Why letting the 30 June race meeting at Leicester go ahead was a mistake

If there is one thing that sport desperately wants to avoid at this time, then it’s sending the wrong message.

The multiple non-runners and refusal of most stalls handlers to come and do their job at Leicester on 30 June suggest horse racing authorities may have made an error of judgment.

An evening meeting got the green light from local health officials and the BHA. Those are the facts of this matter.

Only hours earlier, those same local health officials had local lockdown and an exclusion zone around Leicester reimposed upon them by national government. Where is the sense in that?

At the risk of sounding political, that is a set of mixed messages if ever there was one. A statement from health secretary Matt Hancock in parliament on Monday night made the local position clear.

The BHA confirming the Leicester card would go ahead late on Tuesday morning attracted criticism. Dissenting voices weren’t confined to the training ranks either.

All but four stalls handlers were concerned about racing, given the announcement from government. This forced Leicester stewards to hold an inquiry.

Rather than call the meeting off, however, they simply let the card go ahead without using stalls. Reverting to type, horses came under orders with a good old-fashioned flip start.

Left to Leicester officials to defend decision

Given the widespread media coverage attached to Leicester going back into lockdown, the BHA had an opportunity to engage with that.

Instead, they simply issued a statement on Twitter confirming the inquiry via the Stewards channel before speaking to the trade paper much later on.

It was left to Leicester Racecourse general manager David Maykels to come out and defend the decision to race.

“At 10:50 this morning we were off, and then 10 minutes later we were on,” he told the Racing Post. “It was quite frenetic.

“About half-an-hour later that we were told about the issue with the starting stalls handlers with only four willing to come. They are the safest people on the course.

“Only two local security staff said they wouldn’t be okay about turning up, but our medical team have been most supportive of racing and they are the experts.

“We wanted to race [because] we lost six meetings last year. We felt we are the safest place in Leicester. If we had not raced tonight, I could see other courses not racing in coming weeks.

“The BHA wanted a local authority decision and we got it verbally at 10:30, but they wanted it in writing.”

A question of flexibility

It is also worth seeing the BHA response to criticism. “A number of individuals, including trainers and stalls handlers, have exercised their right not to travel to the race meeting at Leicester tonight,” a spokesman said.

“There are strict protocols in place at all race meetings, including health screening and social distancing which ensure that the racecourse is one of the most controlled working environments.

“Local authorities indicated that the race meeting should go ahead. However, we entirely understand and respect the decisions taken by those individuals. Trainers have been informed that no penalties will be imposed with regards to withdrawn horses.”

While that is refreshing, it does raises questions about how flexible the BHA is going to be if such scenarios occur again.

Lockdown in Leicester was a decision taken at national level, but racing’s governing body put the call to race on locals.

For critics of the BHA, and there were many in this particular instance, it is further evidence of a lack of leadership.

Nick Rust remains the outgoing chief of racing’s governing body and is now more than halfway through a 12-month notice period.

Lambasted as a lame duck when wider lockdown was in full force, he was not in an enviable position. There are always different conflicting interests to balance in roles like his.

The issue here is that Leicester Racecourse is within the exclusion zone imposed by central government. Was the BHA responsible in letting local officials decide to stage the meeting, or should it have intervened?

Westminster had no compunction in dictating matters of public health to local authorities, so why should they? Putting the thumbs to race on those in Leicester felt like the BHA covering itself.

How black and white is the issue?

It’s the age old question of whether they are leading the sport or merely presiding over it? You cannot please all of the people all of the time, though.

Is it too simplistic a view that lockdown means lockdown with no exceptions? Life is rarely so straightforward.

What makes this otherwise unremarkable Tuesday evening racing at Leicester so extraordinary is the response from those involved in it.

When have you ever heard of stalls handlers refusing to go to work? Other than for a monumental change in going, when have so many trainers withdrawn so many horses?

It is clear that, whatever Leicester Racecourse and the BHA say, these people didn’t want to take any risks. We shouldn’t single out horse racing alone for taking controversial decisions either.

Leicester City’s King Power Stadium is in the middle of the exclusion zone. Although the Premier League said they have contingency plans in place, Foxes home matches will take place as normal.

Is that wise? Football has a much wider reach and appeal than horse racing, especially in a city that crowned Premier League champions four years ago.

Of course, all sport is behind closed doors but about 300 people still attend football matches. This is for safety purposes, physios and other essential club staff.

What message does that send? There are local businesses in and around these sporting venues forced to close before they could even reopen!

Sport is not above the pandemic. There will already be feelings of resentment within Leicester. It is to be hoped that things do not escalate further there or indeed anywhere.

Leicester Racecourse doing its own thing sends the wrong message. This is not good PR for the BHA and essential people within racing didn’t support the decision. It was in my view a mistake.

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