Down Royal boss Emma Meehan has spoken of her pride that the Lisburn track will make history by becoming the first racecourse in Ireland to welcome back spectators.
Its prestigious Ulster Derby meeting on June 18 and 19 will be open to a limited number of spectators following the decision by the all-island governing body Horse Racing Ireland to allow punters to return to tracks.
The sport has been operating behind closed doors for the past year due to Covid.
Emma admitted it had been a “special moment” when Down Royal — which has in the past hosted equine superstars such as Kauto Star and Media Puzzle plus legends of the saddle like Ruby Walsh and Northern Ireland’s Sir AP McCoy — got the go ahead to open the gates to punters for the Ulster Derby meeting.
“It looks like we will be the first racecourse in Ireland to welcome back spectators,” she said.
“The wheels have been in motion for some time to have everything in place for the big day that spectators return and it was a special moment when word came through that our Ulster Derby meeting will be the first to have people through the turnstiles.
“This moment has been a long time in coming. Racing has been able to continue behind closed doors right through the pandemic so we have been in a privileged position and we are grateful for that.
“Racing has always adhered to the health guidelines and that will continue to be the case.
“Hopefully this is another step back towards normality.”
Around 250 tickets are expected to be available to the paying public for each of the two days, so demand is sure to far exceed supply.
There will be 500 participants — jockeys, trainers, owners and officials — allowed at the course along with 500 spectators, with around half of that allocation going to Down Royal members, box holders and sponsors. The remaining 250 tickets for each day will be sold online on a first come, first served basis.
“We feel it’s right that our members, box holders and sponsors get the opportunity of being at this historic occasion. They have been so loyal and supportive despite not enjoying the usual benefits of their involvement during what has been such a difficult time for society as a whole,” Emma said.
“Demand for the remaining tickets will be huge but we are confident we have the system in place to cope when the tickets go on sale nearer the time. It is the same system that racecourses in Great Britain have been using and it has worked well there. There will be a track and trace system in place with an online questionnaire for those attending.
“It won’t be exactly like the Down Royal of old, bursting with people. There will obviously be restrictions in place and the course will be zoned, with participants in a so-called green zone and spectators in an amber zone with no movement between zones.
“But I’m confident people will feel the same buzz and excitement they usually do during a visit to Down Royal.
“I am particularly happy for the loyal Down Royal staff who have been brilliant throughout the pandemic and are now excited about getting back to doing what they do best.
“It has been a long time coming.
“We were the first course to take racing behind closed doors and now we are the first course to welcome spectators back so the wheels have turned full circle. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. We are overjoyed to be back in business. It’s a proud moment.
“Being the first carries great responsibility as how we handle the situation will be used as a benchmark by the rest of the industry. But we are in a strong position and are very much ready to go.
“Getting through the pandemic has been a struggle financially. We are approximately two thirds down in terms of turnover. Media rights was our only income stream — the others were basically gone.
“I am looking ahead with confidence and it will be fantastic when we are allowed to raise our capacity even further. Hopefully by the time of the Champion Chase in October we will be operating at or close to full capacity.”
The opening card of the two-day fixture is usually an evening meeting but has been switched to the afternoon, though the Saturday has retained its familiar look with the £100,000 Ulster Derby and £50,000 Ulster Oaks both down for decision.
The Summer Festival begins an exciting run of fixtures at Down Royal culminating in the massive Champion Chase meeting in the autumn.
Downpatrick racecourse, meanwhile, are set to welcome owners back on June 12 with spectators returning on July 13.