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Down Royal chief optimistic for fans' return ahead of first meeting of 2021

Meehan is optimistic of partial crowds for May and June showpieces

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Glass half full: Down Royal CEO Emma Meehan believes some fans can be accommodated as the year progresses

Glass half full: Down Royal CEO Emma Meehan believes some fans can be accommodated as the year progresses

AP McCoy has strutted his stuff at Down Royal

AP McCoy has strutted his stuff at Down Royal

Ruby Walsh has had fans on their feet at Down Royal

Ruby Walsh has had fans on their feet at Down Royal

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Glass half full: Down Royal CEO Emma Meehan believes some fans can be accommodated as the year progresses

Down Royal CEO Emma Meehan is relishing the first meeting of 2021 at the Lisburn track on Tuesday - and is confident at least some lucky punters will be present at the big May Day fixture and June's showpiece Ulster Derby.

Horse racing in Northern Ireland has been operating behind closed doors since last July due to the pandemic, but Meehan is hopeful spectators could be back at Down Royal in early summer - though emphasises this is very much a "glass half full" approach.

"Times have been tough for us - just as they have been for society as a whole," said Meehan.

"Media rights have kept us going financially, but even that income stream is down about 25% due to the Covid situation.

"Even though people cannot come racing, the course and facilities still have to be maintained which is an expensive business.

"We haven't been able to avail of any government grants which is disappointing, especially given that our turnover is down about 70% when you factor in the likes of gate money and hospitality."

But all is far from doom and gloom with Meehan upbeat on a return to days of high drama in front of cheering spectators, when superstar jockeys like AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh along with equine heroes like Kauto Star and Beef Or Salmon graced the famous turf.

"I am hopeful that come our May Day meeting we could see what I would describe as a layered return, with the likes of owners, members and corporate box holders allowed back. These people are the lifeblood of the sport and it would be great to see them back. You are looking at a figure of 450 people and when you add jockeys and racecourse staff, the total figure would be around 600," she said.

"People wouldn't be able to move freely from one part of the course to another, but it would be a step in the right direction. I think that would be very manageable given the space and facilities at our disposal.

"We could maybe operate at something like 50% in terms of spectators for the Ulster Derby Festival in June and maybe about 70% for the Winter Festival in November, probably with social distancing still in place.

"We had 9,182 here for the 2019 Winter Festival over the two days and 8,067 over the two days of the 2019 Ulster Derby Festival with last year's events taking place behind closed doors.

"But obviously the Covid landscape is changing day by day and it is almost impossible to predict anything with any degree of certainty.

"Those are what I would call hopeful forecasts. It's possible sport could welcome back small numbers of spectators by April with the various guidelines observed."

This time last year, Meehan had big plans in place for an exciting 2020 schedule - then the world changed.

"We were on a great trajectory heading into 2020 but then of course Covid struck. So many people have suffered terribly - it's all about trying to stay safe," she said.

"It hasn't been easy for the racing industry but we have kept going. All our behind-closed-doors meetings have been fully sponsored with TV coverage and streaming is obviously a help.

"Our sponsors and food and beverage retailers have been very loyal to us. They have paid in advance and no one is asking for their money back. But obviously the longer the current situation goes on, the more difficult things become financially.

"For example, if it is near the end of the year before we are back to anything approaching normality, it would be 2023 until those particular income streams are fully up and running again.

"Few of us anticipated the pandemic going on for this length of time, but the easing of restrictions over Christmas made it inevitable that we were heading for another lockdown. The NHS is obviously under terrible pressure. It is a worrying situation.

"I made the decision to bring our traditional Boxing Day meeting forward to December 17 last month as it wouldn't have made commercial sense with no crowds to be in competition with several big televised meetings. I was glad I did because then obviously it was announced lockdown would start on Boxing Day which would have scuppered us.

"We are in an unusual situation in that even if the Executive lifts restrictions on spectators here, we would have to liaise with the Irish racing authorities about going ahead if restrictions were still in place in the south, although I would be confident we would have the necessary protocols in place to make that happen. It's not as simple as just going ahead with it.

"Obviously the vaccination programme is giving us all hope. It seems it is being very efficiently and effectively administered here in Northern Ireland."

The Down Royal boss added: "These are tough times but there are definitely reasons for optimism."

Belfast Telegraph


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