ean, from Barrow-in-Furness, had planned to be in Lanzarote in the first week of December. Instead, he was at Haydock Park on Britain’s first day with crowds at sporting events since the middle of March, and looking on the bright side. “I backed the last winner,” he said, after Royal Pagaille’s unexpected success in the novice chase, “and the weather in Lanzarote at the moment is awful.”
He summed up the mood on a day at the races which was full of sights and sounds that would have seemed unthinkable this time last year. Face masks, sanitiser, one-way systems and regular reminders on the public address about social bubbles and the rule of six. “I’d come here once or twice a year and it’s nice to get out in the fresh air,” he said. “Everyone’s used to all that stuff now.”
Racegoers will need to be used to it for several months yet if the sport is to dig itself out of the £300m hole in its revenues which has been left by the coronavirus pandemic. But while the socially-distanced queue outside Haydock before racing represented more of a trickle than a flood of spectators, there were encouraging signs too that the appetite for live racing remains.
“We last came here in February and it’s been too long,” Luke Routledge, who was present with his friend Neil, said. “It’s really good to be back. It’s different, but it’s a transition phase and we’re getting used to it, and it’s nice to socialise again and see people.
“Everyone getting back to normality is the aim and this is a big step in the right direction. I think we’ll go racing more often now. We’ve been talking about how you can take these things for granted when you’ve got them there, and we want to try to support racecourses as well to keep the industry going.”
Haydock’s bars remained closed on Wednesday and one of the more pressing issues for the track’s staff was to maintain social distancing as a crowd of enthusiasts tried to get as close to the horses as possible around the paddock. Open bars and bigger crowds will bring different problems, but for now, Dickon White, the Jockey Club executive responsible for the north-west’s racecourses, is just pleased to hear the click of (virtual) turnstiles again.
“I’m a massive racing fan, so it means a great deal to see people here,” White said. “Feedback has been exceptional and the sun has come out as well.
“I’d imagine we have 700 or 800 people here today scattered around the site, and everyone has behaved impeccably. For this day, we’re running one enclosure and racegoers are paying one admission for any facility they want. When we scale back up, we’ll be back into zoned enclosures and we’ll sell a number of passes for each area. Having bars open is another level of challenge which we’ll just have to address.”
Down in the betting ring, the 14 bookmakers were just as delighted as White to see racegoers back on track. Few on-course layers have had any work at all during racing’s long retreat behind closed doors and the chance to get some cash – or contactless payments – into the satchels was a huge relief. At least, it was until Bushypark went in at odds-on in the opening race.
“I took a £3,000 bet on the favourite in the opener,” Richard Johnson, running pitches both on the rails and in the ring, said after the sixth race, “and it’s taken five races to get back what we lost.
“We’ve taken £6,000 of bets in all, and £3,000 of that was that bet in the first. We���ve done 168 bets between the two pitches so it’s not great, but we’ve made our expenses back and I think any of the bookies here today who’s done that will be happy.
“A month ago, I couldn’t have seen them having 2,000 people on a course, so it’s moving faster than I expected. If we can do 2,000 well, hopefully we’ll get to 4,000 and then be allowed more, which will mean more bookmakers and we’ll slowly edge back.”