Aidan O’Brien, Ireland’s champion trainer on the Flat for the last 21 years, and his son Donnacha, who recently saddled the French Oaks winner Fancy Blue, have become the latest Irish trainers to be fined and banned from attending racecourses for breaches of the strict anti-Covid 19 protocols in place since racing resumed in the country in June.

Both trainers were fined €2,500 (£2,200) and banned from attending race meetings for two weeks for breaching the rules on Irish 2,000 Guineas day at the Curragh on 12 June, four days after racing resumed behind closed doors in Ireland. Donnacha O’Brien’s racecourse ban will begin on Tuesday, while the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s disciplinary panel accepted a submission from Aidan O’Brien asking for his ban to be suspended until next Monday. It is believed that the suspension would be reciprocated by the British Horseracing Authority in the unlikely event that either trainer applied to attend a racecourse in Britain during their Irish suspension.

Both trainers completed all the necessary forms and health questionnaires required for attendance, but then failed to enter the Curragh through the designated screening area. “The various protocols regarding Covid-19 are very serious,” Niall Cronin, the IHRB’s press officer, said on Monday. “It is important that they are strictly adhered to at all times to makes sure that racing can continue in a safe manner for everyone involved.”

Aidan O’Brien saddled six of the 11 runners in the Irish 2,000 Guineas including the second, third and fourth horses home behind Ger Lyons’s Siskin. Donnacha O’Brien, meanwhile, had two runners on the card. Both the fine and the length of suspension handed down to the O’Briens are significantly below the penalty imposed last month on Emmet Mullins, a nephew of leading trainer Willie, for a breach of the Covid-19 protocol at Leopardstown on 14 June. Mullins was fined €5,000 (£4,460) and banned from all tracks for three months for the more serious offence of gaining entry to the course having already been refused admittance for not having the necessary barcode which proves compliance with pre-entry protocols.

Racing’s return filled the satchels but doubts still circle

Some positive news to start the week (though there will, of course, be some caveats to consider too). Initial figures on betting turnover and gross win on horse racing for the first four weeks of the sport’s resumption from 1 June imply a Levy yield for the month that is short of the pre-lockdown level, but not by as much as could have been expected. Tracks may be spectator-less at present and the good ship racing is still slowly sinking as a result, but the betting public is bailing it out at sufficient speed to keep it afloat for now.

The total number of races held between 1 and 28 June – including a Royal Ascot with six extra handicaps added to the traditional schedule – was around 80% of the norm, while year-on-year turnover was about 75% of the norm. Thanks to a slightly better than normal gross win margin for the betting firms, this should mean that Levy yield for the month was at least approaching the normal average of around £8m.

And so to the caveats. These are big numbers, and still a little fuzzy around the edges. These are also early days for the resumption, and initial levels of turnover could just reflect pent-up demand from the previous two-and-a-half months, as well as the early absence of any competition for the punter’s pound, from Premier League football in particular. There is also an obvious possibility that betting turnover will decline sharply if, or more likely when, the economy plunges into a deep, post-lockdown recession.

All the same, the return from betting in June was towards the top end of the Levy Board’s expectations, although its modelling assumed that betting shops would be shut for the whole of June when in fact, with ideal timing, at least some of England’s betting shops opened their doors 24 hours before the opening day at Royal Ascot.

Caution remains the watchword, however. The Levy Board guaranteed a significantly higher contribution than normal to prize funds for the first three months of the resumption, to partially offset the huge drop in revenue as a result of racing behind closed doors, as well as the fact that media rights income from betting shops will pick up only slowly and seems unlikely to ever return to pre-lockdown levels.

The Board will decide later this month on its contribution from September onwards, but anyone expecting a sudden, multimillion pound injection of cash into prize funds seems sure to be disappointed.

The news on betting turnover and Levy yield is still positive, though, as well as a reminder of how important betting is to the sport’s funding, now more than ever. ITV’s viewing figures for Royal Ascot were excellent, but the conclusion which was drawn from this in some quarters – that there is an audience for “pure racing” with little or no interest in betting – was some way wide of the mark.

ITV’s contract – which, incidentally, has less than six months to run and has yet to be renewed – only worked because of the revenue gained from advertising, mostly for betting firms, and is believed to have been worth £30m over four years. Around £7.5m per annum, in other words. Or what the Levy brings in every month.

 

 

 

theguardian.com