British racing looks overseas for lessons as it gears up for return

Chiddingfold (United Kingdom) (AFP) –


British horse racing can learn from the experience of Hong Kong, Australia and France as it prepares to relaunch after the coronavirus lockdown, according to trainer George Baker.

Racing in Britain, suspended since March, is set to resume at Newcastle, in northeast England, on June 1 behind closed doors, with strict regulations in place.

High-profile events such as the Epsom Derby and the Guineas meeting have been postponed but flat racing's five-day showpiece, Royal Ascot, is still set to go ahead next month behind closed doors.

That means Royal Ascot's most famous spectator, Queen Elizabeth II, will not be at the meeting for the first time in her long reign.

Baker, speaking as he put his horses through their paces at his picturesque stables in southeast England this week, said he was relaxed over a return to action.

"I think we all know that all sports are going to be compromised in terms of crowd attendance," said the 54-year-old.

"There are templates around the world though for our sport -- they've been racing in Hong Kong very successfully, in several states in Australia. They've been racing in France for the last couple of weeks.

"Yes we are lucky -- a biosecure environment at a race course is pretty easy to maintain."

- Strict rules -

France has introduced strict rules to reduce the risk from COVID-19. Only the trainer, the jockey and one groom per horse are permitted onto the racecourse. No owners are allowed, masks are worn and social distancing is observed.

"As a sport we are constantly vigilant about biosecurity and the importance of not allowing viruses to spread among our equine athletes," said Baker, a former banker.

"So we have a lot of measures in place anyway.

"From the human perspective, social-distancing on a racehorse, as you've seen this morning, at exercise is very easy.

"Around the yard it is down to common sense and we've absolutely laid down the rule with everybody."

Baker said some owners had removed their horses during the hiatus to save on training fees but most had provided "amazing support". He currently has 53 horses in his stables.

However, he cannot wait to get going again as he was enjoying a good run before the suspension.

He dreams of a return to the Royal Ascot winners' enclosure, having won the Royal Hunt Cup with Belgian Bill in 2013.

"We'd had a great start to the year, the horses were running really well and we won a massive race in Switzerland on the lake in St Moritz, which was a great thrill," he said.

"Everything we were running was in great form, and when your horses are in good form you're desperate to run everything, but obviously we've had to draw stumps. But we're looking forward to getting going again."