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Racing in UK to carry on behind closed doors: official

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London (AFP)

Racing in Britain is to carry on but behind closed doors, the sport's regulatory body, the British Horseracing Authority, said on Monday.

The sport attracted criticism for allowing the showpiece Cheltenham Festival to go ahead last week with over 250,000 spectators attending despite the coronavirus outbreak.

Many of the Cheltenham racegoers were Irish, which provoked a social media backlash in Ireland, but racing authorities say they were following British government advice in maintaining the meeting.

Irish racing had already taken the decision to race behind closed doors last week

Meanwhile the BHA shut its central London head quarters earlier on Monday due to "small numbers of office-based BHA staff self-isolating."

With Premier League football and other sports suspending their seasons, racing has taken measures of its own after the BHA, the Racecourse Association and The Horsemen's Group, which represents the interests of racehorse owners, trainers, jockeys, stable staff and breeders, conferred on Monday.

"Racing industry leaders have confirmed a plan to continue racing behind closed doors from tomorrow (Tuesday)," read a joint statement.

"Any fixtures that take place in England, Wales and Scotland, initially until the end of March, will take place without spectators and with restrictions on the number of attendees."

- 'Very labour intensive' -

The statement added that though the fixture list remained in place there could be cancellations of meetings.

"With race meetings due to happen every day, the aim is to agree a programme that is sustainable, in the light of possible staff absences, including in critical roles, in order to protect industry staff and support the wider effort to free up critical public services," it said.

Nick Rust, chief executive of the BHA, said he was mindful of the impact the measures would have on local businesses.

"We acknowledge that today's decision will also impact on local businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, who are struggling at this time," he said.

"We are following the government's advice to strike a balance between protecting public health and maintaining business activity and will continue to do so."

The present deadline of the end of March means the three-day meeting at Aintree racecourse near Liverpool which climaxes with the Grand National on April 4 would fall outside it.

This would prove a real test for authorities as it usually attracts a sell-out crowd of 70,000 on the day itself and last year the first two days drew over 70,000 people.

Interest would potentially be even higher this year as Irish runner Tiger Roll is bidding for an historic third successive victory -- Red Rum won three but not consecutively -- in the world's most famous steeplechase.

Leading flat trainer Mark Johnston, who is also a qualified vet, told BBC Radio earlier on Monday that the threat of the virus to horses was negligible.

"I don't think there's any susceptibility to the horses," said Johnston.

"Our concern is simply the welfare and husbandry of the horses, resources in particular as they need exercise of course, like all domestic animals."

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