suffer will impact upon the ownership ranks.

A more positive note on which to end came courtesy of Tom Clover, leading his second lot out to exercise on his hack. “We just have to keep smiling, don't we?” he said, with a smile, as he rode past.

Yes, we do.

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