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Down Royal welcoming fans back will be so special, admits boss Emma Meehan

Chief emotional with thousands set to go racing

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Bring it on: Down Royal boss Emma Meehan can’t wait to open the doors to fans. Credit: Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Bring it on: Down Royal boss Emma Meehan can’t wait to open the doors to fans. Credit: Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Rachael Blackmore has triumphed at Down Royal. Credit: PA Wire

Rachael Blackmore has triumphed at Down Royal. Credit: PA Wire

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Bring it on: Down Royal boss Emma Meehan can’t wait to open the doors to fans. Credit: Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Down Royal boss Emma Meehan admits the Ladbrokes Festival of Racing will be an emotional occasion.

During lockdown, when racing was taking place behind closed doors, the thought of thousands of people ever being back at the Maze racecourse anytime soon seemed fanciful.

But that very thought is set to become reality when the two-day Festival opens tomorrow.

“Just to see people flocking back to Down Royal will be so special,” confessed Meehan.

“I’m obviously delighted that the Festival is going ahead with people back at the track and I am more hopeful of a good 2022 than I was a few months ago.

“I am very excited about the numbers coming back to racing. The pandemic was a long, arduous slog for me personally and professionally, as it was for so many. I am so grateful that we were allowed to continue racing behind closed doors. In that respect, racing has been in an advantageous position compared to what other people and other industries have had to withstand.

“We had to manage the business and take care of a significant infrastructure throughout lockdown. People were allowed to return to racing during the summer and that has helped get us match-ready for the Ladbrokes Festival in terms of staff returning to work and getting used to carrying out their duties again.

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“It means we are going forward with more confidence which is great because people will still expect the same high levels of service that we have provided in the past and we will deliver that. We have been commended in the past for the level of service we deliver and we will ensure that doesn’t wane.

“We are in a good position in terms of sales thanks to the high level of interest people have in going racing and we are seeing our various revenue streams, such as hospitality, returning.

“There is a real resurgence, people are keen to go racing with friends and family, and that also applies on a corporate level.

“There has been a very high demand for tickets. It is pre-sale only — there will be no walk-up sales available. If we know the numbers we have coming, we can make sure that the required amenities are provided.

“People attending should either be double jabbed, have a negative lateral flow result or have Covid antibodies. People will be randomly selected and asked to provide evidence of their negative Covid status. We can carry out tests on site.

“People obviously have the desire to get back racing. We are the first course on the island to welcome back thousands of people. We had 1,500 people here last month after starting at 500.

“We are looking at 5,500 people on Saturday with up to 3,500 on Friday. There will be social distancing indoors. We have marginally reduced hospitality which will allow for more freedom of movement. People will be expected to wear a face covering if moving from their table. The legislation means people will not be allowed to stand at the bar indoors, although drinks can be taken outside.

“In terms of the Ladbrokes Festival, it’s pretty much business as usual.”

And punters can be sure they will be treated to the same Premier League-level of racing to which they have become accustomed, when the feature races — the Ladbrokes Champion Chase and the WKD Hurdle — were won by the likes of Kauto Star, ridden by Ruby Walsh, and Jezki, with the great Sir AP McCoy on board. Saturday’s Champion Chase boasts top-class operators such as Battleoverdoyen, Frodon, Galvin and Samcro.

Last year’s Champion Chase brought a taste of local glory when The Storyteller — owned by Pat and Joe Sloan from Templepatrick — triumphed. The Sloans’ WKD brand sponsor the Friday feature and what a story unfolded in that race with Aspire Tower winning under a great ride from Rachael Blackmore just before she became the first woman to win the Aintree Grand National.

“The quality of racing on both days is top class,” said Meehan. “We are delighted with the standard of entries for each day’s feature, the Ladbrokes Champion Chase on Saturday and the WKD Hurdle on Friday. The races are worth £125,000 and £60,000 respectively which are superb prize pots at any time but particularly in the current climate.

“Saturday is Ladies’ Day which promises to be a fantastic occasion, especially as we emerge from restrictions.”

Big time racing as we know it is set to return. It’s going to be emotional.


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