By Emma Berry
The announcement from Jockey Club Racecourses on Tuesday afternoon clarified, up to a point, a view which many within racing already held: that a number of the Classics would not go ahead on their original scheduled dates.
There are 427 Group races and 426 listed races scheduled on the Flat in Europe this year. Only a handful has been run so far this year, the most recent being the one Group race and one listed contest on the card at Naas on Monday, Mar. 23. The next day, Ireland followed France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain by bringing a temporary halt to racing while restrictions were imposed on citizens to try to contain the spread of COVID-19.
There are conflicting opinions within the racing fraternity with regard to resuming racing in the near future, and those who are keen to do so concede that it will be racing, but not as we know it, certainly in the short term. The possibility of various behind-closed-doors scenarios is being weighed up by racing authorities. While horse racing of any sort will be an encouraging sign for the many thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the racing industry, an overview must also be taken with regard to the European Pattern races and, in particular, the sport’s crown jewels, the Classics. In Britain, the 2000 Guineas, 1000 Guineas, Derby and Oaks have now all been postponed.
As the chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland and chairman of the European Pattern Committee, Brian Kavanagh is not just looking at how racing can eventually be restarted in his home country, but is also liaising with colleagues from other nations.
He told TDN on Tuesday, “Everyone is looking after their own domestic situation primarily but we had a good phone call last Monday with Britain, France, Ireland and Germany. Firstly that was to catch up with each other and to hear what’s going on in the respective countries, and then to share our thinking domestically and more broadly on the international side of things. We will do that again next week after Easter, again just to see what progress there has been.”
A key consideration when it comes to the Pattern is the competition between horses from different countries. At present, people are being discouraged from international travel though the breeding season has continued largely uninterrupted. In Europe, that means a reasonable level of equine traffic, particularly between Ireland, Britain and France.
“The European Pattern is dependent on international horses travelling from other countries, so as much as we can we need to make sure we’re all on the same page, which thankfully we are,” said Kavanagh.
“It is encouraging that there’s still breeding stock moving between those countries at the moment on very strict protocols. If something similar were possible for racing we definitely should explore every aspect of that. But in the first instance, local trainers want to know when racing is going to be back in their country.”
He continued, “The Pattern is at the peak of it and it’s an important consideration, but the prime effort is focusing on getting racing back going in our respective countries. I wouldn’t concede on the international travel too quickly, but obviously we will be guided by the governments and the health rules in each country.”
Britain may have left the European Union but in bloodstock terms it is closely entwined with its European neighbours when it comes to both racing and the sales. Until the end of 2020, the transitional phase of Brexit means the Thoroughbred population is still operating under the Tripartite Agreement when it comes to free horse movement between the UK and EU countries.
Kavanagh added, “Pattern races without international competition doesn’t look great. In Ireland there’s only a small number of yards that would compete at that level. In Britain there’s been a huge dependence on the Irish and French horses at the races in recent years, and French racing has been very dependent on UK horses, which have been very successful in France in recent years. So it’s something we need to move quickly on once racing is back on, but obviously the health considerations and the protocols and regulations from government are vital in the first instance.”
One of the ground rules of the European Pattern states that races “should have no indigenous conditions, i.e. not be restricted to horses bred or trained in the country concerned.” These are extraordinary times, and when racing went behind closed doors in Ireland, it was stated that no entries would be taken for horses from overseas. There are still many hurdles to be cleared before racing resumes at all, but if it resumes in individual countries with a ban on foreign runners, this could have an effect on how any group races run within that time are subsequently viewed.
“Technically, a domestic Pattern race would be a restricted race which would disqualify it from Pattern standing, and I don’t think anyone wants that,” Kavanagh explained. “We don’t want to be running Pattern races without status and that’s why it is important to get the international side of it sorted sooner rather than later.”
But in exceptional circumstances, could exceptions be made?
“In the event that some of the races had to be run that way, we could look at ignoring the domestic criteria for the purpose of this year,” he conceded. “With the International Cataloguing Standards Committee and the Society of International Thoroughbred Auctioneers, we could say that globally this is an exceptional year and there will have to be a ‘health warning’ with regard to group races won during that period because some of them may have been restricted.”
The European Pattern Committee routinely keeps a watch on the quality of group races, assessing the average ratings of winners and placed horses over a three-year period to decide whether or not a race warrants retaining its current status. Ahead of the 2020 season, three races were upgraded from listed to Group 3 status. Similarly, three races lost their group status.
Kavanagh added, “It may be that when it comes to measuring the merits of races, instead of taking a three-year average you discount this year’s ratings, because ratings are ultimately forged on international competitions as well. It’s one thing a domestic handicapper having a rating but it’s only when that horse is exposed to international competition that you can get some idea of the level of the merit of various horses. So it could be that we have to ignore the ratings of races for the purpose of upgrades and downgrades of 2020.”
The biggest problem for industries across Europe is the uncertainty of how various countries will start to emerge from the current lockdown restrictions. Not knowing when the starting stalls will burst open again for racing means that firm planning on the Pattern front is almost impossible.
“If the hiatus goes on much longer, the question will be whether we try to reschedule lost Pattern races or just say, ok we’ll only reschedule Group 1 races or a major race,” Kavanagh noted. “[In Ireland] we got one race off, the Park Express, on our first day, and now we’re starting to miss Guineas trials. So the issues we are looking at are whether we push the season back in its entirety and in the current format and, say, everything will take place a month later, or do we lose x amount of races, try to reschedule the more important of those and just live without the rest of them. It all really depends on how soon we get back. If it’s the start of May I think the loss is manageable, but if it goes beyond that then there are probably too many races to reschedule.”
Taking some consolation from the fact that various governments appear to value the importance of the racing industry, particularly when it comes to the employment it brings to rural areas, Kavanagh said, “The whole economy is going to be smashed by this. There’s a huge rebuilding element going to be required, and to some extent racing has a ready-made model to help that. The question is can we sustain demand for horses from the end user, the owner? I found the figures from the Australian sales overnight quite encouraging in terms of the drops not being catastrophic considering there were no people and no horses on the sales ground.”
He added, “There are some reasonably positive signs coming out of Germany and France. German football teams started training yesterday with a view to resuming matches in May. I think that’s given the German racing authority some encouragement that they might be able to get racing back. In France I know they are determined to get back sooner rather than later. Britain has a well thought-out strategy with regard to regional racing and we have said in Ireland that we’re on a racing-ready basis and that if we get the go-ahead from government we can race within seven days.
“Everyone is ready and everyone is prepared, and from a Pattern Committee point of view we are talking to each other about what we can do.”