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Racing BHA chief warns of racecourse closures unless crowds return

BRITISH Horseracing Authority (BHA) chief executive Nick Rust believes racecourses will be forced to close in the near future unless crowds return within the next two months.

Plans for spectators to attend sports venues from October 1 were placed on hold by government last month, because of rising coronavirus infections.

Speaking in an interview on Sky News this morning, Rust praised those who have enabled racing to “keep the show on the road” since the resumption of fixtures at the start of June — and added racing will continue to work with other sports to try to get crowds back as soon as possible.

But he reiterated that there is a “strong risk” of losing venues if crowds are kept away.

“With the exception of two pilot days, we haven’t had any spectators at racecourses, and more than 50 per cent of the sport’s revenue comes from spectators, so it’s hitting us pretty hard,” said Rust.

“We’ve managed to run more than 450 events behind closed doors since June 1, with no evidence of transmission of Covid. The sport has done superbly well, and the 17,000 people who work in it directly have followed a strict set of guidelines to help ensure we can keep the show on the road.

“The decision by government, which we understand, to cease having crowds for the moment — and ceasing the pilots that we had in place back in August and September — is giving a bleak lookout for our sport over the next six months.

“If we don’t have a path back for spectators, racecourses who are clinging on through cost-saving measures and using government help are going to really struggle — and that is going to have a knock-on effect to our sport.

“We know of no racecourses that are going to close in the immediate future — but if we don’t have spectators in any meaningful way in 2021, we’re at strong risk of losing racecourses.”

The BHA board and its member bodies agreed earlier this month to take a united stance after developing a single set of proposals for reforming the Levy.

A steering group is tasked with assessing all the options for Levy reform in light of the impact of Covid-19 and the expected economic downturn.

Rust added: “Other countries have had advantageous policy on the funding from betting for a number of years. Our off-course betting was legalised in 1961 and was set up in a way that was less favourable than in Hong Kong or indeed our near neighbours in France and Ireland.

“We have huge investment from international investors in the heritage and the wonder of British racing. I’m not expecting to have the very best prize-money here, because we’ve never offered the very best prize-money, but when prize-money is impacted and the pennies are short in these organisations, of course they’re going to look at where they spend their money — and we’re seeing evidence of some horses moving to be trained in France and Ireland, which is a worry.

“Government has offered us help, and we have a three-step plan. One is working to bring spectators back to the racecourse; secondly we need some direct support [from government] to help us bridge the gap for when spectators can return, and finally we’d benefit from a horseracing betting Levy review to make sure that it keeps up with the situation.

“Betting shops are unfortunately being closed in Tier 3 areas, so our income is reducing there, and more people are switching to digital betting, which ultimately means that we receive less through each bet placed.

“We need to adjust the model, so we’re looking for a review to make sure that it’s up to date for today’s times.”

Around 150,000 people attended the Cheltenham Festival in March, 10 days before Britain went into lockdown, with the government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007 David King saying it was “the best possible way to accelerate the spread of the virus.”

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